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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Desperately Seeking Asylum

As a teenager I read Anne Frank's diary. Miep Gies was the quiet, unassuming heroine. It was she who successfully hid the Frank family, who travelled to several different suppliers daily to get food for the family (so as not to raise suspicion), who brought it to the family herself, at great personal risk. It was she, when the family were eventually captured, who went to try to bribe the officials, sadly unsuccessfully, to let the family go.

She died a few years ago at 100 years old, rightly celebrated as one of the world's greatest people.

Another hero, Nicholas Winton, who died earlier this year, rescued nearly 700 Jewish children, bound for certain death, and was dubbed "the British Schindler".

Speaking of Schindler, his great work was celebrated in novel and film format. Tears were wept at the amazing achievements of this man.

These are ordinary people, who did extraordinary things to save people whose lives were in danger. These are people who put their own lives at risk, by going against the regime at the time.

I know no-one (nor wish to) who thinks that the things these people did were unacceptable, or wrong, or anything less than incredible.

And yet, and yet...

As a country we seem unable to accept refugees who have lost everything, risked everything, escaped untold atrocities. There is no punishing regime threatening our deaths if we help these people. There are no physical consequences to our actions. No-one would be punished for taking an asylum seeker into their home. No-one would risk imprisonment, death camps, shootings.

And yet, and yet...

There is a fear that this "swarm" (David Cameron's words, not mine) will overrun Britain, stretching our healthcare system, stealing our jobs.

If you saw a young man lying by the road, clearly injured, would you really ask him his taxpayer status before doing everything you could to save his life? I have seen how stretched our healthcare system is. So let's fund it better. "I don't want to pay more tax," you might say. Fuck you.

Miep Gies, Nicholas Winton and Schindler risked their lives for other human beings. No-one is asking you to personally experience any discomfort whatsoever. Humanitarian response to crises is a tiny drop in the ocean of taxes we pay every day for things we probably don't really believe in or care about.

I once worked for a large financial institution that made literally billions of pounds in profit every year. It was considering moving one of its offices from London to Scotland. Despite the fact that this deal greatly benefited the company (Scotland is cheaper for staff salaries), the firm took a whacking (and I mean whacking) grease-the-wheels payment from the government as the Scottish government was trying to stimulate jobs in the area at that time. This was all above board (details are in the public domain)... though you can imagine the company didn't shout about it. Who benefited ultimately? The massive financial institution and its shareholders. That is what your taxes are paying for.

I bet most of us have sponsored a colleague for £10 or £20 to do something like running a marathon for a worthy cause. Almost all of us have had a cheeky takeaway or expensive round of drinks. It's hardly a sacrifice to spend an extra few quid to help people whose entire existence - their homes, their families, their children - has been destroyed.

And as for stealing jobs, firstly depending on their refugee or asylum seeker status, they may not be permitted to work. Even assuming they can work... well, that's great, isn't it? If they work, they will be paying tax. And how bad at your job do you have to be before you're replaced by someone for whom English is a second language and who only arrived in the country yesterday?

Perhaps we can't all be Miep Gies. But perhaps some of us could open our homes - our spare rooms - to refugees, to support them for a little while until they are able to support themselves. If we can't, then perhaps we could begrudge a few extra pounds of tax each year?

But in order to do that, first these people have to be allowed to arrive here. Sign this - right now.

And here are some other practical things you can do.

I loved the idea of the Amazon wishlist, but it looks like that is currently fulfilled (though worth checking back). A donation to the Red Cross seems a good place to start.

Please stop sharing pictures of dead kids on social media and thinking you've done your bit. Or wringing your hands and saying "how terrible" without doing anything.

History will remember those who helped - those who made some personal sacrifice. And it will also remember those - like the Nazis - who caused human misery, like those who that those people were somehow "other" and deserved it. Or those who felt they somehow deserved their "luck" of being born somewhere where they have the right skin colour and belief system. History will remember you too. Make sure you're being remembered for the right reasons.

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