Amazing Grace – the flip side

I’d been back from hospital just twenty-four hours when a programme on television reduced me to tears.

I suspect if it had been longer since my sawbones’s attentions I would still have been touched. But probably not enough to end up puffy faced and red eyed.

It was Sunday, the day after I came home. I was tired. Drained. I couldn’t face reading and needed some diversion.

A programme of readings and hymns was not what I had in mind. But when I saw that a guest was the singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson, runner-up in the X Factor in 2010, Liverpudlian, mum – oh, and daughter of two Jamaican immigrants – I stopped to watch.

The presenter was also black and as I watched the two beautiful black women treating the church they were in with palpable reverence, I felt humbled as well as moved.

But it took Rebecca singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for the tears to roll.

I felt so proud of our great country, for the first time in ages. Proud that these two young, lovely people were here, on our television screens, treating us all with the respect and tolerance that I suspect at least one of them had not known as she grew up.

Because Rebecca grew up in some difficult places in a poor city.

As she grew into motherhood she put herself through training to become a legal secretary for the children’s sake. She was ready to give up her ambitions for them too.

But fame came to the rescue – and deservedly so.

Listening to her that Sunday I remembered a record – a vinyl single – my mother bought, decades ago. She used to rummage through the 45s on sale after Christmas in our local department store and bought some great ones – as well as some dogs.

One of her purchases was ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by Judy Collins. On the flip side of that single is a haunting song, written by Bob Dylan, called  ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’.

The immigrant, as I keep hearing in my head,

‘whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass’

That memory’s been festering in my brain for weeks now.

But I’ve been avoiding touching it, yet another sore spot in my conscience, a tender place where the recent government stance on refugees has started to hurt.

Then, last week, I was chatting with a friend and I felt a big, ‘Ouch’.  He’d hit me right on that sore spot.

Picture from UNHCR website

Picture from UNHCR website

Here in Europe (of which we in Britain are geographically a part, whether some people like it or not) the name ‘Mediterranean’ has recently ceased to conjure up images of sun-drenched beaches lapped by gentle waves. Instead we’re seeing men, women and children dead, drowned or pulled from the sea barely alive.

People in white overalls and face masks saving lives only to dump them on the shore to await a desperately uncertain fate.

Our British government has sent the Navy to help rescue some of the wretched people who risk their lives trying to reach the ‘sanctuary’ of civilised Europe when their boats sink or are abandoned by their traffickers.

More and more people are washing up – literally – on the shores of Greece and Italy. Nowhere to go, nothing to live on.

Despite pleas for a Europe-wide solution to the housing of the wretched homeless, Britain has said a resounding, shameful no.

I thought, when I was talking about this with my (Catholic) friend, that I was speaking to someone of like mind. But as I watched his purposely impassive face it dawned on me. He agreed with the government on this one.

I asked him, outright, if it was true.

Yes. His view was that the cause needed fixing and, by implication, that if we kept on helping people by saving lives and giving those who have nothing a chance to make a life in a better place, it would only exacerbate the problem.

I agreed with him. Because I agree the cause needs fixing.

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

But while we in the rich countries (we’re in the world’s top 10) take our time, failing to help sort out the problems of places like Syria, Eritrea and Democratic Republic of Congo, do we really expect those who are terrified, harassed, in fear of their lives, to sit and wait for a diplomatic solution?

To submit to another rape, or another horrific beating, while we decide how best to work towards an end of the strife?

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Most of the people who make it to Europe, who survive the ordeal by water, the ordeal by ostracism, the ordeal by discrimination, have struggled, worked hard and somehow accumulated enough money to pay shameful exploitative boat owners to get them across the water.

Yet some Europeans – some Brits – think they want to come and live off benefits.

If only the scandal-mongering press would read some of the facts.

Most people don’t even know they could get benefits.

They simply want to live in safety, to learn, to work, to be healthy.

I am ashamed of my country for denying a home to some of the most desperate people in the world. And I wonder, really, why this is.

There is room.

Yes, there is a shortage of social housing – and the government is planning to sell off cheap what little there is.

But when impoverished, borderline bankrupt Greece can find the poor immigrants a home, when Italy extends a welcoming, tolerant hand, when German Christians do their bit, why are we turning a cold British shoulder?

This week is refugee week and below, if you choose to read them, are some facts.

If anyone reading this has any influence with the powers that be –  if you are that person – perhaps you could pass them on.

The fact is these desperate migrants mostly don’t want to come here, to Britain – they want to go to Germany. But at least we’d be better than a watery grave. And you never know, like the Ugandan Asians of the 1970s, a few unwanted immigrants might just end up employing 30,000 people.

Yes, I’m sad to say, the money argument has far more chance of working than the moral one.

The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives.

No country has ever withdrawn from it.

The UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees out of more than 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

About 86% of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries often in camps.

In 2011, worldwide, 17,700 children applied for asylum having arrived in the country of refuge alone, with no parent or guardian. 1,277 of these applications were made in the UK. Many of them come from Afghanistan, which was described by UNICEF in 2010 as “the world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

About 1,200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database

Immigrants, including refugees, pay more into the public purse compared to their UK born counterparts.

An estimated 30,000 jobs have been created in Leicester by Ugandan Asian refugees since 1972.

Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support.

Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on.

Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. It is nearly always ‘hard to let’ properties, where other people do not want to live.

There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

It is recognised in the 1951 Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country – there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach.

The top ten refugee producing countries all have poor human rights records or ongoing conflict. Asylum seekers are fleeing from these conflicts and abuses, looking for safety.

Many refugees and asylum seekers hope to return home at some point in the future, if the situation in their country has improved.

For sources of these statements see this web page on the UK Refugee Council’s site.

The UK Refugee Council was founded in 1951 in response to the UN Convention for Refugees, which was created after World War II to ensure refugees were able to find safety in other countries. Since then, the Refugee Council, a charity, has provided practical and emotional support to refugees from across the world to help them rebuild their lives and play a full part in society.

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5 Responses to Amazing Grace – the flip side

  1. Judy Barnes says:

    Heartfelt,Mary and very well said.In a different way but with the same thoughts on my heart,it was my turn to write and deliver the prayers at church last Sunday.Let’s hope that someone out there is listening and prepared/able to Do Something.


  2. EllaDee says:

    Similar news on this side of the pond. The government allegedly paid people smugglers to turn back to Indonesia with their people cargo. As was so well put, they’ll keep the boats out “by hook or by crook”. It’s crook alright and doesn’t reflect the sentiments of all Australians. It makes me wonder what is the real issue although many people say it’s the cost of dealing onshore (or onshore-offshore as is becoming more prevalent) with boat people they object to. Does money being spent to keep them out offend as well, or is it simply bloodyminded NIMBYism.
    How short our memories are, we all came from somewhere else. It’s disgraceful and embarrassing to be in the company of people who comfortably sit in blissfully ignorant judgement.
    Makes me furious, and I’m glad I’m in your good company instead.


    • Hi D – I’m glad I’m in your good company too – we’ve seen coverage of the Papua New Guinea resettlements and I can hardly believe it. As you say, we all came from somewhere else – if not recently. Ultimately all of us can trace our roots back to people who emerged from Africa in search of refuge from intolerable – or just in search of better – conditions. Here in Britain we are historically a mongrel land – Celts, Angles, Saxons, Romans, Jutes etc etc. And despite not being a dog person I often think mongrels are the most interesting! We as a nation offered refuge to people after the 2nd World War when everyone understood what hardship and the destruction of war was like Memories are short and the lessons of history seldom learned. I’ve been avoiding things that make me furious since the election but time to get my head out of the sand. If this is all I can do at least it’s better than nothing.


  3. Pingback: The president and the slave trader | Memoirs of a husk

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