What do the words asylum seeker mean to you? In the current climate it is a politically loaded term; a conflation of economic migrant and refugee. The crisis facing Europe today is at once easy to understand yet impossible to meaningfully comprehend, let alone solve. The phrase has been purloined by those less interested in the plight of the individuals than for the political capital to be made from a good bout of tub-thumping demonisation. But how serious do you think our mainstream politicians are in debating the issues and trying to do the right thing? My confidence has been shaken by the letter I received (pictured above) from Harriet Harman MP, my member of parliament, over a case I took to her regarding a friend of mine in Yemen, in similarly deep trouble to those fleeing Syria.
I met my friend Adim (not his real name) when I attended the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the UK’s Defence Academy a few years ago. Adim is a Yemeni national, a fluent english speaker and very intelligent man, albeit with a dubious taste in shoes. He’s a good guy. His country is currently in the grip of a regional proxy war, in all but name, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In September last year Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, seized the capital, Sana’a, and now control all the major organs of state. Of course, the situation is more nuanced than I give it credit or column inches for, with Da’ish (or ISIS) and other armed groups also involved, but that’s the nub of it.
Although under suspicion from their new Houthi masters, Adim and many of his colleagues were, initially, tolerated. Steadily though, harassment built up against perceived supporters of the ousted regime. Adim moved his family out of their home last December and some of his fellow officers have been killed or disappeared (as have their children). Adim has not been paid for months and has resorted to dressing as a woman so as to hide his identity and allow him to move around. He has also been shot at. He is obviously very afraid for the continued safety of his family and wants out.
Having tried a number of options in various countries he reached out to me. I took the issue to Harriet Harman, hoping she would encourage the Foreign Office to issue a visa for Adim, thereby allowing him to travel to the UK and seek asylum. I was confident that he would work straight away, possibly on the staff of the Defence Academy, adding valuable perspective and experience to our military training. And yes, I offered to provide accommodation.
It is at this point (if not before) many will call me naive and/or daft and the discussion could fracture into well-rehearsed arguments on all sides. But it boiled down to this: there’s not much I can do to help the millions running from persecution and violence, but I could, perhaps, help one family. So I made a decision, discussed it with my wife and acted. I’m not interested in the reductionist politics of the Farage brigade (“so, how many homeless people have you housed?”); he was a friend in genuine fear for his life and those of his family.
To be honest, I was not expecting to be successful, at least not straight away. But what I was not expecting, as you will see from the letter above, was the wilful missing-of-the-point employed in the let down. To dismiss the issue with a breezy and simplistic ‘I am not in a position to assist [Adim] as he is not residing in the UK..’ cannot be ignorance; Ms Harman is far too intelligent for that. I cannot see it as anything other than being too difficult, too political. He is not residing in the UK – that’s the whole point; I’m trying to get him here so that he and his family are removed from a situation of grave danger. If there is any doubt that Adim is, in fact, hoping to be an economic migrant, I will personally pay his air fare back. But let’s get him and his family over here to discuss the issue in safety first. Politicians like to remind us of the proud history the UK has of offering sanctuary to refugees and the oppressed. It seems the bar for qualifying for such sanctuary is set very high.
Still, as the letter ends, ‘if I can be of help or assistance in the future with any other matter please do not hesitate to contact me.’ Nice to know.