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Editor's Column: A Scream from the Heart

Ukrainian refugees at Olkusz train station in southern Poland Credit: Alamy

Editor's Column: A Scream from the Heart

I was a small child but still remember the haunted faces of starving children, living skeletons with distended tummies, and hollowed out eyes, their stick-like arms too weak, and their souls too broken, to find the energy to brush the flies from their faces, never mind try and suck from their mothers’ empty breasts. I remember the heated discussions between my parents. And I remember my mother’s tears. 

This was the late 1960s. The children were the half-dead consequence of the Biafran war. And while the full details of the scandal of the civil war in Nigeria, sparked by an attempt by the country’s eastern region of Biafra to gain independence, the oil, the arms, the trade, Soviet forces, vested interests, this country’s shameful role in it all [sound familiar?] were not fully understood then, regardless, households across Britain reacted with their hearts at the sight of refugees displaced and broken by conflict. 

They asked, how could they help? What could they do? And like in my own family, they wrestled with wanting to give those children a home, some food, some sanctuary, but with no idea of how. And while the practicalities were, in most cases, too hard to overcome, it was a human reaction to an inhuman situation.

It was the first time most of us had seen such heartrending images of starved and dying children broadcast straight into our living rooms – to be witness to the tiny victims of a man-made crisis. Fifty years on, those images remain etched on my brain.

Over three million people died during that four-year battle including over a million that were deliberately starved in Biafra as a direct result of the blockade. 

It was a different era, a more primitive technological time. There were no phones, no social media, nor all manner of electronic devices constantly feeding us with a real-time, drip-drip diet of the misery, horror, and despair.

The world was a less connected place and Nigeria seemed so very far away. It gave a geographic separation that meant practical measures of help were all but limited to fundraising. Gestures of refuge were simply that, gestures, and our genuinely felt convictions as ordinary citizens that ‘something had to be done’ did next to nothing to ameliorate the genocide of a generation.

Millions were killed in the savagery of the battle. And a million more perished simply for lack of food. And while it is estimated that a further half a million people were saved by the valiant efforts of those driven by faith, hope and charity to deliver aid, as pained observers, we were largely impotent to help in the face of monstrous evil.

Today, half a century on, and having borne witness to so many other humanitarian crises across the world, at other times, in other places, and with other causes, we are faced with the brutality that is happening almost on our doorstep in Ukraine. It is a horror in Europe that, again, we might not fully understand the details of, but to which we react in the only way we know how – with our hearts.

So, how shameful, that while at the same time British citizens were signing up, in their thousands, to open their homes to the refugees of the Ukrainian war, whose lives have been ripped apart by a Russian aggressor, the British government was pushing through appalling legislation that, in effect, would criminalise those seeking sanctuary here, but who in the haste of fleeing terror, have, understandably, not followed the appropriate administrative rules.

It makes your heart sink to think that if we have lost the ability to care, to feel empathy, to express compassion, and to simply proffer the hand of kindness and safety, without the imposition of restrictive and impossible hoops to be jumped, then we are worth nothing as human beings.

There should be no hierarchy of worthiness when it comes to offering asylum

And think, just how, at a time like this, amid such atrocity, were the Tories able to push on through with their abhorrent anti-immigration legislation, with its hostility to ‘others’ already baked in, while set on the default position that puts the motivations of even the most vulnerable and abused under the microscope of suspicion?

Despicably, all the arguments for helping those who, out of sheer desperation and fear, flee their own country, abandoning their belongings and leaving much-loved family and pets behind, should be obvious to a Tory Cabinet that includes people like Dominic Raab and Nadhim Zahawi, whose families have personally experienced prejudice, oppression, and abuse. 

For crying out loud, Home Secretary Priti Patel is the daughter of Ugandan Asians who fled to the UK shortly before the sadistic dictator Idi Amin ordered them all to be expelled. Yet she is the one that, even while Ukrainians are being bombed on, is leading the charge for draconian anti-immigration laws that could see them being imprisoned for four years just for getting here without applying first.

And Patel adds fuel to the fire of the xenophobia that colludes to enable such heartless legislation to pass, that emboldens the prime minister to compare the war in Ukraine with Brexit, and it is Patel that darkly warns, at this time of all times, and without flinching at the obscenity of her words, of the threat from people coming to our country “who plot to strike at our very way of life”.

“Our very way of life.” That’s a phrase to wrestle with, laced with poison and suspicion of immigrants and why they would come here. But it also has to be said, that while it is easy to point the finger at the UK Government’s clear inhumanity on this, there is also a glaring hypocrisy to ponder, that while we, as a nation, have allowed thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees to languish for months, if not years, in unsuitable hotels and B&Bs while they try to jump onerous administrative hurdles to settle, we have so enthusiastically embraced the notion of letting white, European, Ukrainians into our own homes. 

There should be no hierarchy of worthiness when it comes to offering asylum, but if we only reserve our kindness for people that appear more ‘like us’ and deny it to others, then we are abandoning the very principle behind the word.

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