As a volunteer in Calais, people often ask me Why do refugees want to come to the UK, aren’t they just economic migrants and why don’t they just go back? I put these questions to an Iraqi man who fled with his wife and two young sons from ISIS and decided to claim asylum in Austria instead of trying to get to the UK.
Yousif tells me his story over a rare ice cream treat, unthinkable on the forty euros a month he currently receives while his asylum claim in Austria is processed. He is grateful the family are safe. The children are in the local school. However, he is frustrated that it will be many years before he can start providing for his family with anything like the lifestyle they are accustomed to, as a professional middle class family. Why? He doesn’t speak a word of German.
The reason that many refugee families risk their lives trying to get to the UK is as simple as that. Either you have family connections in the UK or you have enough command of the language that you can get up and running again as quickly as possible. It is absolutely not about benefits.
Wanting the very best for your children is a strong human instinct. It drives families to endure horrendous journeys to start a new life far from home.
Yousif is a highly-educated fluent English speaker with numerous skills to offer, it is just a waste of a valuable resource keeping men like him on benefits when he wants to contribute so much more. He shows me photographs of his beautiful house in Mosul, points out the marble floors, the elegant staircase, the designer bathrooms. It has been destroyed. He then shows me some shocking photos of a colleague of his wife (she’s a secondary school teacher) being shot. Like many others, now dead, she objected to teaching a new syllabus introduced by ISIS when they took over all the schools in their city.
One of their sons was selected for ISIS training and became traumatised. In a hushed voice, Yousif continues to tell me about when he was arrested and interrogated – simply because he was a government employee ‘on the wrong side’. He endured the torture with suffocation, beatings with cables and a nail driven under his nails. He shows me another photo of a friend being burned alive, a toddler being dangled over the severed head of his father, the naked bodies of a family strapped to the front bumper of car, paraded through the streets… I didn’t need to ask him my next question: Why don’t they ‘just go back’.