World Refugee Day is an important occasion for us all to reflect on some of the core values which give life to what it is to be human: shelter; safety; journey; and dignity. Our earliest footsteps as a people were often in search of refuge: be it refuge from hunger, refuge from danger or refuge from the elements. The modern world is no exception to this innate desire as demonstrated by the lessons from World War 2 and the agreement to protect people seeking refuge from persecution. Bangladesh itself is also a testament to this noble tradition. Not only as a country which endured the suffering of millions seeking refuge during its War of Liberation; but also as of today it realises this aspiration by giving refuge and sanctuary to a million Rohingya.
However, it’s fair to say that in modern times refugees have unfortunately received more negative publicity as they are increasingly associated with: the crime; unemployment and a threat to local culture.
That’s why World Refugee Day is so important – it’s an opportunity for all of us to understand the challenges refugees face and celebrate the best of humanity. And there’s no better way to do this than humanise refugees and challenge stereotypes that seek to portray them as ‘others’ or a threat. That’s why I want to share my story as this day resonates on an emotional level as I reflect on my journey as a refugee to a British diplomat.
My parents arrived in the UK as UN refugees, fleeing persecution. I joined them aged 7 not speaking English, only Balochi and Farsi and with a blue UN Travel Document in hand. Memories of another life, another country, another language and another cuisine still fresh in my mind whilst grappling with what it meant to be British, English and the weather! Fast forward a few years and I find myself in the privileged position of serving my new country as a diplomat.
For me the sanctuary provided by the UK was nothing short of amazing, including countless acts of individual kindness coupled with opportunities to realise my dreams. I will never forget a school trip to Mont Saint Michel and where at the border with France my remarkable teacher (Mr. Willis) ushered me away from my friends and down a separate immigration line on account of my blue UN Travel Document. He called it a ‘special’ queue for special people. Rather than being weighed down by notions of difference, that experience enabled me to view my difference through a positive prism – giving me the confidence to embrace myself and be embraced by those around me. Ultimately, it was a sense of freedom from fear itself, which was the greatest gift our new sanctuary provided us. To escape the fear of being ourselves, speaking another language or thinking a certain way. The chance to be who we are but also have the prospect to learn and change as we want to.
Nevertheless, even my own family stared on in disbelief when I told them I would be applying to join the UK Foreign Office. Firmly of the view that the UK diplomatic service was not ready for someone of my background. How could the inner sanctum of “Britishness” – housed in the same building that 200 hundred years ago was instrumental in demarcating the lives of my ancestors – accept someone not born in the UK to promote our national interest?
Suffice to say I am happy they were proven wrong. My country’s willingness to fully embrace me and my family is not only a testament to its confidence in who it is but also a powerful message about how fairness, tolerance, and equality are not merely rhetorical flourishes to evoke during times of crisis or uncertainty but powerful values that help develop our collective human capital, including people like me, former refugees.
The prospect of understanding ‘others’ and ‘accepting’ them is probably at the heart of much of the mistrust and fear around refugees. However, this is not to suggest that the welcoming of newcomers does not come with risks. The sheer number of people seeking a better life in such a short space of time and the continual struggle to reconcile competing cultural norms rightly raises concerns about social cohesion, economic competition and security. My story, and that of a changing UK, is a reminder that coexistence, respect and tolerance are not aspirational but real. Be it by foreign nurses and doctors maintaining that great British institution the NHS or by multi-medal Olympic champions setting records. We now have both a Muslim Mayor of London and a Home Secretary, the latter campaigning to become PM of our country.
On World Refugee Day this year we are encouraged to #stepwithrefugees. I’m proud that the UK is standing side by side with Bangladesh in its support for the Rohingya people. The UK is one of the largest donors to the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, providing £129 million in additional funding, since August 2017. The UK’s contribution to preparedness and response plans will reduce the impact of natural disasters and outbreaks of disease and strengthen the resilience of affected Rohingya people and host communities.
This week the UK Government confirmed plans to resettle around 5,000 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees in the first year of a new schemestarting in 2020. Since 2016, Britain has resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU state – and it’s vital we continue to do all we can to help the world’s most vulnerable. Under our new scheme, thousands more people fleeing conflict and persecution will have the opportunity to build a new life in the UK. The UK is proud of the world-leading work we have done in the Middle East, Asia and Africa so far – but there is so much more to do.
On World Refugee Day I am proud to say I was a refugee and I encourage us all to reflect on the challenge refugees face throughout the world. I can’t think of a better way to #stepwithrefugees than to empathise with them and see them as they see themselves; mothers, sons, and daughters…. – ultimately as one of us.
* Kanbar Hossein-Bor is the Acting British High Commissioner to Bangladesh