On May 16, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed a Council of Europe summit in Reykjavík to garner European support for his government’s controversial “anti-asylum bill”. The bill aims to block all routes to claiming asylum in the United Kingdom and to send all refugees who arrive in the country “on a small boat” to detention centres in Rwanda.
If this bill were passed some 15 years ago, I might not be alive today.
I arrived in the UK in 2010, at the age of 26, on a punctured rubber dinghy. I was traumatised from the torture I endured in my homeland, Sudan, and exhausted from my long and harrowing journey to safety. By the time the leaking boat reached British shores, the salt of the seawater had created a new, rigid layer on my skin, and I was convinced, perhaps for the hundredth time that day, that I was going to die.
These days concerning developments both in the UK and Sudan are causing me to relive these terrifying memories.
While I watch with horror the conflict in Sudan intensify, the government in my new home country is pushing for anti-refugee legislation which, if passed, will deny protection to the men, women and children who are being forced to flee their homes in Sudan.
I was once one of them – an ordinary citizen living an ordinary life in Sudan. I grew up in southeast Sudan in the early 2000s and later moved to Khartoum to complete a degree in Economics at the University of Neelain. Passionate about education and helping people, I soon became a union leader at the university. My job was to ensure that members of all tribes and regions – from North Sudan to South, and East to West – where represented and included in our academic institution. Still reeling from the Second Civil War, conflict was no stranger to Sudan at the time and the university was not spared from the tensions. The authorities were suspicious of students and were working hard to stifle dissent in universities. And whether I liked it or not, as a union leader I was in the middle of it all. Military officers would often detain and interrogate me about my opinion on the government and whether any of the students were participating in anti-regime activities.
As the harassment escalated into torture, for my own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of my family and friends, I decided to escape. I decided to leave because, if I stayed, I would have died.
There was no visa I could apply for, or queue I could join at any embassy to claim asylum. Furthermore, it was too dangerous to alert anyone to the fact that I was trying to flee. With no one to help, I did what I had to do to escape. I hid in the backs of trucks for up to nine days at a time and jumped onto a rubber dinghy with equally desperate strangers as my fellow passengers to try and reach a haven where I could have a chance at starting a new life. I arrived in the UK barely alive – I was destroyed, both mentally and physically.
The asylum process in the UK was another battle. I was detained in a cell not too dissimilar to the one I had been tortured in back home. I waited for years before I received refugee status and could rebuild my life. Thankfully, charities and community workers offered me therapy and welfare help. The compassion of the British people was overwhelming and helped me recover from my many traumas.
Today, I speak fluent English and run my own successful security company with more than 100 employees. I also got married and started a family in Newcastle – the UK is truly my home now.
My story is of course unique to me, but I know that it is in many ways similar to the experiences of other asylum seekers, from Sudan and beyond.
If Prime Minister Sunak’s cruel anti-refugee bill was in force when I first arrived in the UK, this life I’m living today would not have been possible, and I might not even be alive. This is true for thousands of other asylum seekers who made the UK their home and became part of British society over the years.
If Mr Sunak’s proposed bill was in force when I first stepped foot in the UK, I would have been punished for arriving the way I did, despite there being no safe and legal route for me to get here. I would have been denied the right to claim asylum – a human right protected in international law – and I would have most likely been removed to a Rwandan detention centre.
Recently, defending the government’s scorched earth approach to immigration, Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that the UK “can’t go on” accepting migrants who “jump the queue” to enter the UK. Of course, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also underlined in its response to the Home Secretary, “there is no asylum visa or queue for the UK.” An overwhelming number of refugees have no legal or safe route to claiming asylum in this country – they are prepared to cross the busiest shipping lane in Europe in a flimsy inflatable because this is their only path to survival and a new life in the UK.
This is why I find it hard to believe Prime Minister Sunak’s new bill will serve to reduce the number of deaths on the Channel as he claims. People are taking these risks and embarking on these deadly journeys because they are desperate – because they understand that the alternative is worse. No anti-refugee bill or deportation plan could stop them.
Also, the proposed bill would result in torture survivors like myself not receiving the help they desperately need when they arrive in the UK. Eliminating the processes that allow survivors like myself to be identified and helped would cause significant harm, but would not in anyway reduce the burdens on the UK immigration system.
The government’s own chief inspectorates and NGOs like Freedom from Torture have been speaking to torture survivors and others with lived experience of the UK asylum process for years. The evidence shows that there is no easy way to satisfy all stakeholders, but a number of changes can be made to ensure the asylum process is fit for purpose and humane.
No matter how refugees arrive on British shores, they must be treated fairly and humanely. This means allowing them to make their asylum claim without facing any penalty, including the threat of being deported or detained. Instead of spending money on sending people miles away to Rwanda or re-fitting old barges to create floating detention centres, the government should focus its attention and finances on providing the Home Office with the resources it desperately needs to truly help refugees. With the right processes and training in place, torture survivors among those seeking refuge in the UK could be quickly identified and given the help they need to start their recovery. All asylum applications can be processed in a timely manner and traumatised refugees can avoid living in limbo for years.
Having grown up in Sudan, and watching it descend into division and hatred, I know too well what happens when politicians demonise, marginalise and even criminalise certain groups of people to distract from their failings or to win populist votes. Britain should not remain on this dangerous path. Rather than trying to sell his inhumane anti-asylum bill to the Council of Europe, Prime Minister Sunak should be talking to his European counterparts about how they can work together to protect refugees.
The British government should abandon policies that will achieve nothing other than increase the suffering of traumatised refugees and focus on building an asylum system that we can all be proud of.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.