The young Sri Lankan woman sitting opposite me began crying before I could introduce myself. The interpreter remained silent and looked to me to respond; the terms of his contract prohibited him from engaging in conversation with the woman. I rifled through my papers with their standard opening statements to a blank page and made a short note: “Applicant is crying before the interview commences. Offered tissues. Case-owner informs applicant ‘I can see that you are upset. You don’t need to be nervous. I am going to ask you some questions today about what happened to you. If you need to take a break at anytime, please let me know.’.” I smiled at the woman and passed her some tissues. The interpreter examined his fingernails and relayed my message quickly, dropping the comforting tone and demonstrating his frustration at the delay. It was going to be a difficult morning.
Years ago, I worked in asylum and immigration in the United Kingdom. I worked with asylum seekers directly, interviewing them in a small, windowless room with an interpreter on my left and a panic alarm on my right. I sought to understand their claims for protection from persecution and would then decide whether to grant them that protection or to refuse their claim and argue that it was safe for them to return. It was a difficult job for many reasons and one that I was happy to leave.
I have been reminded of the experiences of the people I interviewed as I follow the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe with a growing sense of horror. As hundreds of desperate people drowned in the Mediterranean, the British Prime Minister referred to “swarms” of migrants in Calais and the Hungarian Prime Minister argued that as the refugees want to go to Germany, the issue was a German problem, not a European one.
The unedifying spectacle of Europe failing to respond adequately to the crisis prompted the President of the European Commission, Jean-Paul Juncker, to remind members of the European Parliament in his State of the Union speech that, “Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Europe’s common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecutions, from war, dictatorship, or oppression.”
Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has demonstrated moral leadership over the crisis, announcing that Syrian refugees would be able to claim asylum in Germany, regardless of where they first entered the EU. The German people have welcomed thousands of refugees into Germany, gathering at Munich station to greet the new arrivals with bottled water, sweets and toys.
But this is not solely a German problem, and as border controls between Austria and Germany were introduced on Sept. 14, the German Vice-Chancellor stated that the country is “at the limit of its capabilities”. France and Germany have put forward proposals for a mandatory quota system to facilitate the distribution of more than 100,000 refugees across the EU. So far, the EU has failed to reach an agreement to do so. However, ordinary citizens are demonstrating their willingness to help by collecting financial and material donations, holding pro refugee rallies and signing petitions to pressure European governments to increase the number of people they take in.
I understood the impact of individual actions whilst working in asylum and immigration. With every claim that I granted or declined, I felt the full force of serendipity; the fortune of being born into a safe, stable and prosperous country. I was well aware of how lucky I was to be the person asking the questions rather than answering them. The asylum seekers I worked with were people just like me. The ordinary citizens putting pressure on their governments to help the thousands of desperate people arriving in Europe recognize this and the pressure they are putting on their governments is having some effect. On Sept. 7 the British Prime Minister pledged that Britain will take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. But this is not enough. Until Europe acts together to take responsibility for the situation, it will remain the shameful humanitarian crisis we see today.