A final word about refugees

As a postscript to the final concluding views published in the blog https://www.andeanmedicine.net/blog/wider-lessons-and-cautionary-points-... I should turn to the population largely overlooked by MEDICINE project, except during its final stages and concluding chapters. These are, of course, the same displaced populations of refugees that have dominated the news, or at least did dominate the news until fairly recently. What of them, and the ‘reality’ of their circumstances?

The refugee crisis is a global crisis, as we are now witnessing huge population displacements around the world, not just from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, but within Africa, with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the recent massive exodus of citizens from the failed state of Venezuela. We need to have better ways of dealing with these challenges of our times, foremost being to confront the issues that cause them in the first place, the most avoidable being warfare exacerbated by global powers using third party countries as arenas for flexing their military muscle. But there are many reasons.

To have a better view of grassroots organisations working with refugees finally relocated into a recipient country, I paid a visit last week to Refugee Action York, a charitable organisation who offer assistance to the relatively few Syrian families (and fewer others) resettled in York (the general resettlement area in the region being Leeds and Middlesbrough, as York is considered too expensive). These compassionate people offer much needed support and advice to dislocated people arriving in the UK from refugee camps in the Lebanon, part of the 2015 commitment by the Cameron government for the UK to take 25,000 refugees. I was told that they were the beneficiaries of a five year support package, front-loaded into the first and second years after their arrival in the UK, tailing off after this. Effectively to now, when there is little surviving of it, as the expectation had been that during this time they would have ‘settled’ and integrated into the UK culture, society and employment market.

Unsurprising many are now struggling, the understanding of the psycho-social processes inherent in making such an immense life transition following warfare and loss of homelands being, it would seem, poorly understood by those responsible for policy setting. The kinds of problems being experienced fairly conformed to the kinds highlighted and discussed during the development of the study report in its later stages and examples of this are reported far more widely https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-housing-r...

For one thing, there is a broad social spectrum represented, from what had been affluent educated people from cities such as Aleppo, through to people from rural regions of the country with highly conservative traditional backgrounds, some of whom are functionally illiterate in Arabic – the country’s language. By and large they have been housed in private sector accommodation in the more outlying parts of York, and following the strategy determined in the five year plan, are now in the position of having to pay for the (high) rental of their homes. Many are confused and some in desperate circumstances and there is little sympathy or understanding from the local council (or indeed many people). There is a clear need for the kind of retraining in cultural and ethnic diversity and sensitivity to diversity highlighted in the project report, to counteract the kinds of prejudice and assumptions so commonplace amongst social (and health) care workers responsible as the interface between government policy and the people being helped.

When allocated to resettlement in the UK, they been given a very ‘rosy’ view of our country and culture and had little or no knowledge of the reality of the way life here. I understand that for many, the culture shock has been severe, with a feeling of profound alienation and a longing to be able to return to their lost homes and lifeways. Psychosocial problems such as depression are not uncommon, particularly afflicting the older generation, children and young people having a better chance to adjust.

The other day I passed a couple of young women, traditionally dressed in Middle Eastern clothing (possibly one of these same refugee families), as they stared at the shop window of the Ann Summers sex shop in the city centre. Whatever must they think of our culture? There appears a general assumption that our culture is what people want; that that is why they have come here, to take advantage of our economic wealth, our easy way of life, our much vaunted ‘liberties’. Certainly it is what some people who are migrants, rather than refugees, want, but many become completely disillusioned by the reality of what they find when they actually arrive. And those who, perforce, have had to flee their homelands through necessity, not choice, are then expected to assimilate into a culture that could not be more alien to their own.

There are many issues that need addressing as a matter of urgency, but challenging our assumptions and ways of thinking, as much about our own culture as that of others, is clearly of the essence. However, it is also clear that there is real value, as well as its being a 'mere humanitarian duty', in providing suitably tailored informed assistance that offers life and hope ie 'meaningful survival', to those displaced from their homelands through circumstances beyond their control. And let us not forget the many positive accounts that also abound, the 'success stories' of resettled families integrating well ino the recipient culture, feeling welcomed and valued for what they can offer, free to express who they are, free to enjoy the many benefits that resettlement in a new country and different society can bring. There is much we can learn from one another and cross cultural exchanges can be enormously enriching for both sides.

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Saturday 9th November 2019.
elizabeth.currie@york.ac.uk's picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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