‘I wish that people wouldn’t judge me when they don’t know me’. This is what Sara tells me when I ask her what her future hopes are.
Sara (not her real name) is seeking asylum in the UK. Like most in her shoes, she has fled her country to seek safety here but has been left destitute while her asylum claim is being processed. With no recourse to public funds, Sara desperately wants to work and contribute to this country but the UK asylum system will only let her work if her claim takes longer than 12 months to process (a waiting period longer than that of any other European country, the USA or Canada). This system benefits nobody: while people like Sara are pushed into destitution, the UK economy loses an estimated £42 million in lost contributions from asylum seekers who want to work, but cannot.
Yet while Sara’s circumstances may sound remarkable, her experiences are more universal that we may think. Indeed her story – of survival, of wanting a better life, and of the need for human contact – is as old as the story of mankind itself.
It is also a story which many of us, in this day and age, can relate to. At a time when loneliness is now a serious public policy concern, longstanding inequality persists among the most disadvantaged in society, and food banks are facing unprecedented demand this December, perhaps we should be reminding ourselves that Sara’s story is about more than seeking asylum. Her experience of loneliness, depression, survival, destitution and discrimination is likely to resound with many of us, who, even if we have not personally been through it, will know others who have.
And yet labels, such as ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘scrounger’, with all their present-day toxicity, only serve to distance us from people like Sara. As Hanif Kureishi writes, the migrant has no ‘face, status or story’ under such labels and this kind of ‘othering’ only serves to compound the exclusion of people who are already at the margins of society: the poor, the homeless, the vulnerable.