Would you go on a hunger strike if the alternative is certain death?

Imagine waking up one morning only to find that the neighbourhood you once called home has been reduced to nothing but rubble. Imagine the pain of knowing that the life you’ve built for yourself has been irrevocably destroyed. Imagine watching as the people you once knew, friends and family you loved, were taken away from you one by one – detained, tortured or killed. Imagine knowing that the same fate awaits you, that your days are numbered and that if you wished to live, you had to leave everything you knew behind. What would you do? Or perhaps a better question: what would you not do, just to survive?

Keep this in mind when you read about the dangers presented by these so-called fraudulent asylum seekers who come to the UK with an eye to infiltrating the British community, undermining what makes this country great and hell bent on taking advantage of the generosity underpinning British society. Nothing could be further from the truth. And that stark truth is heart-wrenching in its simplicity: those who seek asylum in the UK are desperate for safety. They come here simply because they have no other choice. It is a matter of life and death.

In fact, just last month, as many as 22 detainees being held in Brook House detention centre began a hunger strike in protest at their imminent deportation from the UK – with eight reported to have made attempts to take their own lives. They did this not because they wished to engage in pointless theatrics or to appeal to the questionable sympathy of the Home Office. As the refugees themselves said, “we’d prefer to die in the UK than go back.” And why not? When the only two choices left available to you involve you dying either way, wouldn’t you do the same?

Again, this is not mere theatrics. This is the lived experience of people seeking asylum in the UK. Detained Voices collective – a website dedicated to platforming the voices and experiences of those held in detention centres across the UK – shared the account of one anonymous individual who explained his reason for undertaking a hunger strike.

He described the trauma-inducing journey from his war-torn home country of Yemen and the atrocities he has since faced in his attempts to seek asylum and forge for himself a safe and better life. From Turkey to Greece to France and eventually the UK, he described the endless abuse, instability and rejection he has endured. After arriving in the UK, his dreams of starting over turned to ash. Instead of support, he was detained within Brook House near Gatwick airport and informed that he would be deported back to Europe.

He is not alone. Six Syrian detainees also being held in Brook House were informed that they would be removed to Spain, where they had previously been thrown out into the streets to fend for themselves, assaulted by police officers and blackmailed by human traffickers. Is it any wonder that they left Spain in the first place to find a safer place to call home? And is it any wonder that they chose to participate in a hunger strike rather than go back?

Despite knowing the harrowing experiences many asylum seekers endure across Europe when trying to claim asylum, the Home Office chooses instead to wash its hands off any responsibility by exploiting the EU Dublin Regulation, which states that if an asylum seeker were to be fingerprinted in an EU Member State but then decides to move on to another EU Member State, the asylum seeker can be sent back to the first country to have their asylum claim processed there.

This is exactly what the UK is doing. Because other EU Member State have their fingerprints, the UK does not bother to make a proper assessment of its own and instead chooses to simply send people back, even though the Dublin regulation also makes clear that asylum seekers have no obligation to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country that they pass through and that they have an element of choice as to where they seek asylum.

To make matters worse, politicians and mainstream media like to fan the flames of discontent by arguing that European countries are equally stable and can offer the same protection as the UK. In other words, asylum seekers who choose to extend their journey to reach Britain are not really looking for safety at all, which makes them illegal migrants rather than refugees.

Such ignorance allows people to forget that safety is relative. Just because one country is safe for someone doesn’t make it absolutely safe for everyone else. For example, if you’re a female asylum seeker who is more comfortable wearing a burqa, would you feel safe in France, knowing that they have banned all forms of Islamic face coverings? If you go to Greece and they beat you with shock sticks, would you feel safe enough to stay? If you are fluent in English but can speak no Spanish, would you feel safe enough in Spain when you don’t understand anything they say? If you have family members in Britain, would you not also feel safer here rather than trying to forge a life in Germany where you know absolutely no one?

There are also political reasons. Some EU countries, such as Greece and France, have become renowned for being overwhelmed with asylum claims and simultaneously for their poor treatment of those seeking asylum, with many facing police brutality, abuse and overcrowded, makeshift refugee camps. Why leave an unsafe country, go through a perilous journey, only to stay in another country that is equally unsafe?

For many asylum seekers, the UK is their final hope for a stable life and its attempts to remove vulnerable individuals back to other ‘safe’ EU countries is immoral and abhorrent. With the UK home to just 1% of the world’s refugees, we must do more. We believe ourselves to be a bastion of justice all over the world. It’s time we acted the part.