Letter From Londonby Megha Bahree
Zrinka Bralo kept her head down as the car moved through sniper alley. It was September 1993 and she was fleeing Sarajevo in the midst of a war that had pitted against each other Muslim Slavs, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats—all former neighbors. She was headed for a United Nations flight, her only escape route, which would take her via Croatia to safety and a new life in London.
Once in London, however, at the age of 25 and having worked as journalist for seven years, Bralo put all thoughts of rebuilding her life on hold. She had to first confront the harsh reality of British asylum and immigration laws.
“Asylum-seeker is a very dirty word in this country,” she said as she took a deep drag of her cigarette during a recent conversation at an outdoor café near her office in London. It’s lunchtime, and at almost every table there is a smoker. “The assumption is that you are a scheming wheeler dealer out to scam everyone...This perception of you by society, it messes with your head and makes you question your identity.”
It is the end of May, just weeks before suicide bombers would strike central London, killing 56 people, including the four attackers, and injuring 700. Bralo and I are talking in the west London neighborhood of Notting Hill, less than a mile from where British police would later apprehend three of the alleged bombers accused of plotting the failed copycat attacks of July 21. All three men are immigrants: Somali and Eritrean. As an immigrant herself, and as executive director of the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (MRCF), Bralo has paid particular attention to their stories.
In the aftermath of the bombings, Bralo is busy monitoring possible ethnic attacks in London through her position at MRCF, a non-profit umbrella organization that works with more than 40 community groups serving the immigrant and refugee communities in North West London. “So far we have had no reports of racial incidents amongst immigrants I work with,” Bralo reported in a recent e-mail. “We usually get occasional verbal abuse and an attack every so often,” but since early August she has received no reports of targeted assaults.
“All of my members say it is much better now than it was after 9/11,” she says, “and most Muslim members I spoke to accept that they might be subject to random police checks.” For now, she says the problems are more logistic: “Difficulty in traveling across London and keeping it together for staff who are afraid to use the Underground. I know it may sound corny, but London truly stands together in this crisis.”
Bralo expects to see an impact of the current situation on policing and civil liberties in London once Parliament, which is in summer recess, resumes. She also expects the tightened security to have lasting effects on immigrants and asylum-seekers, people who will face more difficulties in a system already riddled with suspicion and red tape.
When she escaped to London in 1993, Bralo waited for two years for a result on her asylum application, only to be denied even though she was seeking refuge from a country that was submerged in ethnic cleansing. “Every day someone I knew was getting killed or wounded,” Bralo said, recalling the circumstances when she left Sarajevo. “Rape was my biggest fear and death seemed to be the easiest option.” She used her U.N. press pass and left. “The guilt in leaving was enormous.”
It was almost a 10-year battle before Bralo became a British citizen. She couldn’t leave the U.K. for the first seven years because of visa restrictions, even to visit her mother or other family and friends in her native Bosnia—the ones who survived the bullets, the bombs and the landmines.
During that first decade in London, Bralo spent time campaigning for refugee rights and watched with each passing year as the British Parliament passed laws that increasingly restricted the interpretations of the Geneva Conventions. She says there is an “advice desert” for immigrants in the country. Despite asylum and immigration being high on the political and public agenda in the U.K., there is very little objective and easily accessible information about the key issues and facts informing these opinions.
“In many ways the asylum and immigration debate has become polarized, between those who believe that the impact of immigration is overwhelmingly negative and should therefore be limited, and those who are concerned about the rights of migrants,” states a 2005 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent and progressive British think tank.
The debate may become even more polarized by the recent attacks in London. Fresh anti-terror measures have been announced by the government, including a declaration of three new criminal offenses that target freedom of speech issues such as incitement to murder—the punishment of which could be deportation. Powers for ministers have been granted to exclude those who “foment terrorism” from entering Britain.
“A database would be set up of individuals around the world who have demonstrated unacceptable behavior”—including preaching, running websites and writing articles when those activities were intended to encourage or provoke terrorism, says Bralo. Any person listed in the database seeking to enter the UK will have their case referred to ministers with a view to possible exclusion.
Bralo fears those most vulnerable are likely to be excluded, and as the system continues to tighten, the situation will only serve to increase trafficking to London: more and more immigrants will be denied asylum, including those from the most violent and war-torn regions of the world, and they will be pushed to seek desperate measures. “The situation is heading towards complete exclusion of the vulnerable,” she says.
And while Bralo understands the delicacy of the current climate in London, she worries about the long-term impact of the recent attacks on global refugees seeking asylum in the country. “There are children involved and they are ending up as the victims,” she says. “People’s human rights are being violated.”
Megha Bahree is a writer based in Manhattan.