Marie-Lyse’s family were from Rwanda (Image: Copyright Albanpix.com,)
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On April 12 1994, six days into the Rwandan genocide, men with machetes came to Marie-Lyse Numuhoza’s house.
Her father was beaten unconscious, but her heavily pregnant mother, a nurse, managed to negotiate a few extra minutes in which the family fled without a single possession.
Marie-Lyse was just 12 years old at the time, and every step of her family’s journey to safety in the UK was fraught with danger. She was smuggled into the country and eventually given refugee status here.
As is the case for many refugees, Marie-Lyse’ life since has been one of service in the UK, as a community and youth worker who has in turn saved lives many times over.
But if cruel plans proposed by the Home Secretary are passed, people with her background of arriving without official documents will never again be allowed to find safety here.
With her “New Plan for Immigration”, Priti Patel will tear up refugee law in place since the UK signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1951.
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Home Secretary Priti Patel is closing doors
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Someone’s means of arrival will determine whether they are worthy of protection. And under the new rules, Marie-Lyse would have been sent back to face death.
“I was smuggled into the UK,” she says. “The fear is real, I still worry now, but it was life or death, you do anything to survive.
“I have read Priti Patel’s speech about the new bill and legislation.
“Nobody decides to leave their home for no reason. I really wish I could speak to Priti Patel.”
The UK is now facing the most hostile environment for people seeking sanctuary in 70 years.
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In recent weeks, this column has exposed the scandal of Napier Barracks, proposals for a new “prison ship” for refugees, and uncovered plans for a detention centre for refugee women in Hassockfield, Co Durham. Despite numbers of asylum seekers being at their lowest since 2014 and the way migrants have supported our country in the pandemic, a moral panic has been created to ease in the “New Plan”.
Together With Refugees, a coalition of 100 national, local, refugee-led and grassroots groups, says two in three women and children the UK accepts as refugees now would be turned away.
This is disputed by the Home Office, which says it is not making changes to who is considered a refugee.
But Britain would be poorer without jeweller Steve Ali, who arrived from Syria aged 24 stowed inside a vehicle, after reaching Europe via a dinghy.
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Steve Ali refused to join Syrian army
He had refused to be conscripted into the army, fearful of being forced to kill other Syrians. Friends who refused disappeared and some were executed. Steve began making jewellery on his journey using refugee camp barbed wire, before beginning his business, Road From Damascus, in the UK.
Under the new rules, this hard-working man would not be allowed to stay in the UK due to how he arrived here.
“No one wants to leave their home country, no one takes life-threatening risks for no reason,” Steve says. “One day I was a university student living with my parents, going to the gym, and the next I was running by myself making my way through the world to survive. I lost my younger years. Now, I have a new life here, I have new friends and family.”
Britain would also be poorer without Aisha, who came here from Iraq on false documents and now runs her own award-winning business, providing jobs in her community.
“I was 20 when I left Iraq,” she says. “All I had known was war growing up. But we have all given back to society.”
When Priti Patel says her new plan “slams the door on dangerous criminals” – she means the Home Office would send Steve and Marie-Lyse and Aisha, whose only crime was to be born into a war-torn country, back into mortal danger.
While Home Office rules often leave refugees with “No Recourse to Public Funds”, Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, says the new plan really means “No Recourse to Public Love”.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says LGBTQ+ people and those fleeing political or religious persecution will be left in danger, and refugees will be pushed into the hands of people smugglers.
A Home Office spokesman said: “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in rather than making life-threatening journeys to the UK. We are reforming the asylum system so it is fair but firm, welcoming those who come to the UK through safe and legal routes while cracking down on criminal gangs that facilitate dangerous, illegal journeys.”
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Refugee Week begins on Monday, with the theme “We cannot walk alone”, a reference to Martin Luther King’s historic I Have A Dream speech.
To Marie-Lyes, who lives in Norwich, this is the African idea of Ubuntu – or ‘I am because we are’. A belief which expresses how we are all connected and can’t be ourselves without others.
This Refugee Week, in the year of the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, Priti Patel’s ‘New Plan’ is days away from reaching Parliament.
We face an emergency. The good news is that whether we show public love is not decided by home secretaries, but by us.
Additional reporting Maryam Qaiser