The pandemic has brought vast swathes of day-to-day life in the United Kingdom to a standstill. But as the country begins to ease out of its third lockdown in 12 months, charities supporting Iranian refugees and asylum seekers are busier than ever.
HostNation is a London-based charity that was launched in 2017 to provide friendship and social opportunities to refugees and asylum seekers. To date the organization has matched more than 300 new arrivals with local volunteer “befrienders” to help them practice their English, establish connections and become a part of the community. It has now become the largest befriending platform in the UK, with 97 of participants reporting a positive experience.
Over the past three years about 10 percent of the charity’s befriendees have come from Iran. But in the first quarter of 2020 HostNation received a surge in new referrals of Iranians from charities based in Calais, and Iran has now taken over from Syria as its single biggest country of origin for referrals.
HostNation is unsure what’s driving the change. But founder Anneke Elwes is clear that regardless of where they come from, the charity’s imperatives will remain the same: “We don’t ask questions about how people got here. We give them a friend so that they can live in the present and not dwell on the past.”
A Difficult Journey
According to the UN Human Rights Council, in the year ending September 2020 Iran was the top nationality claiming asylum in the UK. A total of 4,318 Iranians applied for asylum in the UK that year and the largest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children also came from Iran, 456.
Home Office figures published in September 2020 also found that half of those attempting the perilous crossing across the English Channel from France in small boats were Iranian nationals. On arrival in the UK, the situation for many remains challenging.
Since 2012 the Home Office has pursued a “hostile environment” policy that seeks to make life as difficult as possible for would-be new arrivals. People waiting for their asylum claims to be processed receive a small allowance from the government to cover basic expenses like food, clothing and toiletries. But they are not allowed to work, and in order to receive the money they must stay in government-approved accommodation, which is often sub-standard.
“The hostels are often Covid-unsafe,” Ms Elwes told IranWire. “Our befriendees might be confined to one room and have to share a kitchen and bathroom with other people, and often they don’t have locks on their doors. We are being told to isolate and socially distance at the moment, but they can’t.”
HostNation has worked hard to mitigate the impact of lockdown this year by providing some asylum seekers with smartphones, top-ups and data packages. In July 2020, the charity re-launched its befriending service with a hybrid of face-to-face and digital meet-ups.
Iranians in the UK: “This Friendship is the Most Valuable Thing I Have”
Having a friend in the United Kingdom, Ms Elwes says, can have a “transformative” effect on people’s lives. Volunteer befrienders go through a rigorous vetting process and are matched with refugees based on their profiles and common interests, not dissimilar to a dating service. Both the British citizens and new arrivals come from all walks of life, and the last 10 Iranian referrals to HostNation in 2020 ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s.
“We’ve had an outpouring of goodwill,” Ms Elwes says, “and people wanting to counteract that negative rhetoric you see in the papers. These people are not coming to our shores because they choose to leave their homes; it’s forced migration. Our befrienders feel goodwill toward these people, who are trying to rebuild their lives and have escaped persecution.
“Our Iranian referrals have a remarkable level of drive and ambition. Most are determined to ‘make it’ and get on with their lives, whether that means finding work or studying hard.”
An Iranian woman in her 60s, who asked to be known as Layla, came to the UK five years ago and was paired by HostNation with a local befriender, Sue, who is in her 50s. Sue brought gifts to her during the lockdown and Layla has cooked Persian food for her new friend. “She is the most valuable thing I have in this country,” she said. “I told my family in Iran about her. It makes me optimistic about the future. I don't feel I'm lonely, I’m not homesick and life is more interesting. She is like a sister.”
Hamed, a film and documentary maker in his 30s, was introduced to a British citizen called Richard, who is in his 60s and works in the music industry. “We met up regularly before lockdown and collaborated together on music and video,” he said. “He's a good guy. We have common interests and we talk about film and music and share our knowledge. We both love jazz. We’re going to make a video together and he plans to introduce me to his friends.”
Trustee: Accepting Charity is Hard
Dina Nayeri is one of HostNation’s trustees and an award-winning novelist and essayist. She was born in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution, and has first-hand experience of living as a refugee in Europe in the 1980s.
When she was six years old, she and her family made a first, abortive attempt to leave Isfahan for the UK, spending several months in London before returning to the Islamic Republic. Speaking only Persian, they had faced prejudice in the UK and Dina had been bullied and beaten up by school peers.
Two years after their return, her mother converted to Christianity and was detained, interrogated and threatened with execution by the security forces. The family fled the Islamic Republic again, spending two years in refugee hostels in Europe before finally being granted asylum in the US.
Today Dina Nayeri lives in the United Kingdom with her husband and child, having moved back in 2015. The atmosphere, she says, has changed: “Back then, I suffered a lot of abuse. It wasn’t a particularly welcoming environment. In some ways it’s a lot better now; there are so many brilliant charities helping people understand what refugees offer. They were displaced, but they bring with them a wealth of culture, expertise, talent, hope and stories, and it’s good for us to share these things.”
But at the same time, the 41-year-old is currently working on a new book that will address the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK, and the “culture of disbelief” that has been fostered among Home Office officials tasked with processing their applications. “Day by day,” she says, “the Home Office chips away at the spirit of the Geneva Convention. Thirty years ago asylum officers welcomed migrants and thought of it as a humanitarian duty. Now they’re looking for inconsistencies, and sending people back to places where they will be in danger.”
Yesterday the current British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced that the government planned to treat asylum seekers differently depending on how they came to the country and those who arrived “illegally” would be denied permanent leave to remain. The proposals were slammed by advocacy groups, with immigration lawyer and former refugee Kaweh Beheshtizadeh telling IranWire the plans were both “unlawful” and “unworkable”.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Dina Nayeri said of the remarks: "Priti Patel postures humanitarianism by making a distinction between ‘real’ refugees and criminals, then claiming to want to help the real ones, who arrived the right way, via the right route. This is a dangerous rhetorical ploy.
“Already, the assumption that asylum officers are qualified to judge the realness of a claim has led to documented abuses, to people being sent back into danger. When people run from death, they don't stop to plan their route. Running for your life is hasty and manic. It's chaos. You don't always control your path. If someone comes to your door and threatens to kill you, you run. Sometimes you run over a mountain, sometimes you run into the sea.
“Does that mean that Turkey and Greece should shoulder the entire refugee burden of Europe? Or do you expect people running for their lives to buy a plane ticket to the UK? Survivors don't deserve to live for months or years in squalid camps in Greece. Priti Patel is a hypocrite. Born to an immigrant family, she wants to roll up the ladder behind her. She is a cautionary tale for the soul."
By contrast, she says, charities like HostNation afford new arrivals a measure of dignity, and the opportunity to become part of life in the capital. “Iranians,” she says, “come from a culture in which you are proud of your place in the world; your job is so important. When people become refugees they lose everything. Accepting charity is already hard.
“Friendship is not based on someone giving their time to another person. It’s based on mutual curiosity and the desire to bring someone into your community. The time you spend with a refugee is part of your life, and it’s how they become a part of London, not an appendage to it.”