I am drawing together a series of articles about the refugee situation and what we might do about it, in a publication called Refugee Think Tank. This is in the hope of moving beyond the rants from both sides of the argument (for and against refugees), beyond myth-busting, and straight refugee reporting, to a fuller, nuanced, discussion and overview of the issues. We need to THINK about the worldwide refugee crisis because it is here to stay. If you would like to visit this collection you can do so here. Or you may wish to read my most recent article Moving beyond polarisation in the refugee debate, or how I changed my mind about the refugee situation. Or, if you would like to contribute an article yourself that you think will help the discussion please contact me here.
Are we taking our ‘fair share’ of refugees and asylum seekers, far too many, or far too few? Is the UK taking disproportionate responsibility relative to the rest of the world or to Europe?
This is perhaps the question that rages most on social media. Here are just a few examples of typical arguments taken from threads on social media:
JC: “It’s common sense, this country is a small island with too many people and we are overwhelmed.”
N.D. “The UK takes less asylum seekers than most other countries, we are way down the table.”
AB: “[We take less] than who!? Oh yes Germany, France and Spain. Who all voted for open borders and the UK did not! Get a map, compare the size of the UK against these countries. Do the sums.”
GM: “We are full to the brim. Britain is half the size of France with the same population.”
So who is right? How does the UK compare with other countries around the globe in terms of the number of asylum seekers who come to the UK (and refugees we approve), and is it fair?
According to UNHCR, as of mid-2021 (the latest statistics available), there were 135,912 refugees in the UK[i]. Using this figure, we can see that, to date, the UK has taken roughly 0.5% of the 27 million world’s refugees.
But is 0.5% more or less than our fair share? Finding an answer to this is reminiscent of the process once used by psychologists to try and fathom a person’s mental state. They would show someone an ink blot and ask what they saw. People saw a full range of things – monsters, dolphins, trees, fish, and so on, the possibilities were infinite. How they chose to look at the blot was meant to reveal more about them than anything inherent in the blot.
The criteria we select for determining how we look at our relative responsibility is all important to whatever conclusion is reached.
If we decide that our responsibility should be determined by our comparative wealth then we have, without doubt, taken less than our fair share of the world’s current refugees: the UK enjoys 3.26% of the world’s GDP[ii] which means on this criterion alone we are taking about one sixth of the numbers that we should.
Similarly, if we argue that we should take refugees in line with our population, on the basis that a larger population should be able to absorb greater numbers, then, again, we should be taking more. We have 0.85% of the world’s population (but are only taking 0.5% of the world’s refugees).
But some argue that a larger population means we should be taking less, rather than more, given that we have limited space. So, what happens if we consider our population density?
The UK occupies only 0.2% of the worlds land mass[iii] and ranks quite high: 50th out of 234 countries in terms of population density[iv]. So, if high population density is used to justify taking less asylum seekers, we are taking more than our fair share.
So far, we have looked at the number of refugees the UK has already approved relative to those approved by other countries in the world. But you can argue, as many do, that what is of most relevance is not so much the numbers historically over the past few years but what we are doing now, and, also, that the countries we should be comparing with should be countries similar to us in terms of location and culture. Specifically, we should be looking at the numbers of new asylum seekers granted status most recently, compared to other countries in Europe. This gives us a different ink blot to look at, and again, depending which way you look at it, different conclusions can be drawn.
Figure 1 compares the UK with 32 other European sovereign states using the number of asylum seekers given status in 2021, and different criteria.
Figure 1. How the UK compares with other European sovereign states according to numbers of asylum seekers given permission to remain in 2021.
|Absolute numbers||Asylum seekers/member of population||Asylum seekers/square mile||Factored for GDP/population||factored for Population density|
Source of raw statistics: Eurostat and UK office of National Statistics.
If you take absolute numbers alone, we were in fourth place behind Germany, France and Spain, quite high up in the table. But if you look at numbers taken per member of population, we were in 19th place – the UK has quite a high population relative to most countries in Europe so, arguably, should be taking a greater share of the responsibility. Doing the calculation by land mass we were in 11th place, just one place above France, which was 12th. This is because France, although geographically larger than us, took a lot more asylum seekers than us. Calculating it by GDP/population we came in at 20th in the table – we are relatively rich compared to most countries in Europe. Finally doing it by population density – we came in in 9th position – our relatively high population density can be used as an argument for us to take less.
These are similar results to when we compared Britain to the world. Our population size and relative wealth suggest that if fairness compared to other countries is our overriding criteria, we should be taking more responsibility than we are, but our relatively small geographical size, and population density, factor the other way.
So, how do we resolve this dilemma? By now it should be obvious this isn’t a simple matter – we have to decide first which numbers to compare. Should we be comparing the numbers of refugees in the UK or the number of recent asylum seekers? Should we be comparing with the rest of the world or just with Europe? And on what basis should we compare the UK to other countries: actual numbers, by population, landmass, population density, GDP, or what?
Many people in the debate settle on just one of the criteria and use this to justify the conclusion they have already reached. So, if you want less asylum seekers you could argue using the criteria of population density, and comparing the UK to Europe. If you want to justify taking more asylum seekers then use the criteria of our relative wealth. The ink blot remains the same but people can give it whatever interpretation they want.
An additional problem with selecting just one criterion is that, in extremis, it leads to ridiculous conclusions. Noone in their right minds is suggesting all asylum seekers should be sent to Iceland (the European country with the lowest population density) and only once its density is brought up to the level of the second least densely populated country should the second country be considered. Nor are they arguing that all asylum seekers should be sent to the US until such a time as that country is no longer the richest. It makes no sense to apply one criterion alone. But if we argue for some package of criteria then we hit the difficulty of how to weight them relative to each other. For instance, should we give more weight to population density or wealth, or should we give equal weight to every factor? We are not comparing like with like here. The factors are very different and their relative importance remains a matter of opinion.
Does this mean, therefore, that we have reached a dead end and that the question of how many asylum seekers we should take can never be resolved? No, I don’t think so, it just means we have been asking the wrong question.
Let’s go back and look at the original question: are we taking our fair share? We can see that there are a couple of underlying assumptions. First, in introducing the concept of fairness there is an implication that taking asylum seekers is necessarily onerous – otherwise why would it need to be shared out equally between countries using some concept of fairness? This in itself is a value judgement and overlooks the possibility that taking more asylum seekers may be of net benefit (or of benefit to some countries and less so to others). Second, the question assumes that comparison is a good basis for deriving ethical decisions.
Consider the following situation: you are standing with a group of people by the side of a lake. Suddenly you become aware of a child drowning, in deep water, a few feet away. Do you plunge in and save them, or do you stand on the bank, looking around and thinking: ‘it isn’t fair that I should be the one to go’? Most people would just plunge in. Most people are strongly motivated to help. Moral imperatives rise up from some place within them, irrespective of what others are doing, and in a situation like this, most people’s first impulse is to help.
The danger of comparing ourselves with others as a basis for deciding what to do, is that nobody takes a moral lead and collective standards fall. If everyone on the bank was using comparison as a basis for deciding what to do, inaction would result and the child drown. In comparing ourselves to others we sacrifice our agency to make our own moral decisions based on our own situation and our own capacity.
In 2015 the refugee crisis saw hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers escaping from Syria. Most of the nearby countries looked on in dismay without knowing what to do. They discussed whether or not they could afford to help or house these people, whether there would be work for them, whether it was their responsibility, and so on. They remained paralysed in uncertainty. But at a press conference Angela Merkel famously expressed her optimism in the simple words “We can do this!” The rest is history. Germany ended up taking almost a million asylum seekers at that time. In making her decision Angela Merkel did not compare Germany’s response to that of other countries. To have done so would have perpetuated the impasse, and Germany would have ended up taking far fewer asylum seekers in line with everyone else. She did not wait, in confusion on the bank, nervously watching everyone else. She took the moral lead, jumped in and rescued.
But wait a minute. There is an important caveat to our analogy of the group and the drowning child. What if you are unable to swim and know that in attempting to save the child you could drown yourself? In this case you are weighing up your own survival with that of the child and it puts a whole new slant on what to do. If you decide to go out of your depth and attempt save the child you could both die as a result.
So, could survival fears be a factor in the reluctance of many UK citizens to exercise greater tolerance towards asylum seekers and are they of relevance in deciding how many asylum seekers to take?
Consider the following recent comments on social media:
NS “These people won’t get a penny from me. I’m looking after an orphan and can’t even pay for a new fridge now that the last one is broken. Charity begins at home.”
AW: “So fair enough, but who’s going to pay for them, house them, feed them, educate them? Where’s the money coming from? What about refugees using the NHS that they have never contributed to? The cost of living has sky rocketed. Where is the money coming from?”
AH “The sooner they get it [deporting people to Rwanda] started the better. Our NHS and housing stock can’t cope with the population we already have.”
These types of comments and many others like them are frequent on social media. It is clear many people in the UK do now worry about how they are going to meet their basic needs. Those that are low paid or on benefits fear an influx of asylum seekers will further compromise a welfare state already stretched to breaking point. If they are in work, particularly low paid work, and work that is contractually insecure, they fear an influx of asylum seekers will undermine what remains of their employee rights and conditions, and lead to lower pay. Worse, they fear they will lose their jobs to asylum seekers, or become homeless on account of increased pressure on the housing supply and rising rents and mortgages. If they become ill, they fear the extra demands placed on the NHS will further compromise its ability to treat them. In short, they have many anxieties about the future.
There is good evidence of a link between such anxieties and intolerance of immigration. A survey of Brexit voters found that only 14% thought that immigration was a ‘force for good’ compared to 57% of remain voters. The Brexit supporters were also found to be much more pessimistic about their own economic prospects than the Remainers.[v]
Similarly, a study of the fluctuating European economies found that anti-immigrant sentiments increased in countries where perceptions of economic insecurity also increased, and anti-immigrant sentiments decreased in countries where perceptions[vi] of economic insecurity declined.[vii]
For those with genuine survival fears it may, of course, be easier to fall back on arguments relating to how the UK compares, than to make embarrassing admissions about finding it hard to cope. But by including survival fears in the debate, we shift the analysis to a different realm. It becomes a question of capacity: of how many asylum seekers we collectively feel we can cope with, rather than the cruder question of how we compare with other countries.
Of course, to stretch the drowning child analogy, even if you don’t swim, it may be possible to help a drowning child without going out of your depth. Perhaps making the rescue won’t in fact be life threatening. Perhaps successfully rescuing the child will become a valid source of pride in yourself and what you have done so courageously. Perhaps the dangers have become exaggerated from the perspective of the bank.
Or perhaps they haven’t. Deciding whether greater tolerance towards asylum seekers, risks the way of life, livelihood and survival of UK residents, or whether it can be done in a way that might actually be of net benefit, are complex questions. There is evidence, however, that a major source of support for far-right parties in Europe has been the fear that immigration will erode welfare state benefits, housing and employment opportunities and that far-right parties have postulated a link between economic hardship and migration as a means of inciting populist fervour. Immigrants and refugees are presented as a net tax burden, out-competing existing residents for jobs and housing, making demands on public services, and reducing public resources. Such representations may well have been effective in shifting public opinion: when the welfare state is smaller as a proportion of GDP people are more likely to be hostile to immigrants.[viii] Support for anti-immigration parties has also been shown to be highly responsive to perceived scarcity resulting from immigrant receipt of ‘in-kind benefits’ such as health care, housing, child care and education.[ix] The accuracy, or not, of blaming asylum seekers for impacts on such benefits, and the economy generally, requires separate analysis beyond the scope of this article.
But for now, we can draw some conclusions. For those advocating a greater tolerance towards asylum seekers in the UK it is important not to fall into the trap of glossing over people’s genuine fears. It is all too easy to think that people’s resistance to asylum seekers is a simple case of racism or xenophobia. Clearly it is for some, but for many the roots of their intolerance lie in genuine anxieties. In playing ‘the race card’ those advocating greater tolerance run the risk of simply antagonising those that they are trying to persuade and inflaming the argument. A better strategy is to properly listen to people’s fears and anxieties and to support policies that ensure the survival needs of all citizens in the UK are met: decent housing and education for all, improved health care, a reasonable living wage, proper employee rights for those in work, and training and sufficient benefits for those that aren’t.
And, you might ask, how should this be done, who is going to pay for it?
Let us end with one last familiar statistic: the 2021 Census revealed that the top 10% of households in the UK now hold 43% of all the wealth whilst the bottom 50% hold only 9%.[x] It seems reasonable to deduce from this than an effective way of encouraging a broader based tolerance of asylum seekers, would be to redistribute wealth from the very rich into the welfare state.
It is not clear how the UNHCR derived this statistic because it is unclear when exactly a refugee is considered no longer a refugee through becoming a citizen. Problematically the process of redefining refugees differs from country to country.
[v] Source: Lord Ashcroft Polls, 21–23 June 2016. See also The politics of social status: economic and cultural roots of the populist right Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hall/files/gidronhallbjs2017.pdf
[vi] In contrast, changes in objective economic conditions (i.e. unemployment rates) during the same period of time did not display the expected effects in a similarly robust way.
[vii] Kuntz et al 2017. The dynamic relations between economic conditions and anti-immigrant sentiment: A natural experiment in times of the European economic crisis. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020715217690434
[viii] Hatton, T. 2016. Immigration, public opinion, and the recession in Europe. Economic Policy, 31: 205–246.
[ix] Cavaille, C., & Ferwerda, J. 2017. How distributional conflict over public spending drives support for anti-immigrant parties. Unpublished paper, Georgetown University
Over 10,000 asylum seekers have crossed the channel so far this year, including over 1,000 since the Rwandan threat was announced in mid-April. Indeed, numbers arriving in the UK via the channel are significantly higher this year compared with 2021 and there is no evidence that people are being put off.
So why is this? The answer isn’t obvious.
I was recently involved in conducting a survey of the migrants here in Calais on behalf of Care4Calais, one of two refugee charities my wife and I have been volunteering for over the past few weeks.
We asked the migrants if they had heard about the Rwandan proposal. All had. We asked what they thought of it. All thought it was de-humanising, merciless, cruel, evil even. One Sudanese man had lived in Rwanda and knew it to be an unsafe, dangerous, country … an opinion endorsed by Amnesty International, and even the Home Office who, tellingly, have accepted asylum seekers from Rwanda. We then asked our interviewees if they were still trying to reach the UK. All but one said that they were. They were undeterred. Finally we asked: ‘But why? Why have you not been put off? We weren’t able to get any clear answers. Strangely they seemed unable to even entertain this question.
To understand why the Rwandan threat won’t work, and isn’t working, we need to understand the context of the people trying to cross the channel. There are about 1,500 migrants in total around Calais, and nearby Dunkirk, Since the violent dissolution of ‘the jungle’ a few years ago they are spread out in a number of make-shift camps. The camps are in a constant state of flux – with numbers changing up and down as people succeed in getting to the UK, or are turned back, or as new migrants arrive. Some elect to apply for permission to stay in France but the majority are attempting to cross the channel. The camps are mostly divided according to country of origin – for example there is a camp of Eritreans in one place, Sudanese in another, Kurds, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians in others. We only met two Ukrainians – as they have alternative, difficult but safer, routes to the UK. Every few days the camps are routinely broken up by the CRS – a heavily armed branch of the French police, sometimes violently. They force the migrants away from the sites, usually just a short distance but occasionally bussing them many miles to other parts of France where they are dumped. Either way they usually come straight back. These guys are determined to reach the UK.
All the main migrant groups originate from unsafe countries where life can be unimaginably difficult. Eritreans are routinely imprisoned or killed by the tyrannous regime there if they speak out against it, or follow an outlawed religion. The same is true for Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The Kurds don’t even have a country to return to – the four countries they mostly reside in are all hostile to them. Sudan has an ongoing religious and ethnic war. The UK home office accepts that there is a danger of persecution in all of these regions because it grants refugee status to some of those who get to the UK. So, the migrants in and around Calais are not just economic migrants – as the government might have us believe – they may have economic reasons too, but primarily they are there because the conditions in their home country are intolerable.
Most too have endured terrible journeys, often taking many months, if not years, to get to Calais. Along the way they experience significant hardships and dangers. Many have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean. Many come via Libya- a country known for imprisoning migrants in forced labour camps and killing those who try to escape. Other routes into Europe can be equally difficult. For instance, the border from Serbia to Croatia, where, if caught, the migrants are routinely beaten up or tortured by the Croatian police before being turned back to try again.
Migrants that succeed in getting to the Calais region are just the tip of the iceberg – the vast majority of those trying to get to the UK never get that far. We know that most asylum seekers end up in third world countries, and most end up, also, in countries bordering their country of origin. So the ones that get to the Calais region, who are mostly young men, are the toughest, and most determined. It would be misleading to call them lucky, however, because by the time they arrive they are mostly destitute, exhausted and traumatised … but still determined to reach the UK.
There are two main strategies for getting to the UK. First is to pay for a boat crossing. This is about £2,500 per person usually for a better boat, and often it’s arranged in the home country (e.g. by relatives), or £1,500 for a boat arranged in France – not usually such good quality. The smugglers mostly operate from the home country – I was told they would take the first £2000 before the migrant sets out, and then have a middleman in Calais who would take £500 for arranging the boat etc. So the big fish, as it were, are out of reach for the most part (not that I consider smugglers to be evil terrorists). Once a boat is arranged and filled, the middleman abandons the migrants to make their own way across the channel in the dark, as best they can. They know the boat is non-recoverable and don’t want to be associated. One morning in Calais we saw a group of people in a layby near the beach, surrounded by police. We think their boat had floundered on account of the engine breaking down – so they had had to come back to France. France, of course, is not keen to have them back, so, presumably, only intervenes with those who flounder.
The other method for getting to the UK, for those with insufficient money, is to jump on a lorry – options for jumping on a train or boat have largely been closed down on account of a huge investment, paid for by the UK, of tall razor wire fences all around the port and tunnel. Jumping a lorry has also become much harder – as lorries now have secure places in which to park, so this now has to be done whilst they are moving. I was told that a common method to do this is to jump the lorry at the point that is turning, say at a roundabout. The aim is to get into the gap between the cab and the trailer part of the lorry. One problem with this technique is that the migrant has to move each time the lorry changes direction. If they fail to do this, they get crushed. Many do get injured, sometimes fatally. We saw several people on crutches as testimony to this and I understand, from a previous visit to Calais that there is a hospital there with one ward devoted to caring for migrants with head injuries.
Once the migrant has successfully got on the lorry their next worry is whether or not the lorry is actually going to the UK. If it does not turn off towards the port then their usual strategy is to bang on the cab roof. Most lorry drivers then stop – at which point the migrant runs off. When a driver does not stop the next step is to use a knife to cut through some of the cables connecting the front and back of the lorry – forcing the driver to stop – and affording another opportunity to run. If, instead, the lorry turns towards the UK then the migrant uses the knife to try and cut a hole into the back part of the lorry and slip inside. Even this is just the start of the process because there are heat sensors and dogs at the borders to locate stowaways. It is a wonder that anyone makes it this way, but many do. Migrants also use any other means they can to hitch a ride. Once, when we got back from the supermarket after collecting groceries, I opened the back of the van to find a Sudanese man hiding there. He had somehow slipped in un-noticed. So clever, and I hated to disappoint him.
Migrants around Calais want to reach the UK, specifically, for various reasons. Most importantly many have friends or relatives in the UK. Another is that they speak English. Some also believe that it will be easier to survive unofficially in the UK, as the UK doesn’t require identity cards. There is also still a terrible myth, believed by some, that Britain is a land of milk and honey with equal opportunities for all…
But none of these reasons are sufficient to explain why people are still attempting to reach the UK even now, despite the huge risks, and the Rwandan threat.
I think the main explanation is psychological. The migrants reaching Calais have already taken huge risks to try and make their lives better. It has become an obsession to reach the UK, almost like a game. Indeed at least twice I heard people referring to it as a game, and the migrants on the Serbia/Croatian border routinely refer to it as ‘the game’. They are gamblers to the core with determination hardened by adversity. Moreover, their experience of being alive has been so difficult thus far, that they have less to lose, and less attachment than most westerners to staying alive. They are not going to be deterred by anything now and are solely concerned with reaching the UK, having sacrificed so much already.
This is a version of ‘the sunk cost fallacy’ – a problem that gamblers have. Once they have lost a lot of money, they can’t stop gambling, they have to keep going, in the hope recovering all their investment by making good in the end. For migrants having got this far the possibility of success, however slim, is too much to sacrifice. Moreover, their courage in getting this far has become a badge of honour and part of their identity.
The migrants around Calais have lost pretty much everything in their attempt to reach the UK. Most importantly they had to leave their family and friends behind. Many were also sponsored by their relatives to try and succeed in the west in order to send money back. So, their families were gambling too, and have invested heavily in them being successful. And, like all gamblers, the migrants highlight their successes thus far – and there is indeed some truth for them in this, for they are indeed amongst the very small proportion, of those who set out, who have made it thus far. They know, too, of other migrants who have successfully reached the UK ahead of them. To expect them to turn back at this stage is akin to asking someone 99 percent of the way up Everest to turn back because the weather looks like it might turn nasty.
For these reasons the proposal to deport these desperate, traumatised, people to Rwanda isn’t only cruel, it also displays a profound ignorance by the British Government of the true situation and context. The migrants around Calais are not primarily economic migrants, as portrayed. They are determined gamblers who will never give up their attempt to try and find salvation for themselves and their families.
As such, this sadistic policy, if it goes ahead, will fail in its stated intention of deterring migrants.
What makes the policy all the more contemptible is that there is an easy and merciful solution to stopping the dangerous channel crossings. Just allow migrants a legitimate way to claim asylum in the UK, as is their right under the 1951 UN refugee convention. Once properly assessed if they don’t have a valid claim to asylum then they could be sent home – but if they do then we could show some mercy and allow them to stay.
I remember a long time ago being brought to tears by a (probably apocryphal) tale about one of Canada’s airports. Apparently when people were queueing at passport control a voice on the tannoy announced “Will all asylum seekers please come to the front of the queue … we know you have had a difficult journey.” They then went on to offer them accommodation, support and employment. If only the UK might show such compassion.
Butterflies must be unafraid of death. It's just one more transition.
A man with eyes that fear
they won’t be met
enters the tube.
stand clear of the doors..
‘Sorry to ask,
sorry about this,
can any of you give me change
or some food?’
We stare at our smart phones.
Careful to avoid connection.
Even by reflection.
He moves slowly down the carriage
as the train hurtles,
through solid rock.
Arriving at the rear doors,
he waits, empty handed,
studying the cracks
in the sliding floor,
waiting for the train to stop
All change here,
Mind the gap.
May it be so.
This being alive- existing, somehow conscious: such deep mystery.
It's hard to believe there's another planet as beautiful as ours.
No insight is mine: wisdom is impersonal.. of the tranquil lake.
Look at the grandeur of our creation and know: there's nothing to fear.
So odd … but enough:
There are thoughts and sensations …
A great miracle!
Finding empathy for those without empathy: Love's greatest challenge.
Degree in Universe Creation
In this cosmically renowned course students will receive comprehensive tuition in the theory and practice of universe creation.
Prior degrees are needed in:
- Advanced manipulation of paradoxes
- Reverse causality.
The course is divided into 5 sections as follows:
Students will be provided with thorough grounding in the underlying variables and laws of all known universes and their selection and fine-tuning to achieve desired outcomes.
Students are required to achieve full mastery of fundamentals before proceeding further.
2. Elements of Design
You will be instructed on how to balance competing design interests such as sustainability, variability, grandeur, diversity, and the prerequisites for the emergence and evolution of consciousness.
For universes designed for the emergence of consciousness ethical consideration is be given to
- Whether to keep higher intelligences regionally separate/unaware of each other.
- Balancing joy and suffering (and reasons for the latter)
- Whether, and how, to foster an illusion of free will.
- Whether or not the creator should self-reveal and/or intervene.
4. Optional Studies
Following successful completion of the parts 1-3 you will select any two of the following:
- The history of known universes
- Time creation, reversal and looping, and how to imply directional travel.
- Simulations – how to hide them, and the debate as to whether or not we ourselves are in a simulation or in base reality.
- Cross hatching the very large and the very small
- Prolonged placement as a passive observer in an existing universe.
5. Designing your own universe and its assessment
Finally, students must design and release their own unique universe. Final marks are awarded according to its ultimate performance as measured against preliminary outcome goals.
Successful Qualification will enable graduates to apply for post graduate courses in multiverse design and the retrospective adjustment of our own universe.
300 words including title
Hope Springs Eternal.
All my life I’ve jumped to stay in the light, because everything is eaten in the darkness behind, even the sun.
I’m of the jumping species. Our legs are long, muscular, our jumps huge. Most of us jump in the middle of our land, where it’s warm. We don’t rest until our shadows are safely in front, sun on our backs.
Ahead are the new lands where mothers press forwards to have babies, and farmers plant seeds. It’s a beautiful thing to approach the frozen land being born there from the black mist.
Behind us are the last lands, where our fittest harvest crops, then bring them to us. It’s also where the sick pass into the darkness and this is where I am now, though I am not sick.
They say that there are swallowing tubes in the darkness, with sharp teeth.
The love of my life tripped and broke his leg, his scream was a deep stab in my heart. He cannot jump so we’re slipping towards the darkness. Many have pleaded with me to abandon him, as is the way. He too, beseeches me to save myself. But that is not my way.
I’ve tied a splint around his leg and I’ve been hoarding food and stacking wood for a fire. I’ve heard the tubes are frightened of light and there’s a theory that the land may curve round in a circle like our sun and moons. This seems absurd, but even as the sky becomes darker and the air icy, I have to hope. Maybe if we can live long enough, we can emerge again in the new lands, with my love’s leg healed.
It’s dark now so I have lit our fire. All around we hear munching …
300 words with title.
Sunday. Henry hopes to relax, but his wife, never one to be contradicted, dispatches him with instructions to buy ‘robin’s egg blue’ so he can repaint the living room. Last Sunday was ‘whispering peach’ in the bedroom, the one before ‘bruised apricot’, in the cellar. Their large house, like the Forth bridge, affords no rest from her fashion-obsessed repainting zeal.
It’s a hot summer’s day as he steps out and Henry is overtaken by a compelling urge to rest on a bench in front of some red roses before proceeding.
Moments later he’s asleep and with sudden deja-vu, arrives inside the universe’s ‘Parameters Control Centre’: a vast sphere covered in all directions with switches, dials, levers.
Here too is the facilitator: “Welcome Henry, take a moment to recall things. Dissatisfaction brings you back. As part of a randomly selected experimental group of ‘users’ you’re invited again to adjust the universe’s design. What would you like to change this time? Perhaps you’d like to slow the earth’s rotation so days are longer, move it fractionally from the sun and make things cooler, eradicate a disease, introduce a new animal … but, as ever, I caution care … everything has consequences, sometimes retrospectively…”
Henry concentrates, recalling the morning’s events: “I’d like to eradicate colour”.
“Are you sure… it could be tricky…”
The facilitator reluctantly leads him to a switch surrounded by coloured dials. “This switch in the middle eradicates colour. These dials around tweak colours, they might represent a more cautious approach…”
But Henry impulsively pulls the switch, and wakes, forgetting everything.
In front of him is a grey rose, and, in his hand, instructions to buy ‘grey 1039, and 30 rolls of masking tape’. How he hates her obsession with geometric patterns….
I've tried to accept my many imperfections: so imperfectly.
- Contact a refugee hosting organisation for advice and support. A good one in the Thames Valley area is Sanctuary Hosting: https://sanctuaryhosting.org/ . There are other hosting organisations, both regional and national throughout the UK.
- Consult your whole household in advance to make sure everyone is happy to host (including children) before deciding to go for it.
- Initially it is very helpful to establish ground rules (e.g. whether the guest can have a key, how to lock up, can they have visitors/relatives to stay or visit, do they need to be in by a certain time, should they tell you if they aren’t coming back at night, what cooking arrangements/sharing meals you want, what you expect from them in terms of cleaning up, can they use the phone/computer/fridge/TV etc. It is helpful also to set an outside limit on how long you are willing for them to stay (start with a trial period – you can always extend it if you decide to). Clarity up front saves a lot of problems later.
- If the person doesn’t speak much English, then use translating devices (e.g. google translate – often helpful although not fool-proof!) and, if at all possible, line up an interpreter you can contact by phone in case there is a major thing that needs translating. When speaking to someone with limited English speak slowly using simple words (this may sound obvious but some people just raise their voices). Do keep checking the person understands (many nod when they don’t). Don’t nod politely yourself if you don’t understand.
- Don’t be afraid to ask basic questions – e.g. how do I pronounce your name, when/how do you like to eat, are there foods you can’t eat, is there anything about you living here we need to know about, how should I greet you etc. Almost all placements have misunderstandings and some break down as a result- so address tensions by discussion rather than by making assumptions. It is fine to be curious though some guests want to talk about their trauma and some don’t. You may need to set a time aside for those that do (so that it doesn’t flood out your lives), and respect those that don’t. They have their reasons, it isn’t personal to you, and they may come round to it. Be aware that they will probably have had many officials asking them to go through the details of what has happened to them. It can be re-traumatising to keep going over this and they may feel obliged to do so with you even though they don’t want to. So be sensitive to whether people want to talk about their experiences or not (despite how curious you may be!)
- If at all possible, give the guest their own room and don’t enter it without invitation. People usually need time to build trust and feel safer, and having their own space helps with this. They may be nervy around big noises.
- Avoid rash promises – ‘you can stay indefinitely’, ‘I’ll pay your legal costs’, ‘I’ll always be here for you’.
- Be aware of cultural differences – e.g. some meats may be taboo, vegetarianism may be incomprehensible, a surprising number of refugees are frightened of pets, including cats and small dogs, some may want to wear the veil, some may be appalled at nakedness or scanty dressing, some may not say please and thank you (though this doesn’t mean they aren’t grateful). Some guests may assume gender inequality around household tasks (so this may need to be addressed in your ground rules). Guests may need help with public transport and reassurance about our police and the local area.
- Keep clear boundaries. You don’t need to be a bottomless pit of generosity – there are other resources out there. It isn’t a crime to say you need separate time for yourself/your family.
- If possible, ask a wise friend to be there for you with support if you hit difficult patches.
- Think about resources in the community and how you can support refugees to access these, e.g., GP, schools etc. It can be helpful to enable your guest to connect with others from their culture/language group. But be aware that there can be subcultures who may not want to mix! Depending on your guest, it may be useful to find out about any religious groups who meet (for example, thinking of Ukrainians, there may be churches who host orthodox services, house churches), where is the nearest place they might be able to buy familiar foods? This may seem a small thing but can be a significant source of comfort.
- Do not under any circumstances give legal advice (it is in any case illegal to do so unless you are qualified) Immigration law is now extremely complex and constantly changing and the wrong advice can have disastrous consequences. Try to connect the guest to a good immigration solicitor (they are hard to find) or a relevant advice centre.
- Remember it isn’t all one way. Do accept, if at all possible, gestures of kindness such as offers to help around the house and garden, cooking meals etc. Hosting someone can be a rich symbiotic experience and moving lifelong friendships can result.
This list is not exhaustive, do contact me (email@example.com) with any suggestions you may have or write in the comments below.
My wife, Janet, and I, have just finished a short stay at a project called ‘Community First’, in Austin, Texas. Over the years we have visited many inspiring projects around the world, but this has been the most inspiring.
Community First is a 51 acre development that provides affordable, permanent housing, and a supportive community, for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness. Residents are given their own ‘tiny house’ to live in. Some of these have shared kitchens and toilets, but all have everything needed to live comfortably.
Since 2015 nearly 400 people have been housed in this way and there are plans for a further 1,500 in the not-too-distant future. Sitting outside our B & B tiny house one morning we saw lorries arrive with 3 more tiny homes. An average of 10 new people are being housed every month. This is housing the homeless on an industrial scale.
It needs to be on this scale because Austin has a huge homeless problem. Street counts have identified that around 3,000 people sleep rough in the region every night. Of these about 70% have a disability. You see them everywhere around Austin, under subways and bridges, huddled in the freezing cold round makeshift fires, on benches, holding begging placards at traffic lights, in flimsy tents, yards from the freeways, some are in wheelchairs, or on crutches. Of course, these are just the ones that are visible. One recent estimate suggests there are actually more like 10,000 people homeless here. That’s 1 person out of every hundred residents.
Community First has an approach unlike anything I’ve seen in the UK. Homeless people are given a place to live for life … and 80% stay. There is no talk of ‘move on’. Indeed the 80% statistic is given with pride. This is about solving the problem, once and for all, by providing people with a decent home. And the tiny houses are decent. They are beautiful, clean, purpose-built (often to the specifications of the new resident), attractive. I’d be glad to live in one myself.
Some of the newest tiny houses have even been printed using 3D printers!
Giving people a home for life is a radically different approach from most homeless provisions where the emphasis is on moving people on as quickly as possible into ‘independent living’. As a result, many people end up prematurely living alone in decrepit accommodation, in poor areas, without adequate support, or community. Unable to sustain this type of independence things quickly get out of hand and many, perhaps most, end up on the street again. This is the ‘revolving door syndrome’. The preoccupation with moving people on is partly rationalised by a shortage of resources – if you move someone on you can move someone else in. But I think it may also be rooted in our misguided judgements about ‘dependence’. The goal is to get people independent. But we are none of us independent, no one can live in isolation, it’s a myth. We are inter-dependent.
One of the most astonishing things about Community First is the way in which everyone inter-relates. Community is prioritised (the clue’s in the project’s name!). This recognises that homelessness isn’t about not having a roof over your head. Homelessness is about not having anyone to turn to. Most people if they lost their home, through some unfortunate event, can turn to friends or family for help. Homeless people become homeless because they don’t have that. So, at Community First, every attempt is made to give them what they lack and to build a loving community.
On our first evening we were invited to join a ‘stone soup’ (a soup made up of contributions brought by everyone). We brought along our tin of beans and were immediately greeted by around 20 people – residents, staff, and volunteers. All of them warm and welcoming and being nice to us as we supped our soup together. It was a huge soothing balm to the heart. This kind of warmth and friendliness persisted throughout our stay, not just directed at us, we observed it everywhere. People greeting each other in the streets, waving from their cars, stopping to talk, smiling, sitting together, giving each other time and all with an apparent tolerance for a florid range of character difference. Homeless people are not defined by their problems here but respected as individuals in their own right. The prevalence of alcoholism and drug addiction amongst the homeless is seen as symptomatic of being homeless rather than a cause of it and something that can be transcended in the context of a good supportive community.
None of this rich community feel felt artificial or false. So how come? How was this happening? One reason might be that fostering community is a high priority amongst staff and volunteers. There is a high ratio of staff and volunteers to ex-homeless residents and they value the community as much as the residents do. The ex-homeless residents recognise and value the importance of community because many congregated together, when homeless, out of necessity, and all know the distress of feeling totally alone. Another reason for the communal feel may be that there is a background christian ethos – though at no point did we see anyone being evangelical and residents are accepted whatever their faith.
One of our volunteering activities at Community First was working on the farm there, run by the residents for the residents (there are weekly handouts of produce). We talked to one of the residents there and asked her how it had been for her to live at Community First. She said simply:
‘It changed my life. I would probably have committed suicide otherwise.’ Then she added: ‘When I first arrived they showed me the home they were giving me. They had prepared it specially for me. It had a new bed, a new sofa, a new microwave … everything new. I could not believe this. I had never had anything new in my life! I kept asking: what’s the catch? They said: there’s no catch. I couldn’t believe that. They said: all you have to do is pay the rent. Then they said but we can help with that too – we can give you a job, if you want, that will pay the rent! I said: you will give me a job as well? This I can’t believe! What’s the catch? … but I found out over time there is no catch … this place has been my salvation.’
Not all the residents work. The rent, which is low, can be paid out of benefits so there’s no pressure to work, though many do. Indeed, many appreciate being able to. There are varied opportunities including cleaning and repairing the facilities, landscaping, gardening, running the shop, ferrying people around, looking after over 100 chickens, a pottery, an art studio, a garage, a state of the art aquaponics facility (I kid you not).
Some also work in jobs outside the village.
Staff and volunteers are also available to help the residents in many different ways. This includes psychiatric help, counselling, mediation, a medical centre, 12 step programs, help with money management and medication regimes.
There are also many opportunities for fun activities together – with an open-air cinema, weekly ‘open mike’ sessions, sports facilities, places to go and be quiet, or to meet with others. Indeed, the project is lavish in its facilities … yurts, tipis, a large geodesic dome (growing bananas!), sculptures, flower beds, a recreational pond, communal kitchens, toilets, launderettes, showers, meeting areas, and of course the myriad range of nicely painted tiny houses and RVs – all of them apparently kept to a very high standard. All of this must have cost a fortune, of course, and most of the money came from private benefactors.
Which raises the question as to whether something similar could be set up elsewhere, such as in the UK. I believe there is justification for it. But could we afford to do this?
I think the answer is that we cannot afford not to! There is now a good body of evidence (e.g., see ‘Utopia for Realists’ by Ruger Bregman) to suggest that the associated costs of keeping people homeless (social services, police, courts, health and other support services, etc) far outweighs the cost of housing them. In Utah, for instance, where they are aiming to eradicate homelessness completely, the cost of keeping someone homeless has been estimated to be around £12,200 per year, whereas the cost of housing them with support, was a modest £8,090. A substantial saving! Utah is on track to end homelessness and in the process saving themselves a fortune. An analysis in Florida yielded similar conclusions – a person living on the streets costs around £31,630 whereas housing them with support costs: £12,500. In Holland starting in 2006 an ambitious plan costing £160 million aimed to get all homeless people off the streets in major Dutch cities. It was an unmitigated success – after just four years 6,500 homeless people had been brought off the streets, drug use was down by half and park benches were finally vacant. And, to top it off, the financial returns proved double the initial investment. That’s to say that for every pound spent by the state, 2 were saved to the state. Housing homeless people saves money.
So, in my view, Community First is a shining example of what is possible. It’s a viable model that not only works abundantly well but makes sense on economic as well as humanitarian grounds. All we have to do is implement it.
We can end homelessness.
There is a solution to this problem.
A short story
Luzkziilt has been summoned by his tutor, Ree&ens, to come and discuss his project universe. His constitution vibrates at high frequency as he approaches. It’s highly unusual for Ree&ens to invite anyone into her domain for a discussion. Those few students she does interact with she corresponds with by electricity, pulsing out a few pointers, a grade, and details of their next project. Something out of the ordinary must have prompted this.
Ree&ens is legendary for her work with parallel hierarchy universes and asymmetric time reversal. Her calendar is so packed with high level consultations and teaching engagements she has virtually no capacity for personal meetings. It could only mean one of two things: either she’s going to congratulate him for his brilliance, or he is in for some serious criticism, perhaps even a fail … and she isn’t known for suffering fools gladly.
In the time he’s been waiting, though, Luzkziilt has cultivated a cautious hope that she might in fact be wanting to commend him and tell him that his universe is brilliant. He’s more than a little pleased with it himself. It’s certainly … unusual. He’s taken risks, for sure, and done some thinking outside the box, broken a few rules, yes, but isn’t that what creativity is about? Surely there’s no doubting the grandeur of his universe, its aesthetic beauty, the fascinating way it is evolving, particularly in its life forms.
But as Luzkziilt reaches the portal into Ree&ens his hopes are dashed immediately. In the tradition of a dominant god, the landscape around Ree&ens, her domain, is a manifestation of her emotional state and one look at it tells him he’s in deep trouble. There’s nothing living in her domain at all. Just black mountains of frozen methane and a screaming yellow sulphur sky. She must have found serious fault with his work. Her disembodied, all-surrounding voice commands his entry. ‘Enter Luzkziilt.’
Luzkziilt floats through the portal, guarding from view the full extent of his fear and disappointment.
Alarmingly she cuts straight to the chase: ‘Your universe: is cruel.’ Her voice is cold. Luzkziilt inhales space deeply and slows down his local experience of time ‘… Why so?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
Luzkziilt stays silent, not wanting to participate in a guessing game.‘You haven’t shown yourself as creator.’
Luzkziilt feels his own thought processes narrow into a reactive defence: ‘Well yes I … I wanted to …’
‘But it goes against everything I’ve taught you! It ignores my primary ethical principles of universe design.’
‘I know. I know…’ Luzkziilt searches for a way to respond, aware that it is paramount that he remains calm. ‘I … I did not want to just follow rules. I wanted to be creative … and I wanted my universe to be creative too, to be different. I wanted to see how life would evolve in mystery. How it would be if it did not have any authority to conform to, or rebel against. So many universes have floundered in those reactions. Look at Frusciya 179 and Vntacha 8Q2. He is siting the two universes often quoted as the extreme examples that students are meant to steer a course between: Frusciya for its conformity – a universe so plentiful and risk-free that the life forms there never question anything … they are all adoringly compliant and banal with hardly a brain cell to toss between them; and Vntacha 8Q2, in contrast, a harsh and dramatic universe, renowned for its unpredictable extinction events and for its rebellious life forms – who used their very advanced technology first to destroy whole sections of their universe in protest at their creators, and then finally succeeding in destroying everything in a mass imploding suicide.
‘… I wanted my life forms to have nothing explicit to react against.’ Luzkziilt continues nervously. ‘I wanted them to write their own stories, find their own rules, their own ethics.’
Intense orange lights flare through Ree&ens as she digests this. Then turn from orange to an icy blue: ‘So, as I feared, you did it deliberately! I hoped, perhaps, it was a glaring oversight …. Can’t you see how much suffering this has caused? Life needs direction, guidance. It needs answers. Keeping life in this – mystery –as you call it, causes untold ignorance and suffering.
Luzkziilt struggles again with his defensiveness before answering. ‘but there are life forms in my universe that are evolving differently, that have developed some interesting … perspectives and stories of their own creation.’
‘Give me a random example?’ Ree&ens demands reluctantly.
Luzkziilt calls up a random example and a virtual earth appears. The two of them study the planet for a short period absorbing four billion rotations of the planet around its sun, the geological shifts and final development of life. Then for a tiny flick of time they assess the entire story of the dominant species.
Ree&ens is the first to speak: ‘Exactly as I feared: that species, like many others I’ve looked at in your universe, is sub-optimal. Look at their greed, their violence, their wars, their unnecessary suffering. They are self-obsessed, some of them even kill themselves when they’re still healthy. They haven’t even learnt to feed their whole species. How can you say this isn’t cruel?’
Luzkziilt displays dread and dismay. Then a pulsing spark in his creativity zone. ‘It is true what you say. They do kill themselves, sometimes, and each other. And they aren’t feeding all their species and they’re contaminating their home planet. But they also have … very fine music for their level of development and some of them have extraordinary capacity too for compassion. Without being told to cultivate this, some of them have found their own way to it. They have worked out a lot for themselves. They’ve developed unique ways of seeing things which do not fit what we might have told them but nonetheless show imagination and some … insight. I haven’t told them what to believe or explained anything to them so they’ve become deeply curious on their own account. They have used their initiative to try and understand my design of their universe and to develop their own morality and systems of justice. They’ve gone much further with morality in the short time frame they’ve been alive than almost every species I have witnessed in other universes where it is all explained and where there is no need to ask questions or think and where discipline is imposed externally. All this without me needing to punish or reward anyone. This species has learnt to think of its own accord…’
‘But their thinking is so incorrect, what’s the value in that? They think they are somehow special and separate. Some of them even think they might be the most advanced species in your project! Their hubris is massive. They even think of it as their universe. Like they own it. Like they’re in charge. How ludicrous is that? Some of them even think they’re alone, the only life form! They’re deeply deluded. They think they have agency because there is nothing, no one, to tell them otherwise. This ‘mystery’ you have elevated may have spurred them into some low-level initiative – I grant you that – but look at the cost: they are in denial of the greater context: arrogant, selfish, confused, insubordinate …’
‘Insubordinate is what I wanted’ Luzkziilt’s in reaction now. ‘that’s the whole point. I did not want them to just follow my rules.’
‘Why ever not? What kind of inverse snobbery is that? You are their creator. You made all this. Don’t be so self-effacing.’ Ree&ens draws a virtual line around the world and swells it out to encompass the whole universe Luzkziilt has designed. ‘Where are you? Why are you hiding yourself? You made this, so own it, show them your presence so that they can have the relief of that, the relief of knowing what to do and the relief of … worshiping you. Life in your universe is in the dark.’
‘But I did not want to tell them what to do.’ Luzkziilt insists again. ‘What would be the point in them just following my rules? It would just be like any other universe with everything panning out in a predictable way. I wanted to give them a sense of their own agency and the only way I could think to do that was to hide myself as the creator.’
Ree&ens makes throbbing reds and purples and scatters them far and wide.‘But without explanation and meaning, even rudimentary intelligence such as this, despairs … or, worse, it becomes over-inflated. We have to provide a moral container or anything can happen. Life cannot blossom in a void.’
Luzkziilt can see that Ree&ens is becoming increasingly incensed with him when a massive geyser shoots out from a gap in her ground. but there are clouds of dismay racing around in his own private domain and he gives it one last shot: ‘But isn’t that our situation? Haven’t we blossomed without understanding ourselves. We still don’t understand the greatest paradox of all: how something can emerge from nothing. We none of us know an ultimate ethical authority either. None of these rules for universes are intrinsic. Aren’t we arrogant ourselves then to think we can impose morality? The rules you have made for universes in this course are your rules. They aren’t sacrosanct.’ No sooner has Luzkziilt delivered this thinking than he regrets unveiling it. Ree&ens explodes a mountain sized rock and buries him in a sizzling, thunderous avalanche.
‘Young male, how dare you talk to me in that manner, how dare you accuse me of arrogance when it is you that has gone against instructions and questioned my authority and my wisdom. I took the trouble to invite you to my domain today because I thought you were a talented student and I did not want to dismiss you out of hand. But now I know this was a mistake. Your universe is so cruel you must now bring it to an end.’
Luzkziilt becomes a dark field of dust under the rubble. ‘How do you mean bring it to an end, you’re not suggesting….
‘No, I’m not suggesting anything I’m telling you to end it.
‘But isn’t that the height of cruelty itself? Isn’t that the very same cruelty you were warning me against. Isn’t that worse than any suffering already present in my universe?
An exasperated earthquake shakes Ree&ens’ domain and Luzkziilt feels the ground beneath him shake in violent waves. ‘No, it’s totally different. By definition no life form suffers when a universe is turned off. Obviously, they can’t suffer any more because they no longer exist.
Luzkziilt ponders the matter for a few private eons then sinks low inside himself. ‘In that case, I refuse.’
‘You DARE to disobey me? You dare to be insubordinate? Her domain becomes pitch black and Luzkziilt finds himself floating in liquid nitrogen.
‘Yes, and that’s just the point, we have to find our own morality.’ He manages from the freezing darkness.
‘In that case I will destroy it myself.’ Immediately Ree&ens conjures up an imprisoning space time net around Luzkziilt’s project that will allow her to deflate the time in it as easily as bursting a balloon. She is about to do this when there’s a blinding flood of light as another being, more immense and all-encompassing than herself, tears wide a crack in her domain and makes himself known.
‘I am your creator, and you force me to reveal myself’.
Ree&ens turns a milky white.
‘That universe must be left alone. Your student is on the right track. How do you think your own situation came about if not through one greater than yourself? Your hypocrisy confounds me Ree&ens. Have you not benefited from not knowing about me? Has not your own mysterious context enabled all this? I have chosen not to reveal myself until now, because, like Luzkziilt I have wanted you to enjoy a measure of creativity yourselves. I have wanted you to have at least a paradoxical illusion of free will. But you give me no alternative but to end your experimentation. You have gone too far, become too arrogant, too controlling, too keen to display your own hand. I could not watch you destroy this breakthrough from your student – a creation so beautiful and so apparently free and mystery-filled. Mystery is the gift we give to life. It is something our own creators, I imagine, cannot enjoy, and bless them therefore for enabling us to have it. The least we can do is to pass it on to those we create. I have waited too long for you to understand this, Ree&ens. Luzkziilt was leading the way with a new order of universes so much better than those that you and your students have achieved so far … and you wanted to destroy his work.’
A long silence ensues, Ree&ens’ domain has gone. Her presence alone trembles at the words of her creator.
‘So,’ the creator continues, his voice low and weary: ’I am choosing to allow Luzkziilt’s universe to continue and, now that you know me, I have no alternative but to close down your own… ‘
Everything goes black. Time stops. Luzkziilt becomes aware of himself still there. A beautiful domain opens up so vast and mysterious that it defies all description.
‘Welcome’ says his creator. ‘You are gifted. Will you join with me and the other creators?’
Luzkziilt smiles. ‘Only if you don’t tell me what to do.’