Q&A with Ken Olende on Why We Should Welcome Refugees

ken olende

Before the UN Anti-Racism Day demonstration that took place in central London yesterday, I spoke with Ken Olende who works with the organisation Stand Up to Racism. He provided his thoughts on last week’s EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey, why it’s important to show solidarity with refugees, and how most migrants are actually improving, rather than harming, British society. This was an on-camera interview which I’ve transcribed below. 


My name is Ken Olende, I work with Stand up to Racism. I work on the magazine which they produce, and I’ve also been a long-term anti-racism campaigner. We’re having demonstrations across Europe saying refugees are welcome here. We think it’s outrageous the way that refugees have been treated, and the idea that people are fleeing war and terrible situations are being told that they are in some way the problem. That the main thing we need to do is keep them out. So opposing what the governments done, which just passed a deal saying, which supposed to send everyone who flees from turkey to greece back again. We’re saying that we dont’ accept tthis. We’re saying refugees should be welcomed here. Even if they let in all the refugees who are trying to get across the Mediterranean that would actually be a good thing, something that we would welcome and they would be a constructive part of our society. In order to do that, we’ve called demonstrations, so stand up to racism has called three demonstrations across the UK, we’ve got this one in London, another one in Glasgow and one Cardiff, which are bringing people together who are saying we disagree with what the government is saying, we don’t think refugees are the real problem here.quoterefugees2What are you hoping to achieve today?

We think it’s amazing that since people became aware of the refugee crisis last year, there was the horrific case where three hundred people drowned on a ship, sank in the Mediterranean. There was the sad story of Aylan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned. And then peoplee were aware of what was going on in Calais where people who have been trying to come to Britain have been left behind, razor wire in France. As people became aware of that, you saw enormous amounts of solidarity. People saying they would open their homes to refugees to say, people visiting Calais, taking supplies across. But in the end, what will end the problem is the government changing its policy. If Britain was to take the same proportion of refugees that even Germany has taken, that would make a big difference, if we were to take the same kind of refugees that neighbouring countries to Syrai, where most of the refugees have come from such as Lebanon and Jordan have taken, they’ve taken up to a third of their population in refugees, I don’t see any way that would be an issue here. The government has got to change its policy and say let the refugees in. They keep talking about we’ve got to get rid of the people traffickers, the people traffickers are evil. Well, the people traffickers are nasty people, they’re trying to make money off of people in desperate straits, but really the way to get rid of the people traffickers is to let refugees in by other means. Give them some kind of visa that lets people travel, or to be honest, there are loads of holiday planes in Turkey, give them tickets on the holiday planes and they could fly safely to Europe the same as European people that go on holiday, and you would get rid of the people traffickers.

What’s the argument for not supporting refugees? 

The popular argument, one that’s been pushed by the majority of media, is one of poverty and overcrowdedness, that says Britain’s full, there’s no jobs, we’re suffering from a recession. The refugees will come here and live on benefits, they will fill our schools, they will take away things that the British people need. And I think on of the things that has been shown by migrants in general, is that when they come here, they don’t live that way. They tend to be people who work and take part in society.

One of the things we’ve really seen is the National health service in Britian, which is one thing that almost everyone in Britain accepts as one of the great things about this country. It wouldn’t work without migrants who come here and work on it – if you go to any hopstial, especially in the major citites, you’ll find doctors and nurses and people cleaning, everyone, a large proportion of them are people who have come from abroad. Its not the case that people coming here are coming to sponge off benefits.

I think a lot of the blame culture that’s going around is something that people like the government are pushing. The government would much rather that people who are suffering from austerity ended up blaming it on refugees or other migrants who are coming here, rather than blaming it on the government themselves or their bank of friends. A government minister has resigned just yesterday saying that the government is going to far in some of the cuts and its cruel treatment of disabled people, under those circumstances, the government can be forced to change the way it looks at things. After the drowingins last summer in the mediterranean, for a brief while, the British navy did go out to rescue people in the Mediterranean, and I think that we should see a return to that. Only, I don’t think people should have to be rescued from the Mediterranean because I think they should be let into Europe to make asylum claims.

One of the things that people are talking a lot about is that this is the biggest refugee crisis since after WW2 and I think people sometimes forget just how big the crisis was then. At the moment, people are talking about 4 million refugees wanting to come to Europe – these figures are vague – but after WW2, you had 40 million displaced people across Europe and you saw countries trying to turn them away. And it was in that atmosphere, people who had just been through the horrors of the war, said we don’t want this. And thats why its no coincidence that the declaration of human rights was issued in 1948 just after the war, the Convention that actually says that refugees have a right to asylum was issued in 1951. Honestly, I think its shameful that governments are trying to wriggle out of these things now when you do have people across the world fleeing the most horrific wars and the most horrific persecution. quoterefugees3How is the culture of fear affecting refugees?

There are organisations like ISIS that are out to kill people – they’re killing more people in Syria then they are in places like Europe – but there are a couple of things about that.  One is that the people who have been responsible for many of these killings, all of these cases, aren’t refugees. They’re often people who have grown up in the West and people who are radicalised – a term I don’t really like – by the experience of whats happenend, largely with western internentions, in areas like the Middle East. The area that Isis emerged in in Iraq was an area that had been a particular battleground after the invasion of Iraq, which many of us in Britain protested against at the time. Where you had a situation where Al-Qaida or groups like that, actually had no presence or influence in Iraq, they’ve built up to a situation where you have a very well-organised and well-armed organisation there, and the way to end the influence of a group like ISIS is not to keep perpetuating the same problems, and isolating people in the same way. ISIS will say Europe is your enemy, the only way we can survive is to fight Europe. When people see European governments saying people should be left to drown or people should be sent back, I think it makes it more likely for people to accept the ideas of groups like ISIS.

Do you think there will be a big turnout today? 

I’m hoping there will be a big turnout today. There has been an ideological attempt to turn people against refugees but a lot of people have been leaf-footing on the streets about this demonstaration, we’ve had rallies around the country, and people have been coming. We’ve had 100s of people from small towns coming to say that they’re angry about whats happening. I think a lot of people feel compassion and solidarity for other people, its a natural human thing to feel, and in those circumstances I’m hoping for a big turnout across Europe.quoterefugees4How many refugees are currently in the UK?

In terms of refugees from Syria, the government promised that it would let in 20,000 over 5 years. It’s a little difficult to find out the exact figures for how many they’ve let in so far, but we’re talking in the hundreds. So not very many is the real answer to that. The government’s policy has been to keep people out. And it tries to think of ways to say this a reasonable thing to do, so for instance, they say we shouldn’t let in people who’ve been smuggled across the Mediterranean because that encourages them. So if people aren’t smuggled across the Mediterranean, we’ll let in people, people who have done what they’re told and stayed in refugee camps in places like Lebanon. I think if people hadn’t struggled, if refugees hadn’t tried to remake their own lives, the government would be quite happy to leave people in places like Lebanon. Its only because refugees have said we’re going to change our own situation, prepared to walk and take boats across the most awful situations…its only because of that that the government is actually in any position to take people in in the first place. And I admire people that have had the courage to do that.

I think that people across the country, across the world, should think about the plight of refugees, should think about actually improving things, and saying that people are welcome and these are our brothers and sisters and not people that we should learn to hate but people that we should learn to work with. And I hope that people will take part in things where they support refugees, and help people who are in very difficult circumstances.

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