Homes destroyed, traumatised by violence: the real reasons refugees come to the UK

Mark Townsend
Residents flee after an airstrike on Aleppo in 2014. Photograph: Mahmoud Hebbo / Reuters/Reuters

A groundbreaking study has laid bare the extent of the “explosive violence” witnessed by refugees, in the first research of its kind to measure the impact of war on the migration crisis.

Researchers conducted more than 250 in-depth interviews with refugees in Britain, Germany and Greece and found that 85% had directly experienced explosive violence.

In total, 69% had witnessed shelling, 61% airstrikes, 58% improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and 39% suicide bombings. More than two-thirds said that they or their family had been directly affected and nearly half said that their homes had been obliterated.

The research, by a London based charity Action on Armed Violence , published today, coincides with intensive airstrikes in the battle for Mosul with US-led coalition aircraft dropping an average of 500 bombs a week on Iraq’s second biggest city. More than 150 civilians were estimated to have died in a single airstrike two weeks ago.

Days after that deadly Mosul strike, at least 30 Syrian civilians died in another US airstrike 450km to the west when a school was struck in Mansoura, in Raqqa province.

Among refugees from Syria who had reached the UK and were questioned by researchers, 93% had witnessed explosive violence. The figures were similar among those fleeing Iraq, while 92% of asylum seekers from Afghanistan said they had been directly affected.

Thangam Debbonaire, the Labour chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, said the report offered much needed evidence that the refugee crisis in Europe had been fuelled by the horrors of war. “These upsetting figures help to explain why so many people are forced to flee their homelands and seek sanctuary in other countries,” she said.

“These people are not fleeing out of choice, they are doing what any of us would do if we and our families were living with armed violence raining down danger and terror on our homes – they are trying to get away to a safe place. I believe that most people in the world will understand this and call on our government to do more to help protect refugees fleeing explosive violence.”

Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, said many European governments were still failing to factor the levels of violence and associated trauma into their response to the refugee crisis with his group’s research showing that only one in five of the refugees questioned had been offered psychological support.

“Our findings show that the refugee crisis in Europe has been categorically fuelled by explosive violence, but that states and some sections of the media are not making this connection,” he said.

Since 2011, the group has collated 233,949 warfare-related deaths and injuries using English-language news sources, a period that has seen more than four million asylum applications in Europe. More than three-quarters of these casualties were civilians. The organisation estimated that when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 92% of those killed or injured were civilians.

Overton said that Britain’s approach to refugees fleeing war zones had been disappointing. Despite Iraq being the world’s worst affected country over the last six years, only 12% of applicants from Iraq were granted asylum in the UK last year. The average figure across the EU was 85%.

Government data shows that in 2015 the UK accepted more refugees from Albania (346) than from Iraq (216).“When more refugees in the UK have been granted leave to remain from Albania than from Iraq it is clear that the British government are ignoring the very real impact that explosive weapons have had,” he said.

In 2016, Britain accepted 86% of all Syrian refugee applicants (1,591 of 1,859). Last year more than 15,000 people were killed or injured by explosive violence in Syria.

According to Home Office statistics, there were 30,603 applications for asylum in Britain last year, of which 8,466 were successful. Since 2011, such asylum applications have increased by 54%

Of the 259 individual questionnaires, 102 were completed in Germany, 106 in Greece and 51 in Britain, with researchers saying tracking down asylum seekers in Britain was harder “as they are far more dispersed and in smaller numbers than in Greece or Germany”.

Of those that have arrived in Britain, 76% of the refugees who answered the questionnaire had witnessed explosive violence in their country of origin, 59% had seen airstrikes, 63% shelling and half had witnessed IED attacks.

Why we had to flee

Now living in London after arriving in Britain in September 2015

Yazan and his family were forced to live in their basement, hoping that the bombs would not hit the building. Eventually they decided to leave, fleeing to Turkey then London. Although Yazan was unharmed physically, the events took a severe psychological toll. He had nightmares, replaying the destruction of his home and the deaths of friends and relatives. He learned to suppress his emotions so he could continue with daily life. He has never been offered psychological support. He describes Britain’s asylum process as “dehumanising”. At one point he says he was forced to sign a paper he was not allowed to read.

Now living in London after arriving in Britain in June 2016

Ahmad’s two brothers were killed in the violence that has engulfed Iraq for the past 14 years. The main threat was from the militias which, he says, can be worse than Islamic State. Ahmad decided to leave, travelling to Syria, Turkey, Greece and then across Europe. He reached the refugee camp in Calais with the hope of joining his uncle in Britain. Last June he smuggled himself across the Channel in the back of a truck.

Ahmad’s asylum application was rejected, with the UK saying he could move to another area in Iraq. He is now waiting to appeal. “There is danger everywhere,” he says.

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