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Monday briefing: How refugees are treated when they come to the UK – and how you can help

<span>Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Good morning. Every time the government’s beleaguered Rwanda policy returns to the top of the political agenda, it seems a little more abstracted from the human stories that really lie at the centre of it. Tomorrow, Rishi Sunak will bring his deportation plan for a vote in the House of Commons, and the headlines today largely reflect the question of whether he can survive the war between his party’s backbench factions. Meanwhile, the 175,000 people who were awaiting a decision on their asylum applications at the end of June are rarely more than a statistic.

This year’s Guardian and Observer charity appeal is intended as a corrective to that imbalance. The three charity partners – Refugee Councils of Britain, Refugees at Home, and Naccom (the No Accommodation Network) – are driven by “the principle of offering protection to refugees, and supporting them to rebuild their lives in safety”, our editor Katharine Viner wrote on Friday. In a political climate of overwhelming hostility, where cartoon murals at a children’s asylum centre are painted over on a minister’s orders and the Home Office has instructed that bedroom TVs on a barge housing 500 men remain unplugged, that principle is more important than ever.

You can read more about the charities here, and donate here. Today’s newsletter, with Farzad, an Iranian man who fled religious persecution and now volunteers with the Refugee Council, explains what kind of an impact your money might have. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Israel-Hamas war | Israeli tanks have reached the heart of the city of Khan Younis, as Hamas said that none of the hostages still held would leave Gaza alive unless its demands for prisoner releases were met. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s support for Israel has come under intensified scrutiny after it revealed it had bypassed Congress to supply tank shells.

  2. Immigration and asylum | Rishi Sunak is facing the biggest week of his premiership, with his authority in the hands of two warring Tory tribes vying to set out their battle lines on his flagship Rwanda bill. MPs from factions on the left and right of the party will hold meetings on Monday to debate how to vote on the legislation on Tuesday.

  3. Cop28 | Ministers and negotiators must come to the final meetings of Cop28 without prepared statements, without rigid red lines, and be prepared to compromise, the president of the UN climate summit has said. The climate talks have reached an impasse over whether to phase out or phase down fossil fuels, with the summit scheduled to conclude on Tuesday morning.

  4. Labour | The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, has accused the NHS of using every winter crisis and challenge it faces as an excuse to ask for more money. Speaking on a visit to Singapore, Streeting said the health service needs to accept “money is tight”, and that it must rethink how the care it provides could provide better value for money for the taxpayer.

  5. Science | Astronomers have detected the oldest black hole ever observed, dating back more than 13bn years to the dawn of the universe. The observations, by the James Webb space telescope, reveal it to be at the heart of a galaxy 440m years after the big bang.

In depth: ‘I had to leave everything behind’

Farzad (above), 45, grew up as a Muslim, but later converted to Christianity. That, and attending services that rotated around the homes of members of his congregation, made him the subject of persecution in Iran, where conversion is punishable by imprisonment. “When I was at work, there was a raid at my house, and my then-partner’s house and my parents’ house were searched,” he said. “I had to get out of the country right away.”

Farzad had no thought of moving to Britain, and no wish to ask for help. He liked his life in Tehran: he ran a small business importing toiletries, owned his home, was close with his family and friends. When he left, his business was confiscated. “I was very happy with my lifestyle. It was never my plan to leave. But I had to leave everything behind.”

The journey that ultimately took him to Leeds started in August 2019, with an escape to Turkey, and then a long trip across Europe via lorries and safe houses run by people smugglers. Most of the group he travelled with were headed elsewhere on the continent, but because Farzad spoke excellent English, he thought his best hope was the UK. “But I never knew that we would be headed there by boat,” he said. “Somehow, the plan changed.”

***

Crossing the channel | ‘You feel the closeness of death’

The government suggests that those who travel from France in small boats are taking a coldly rational decision. That makes no sense to Farzad. “We were expecting to meet another truck, but at the last minute we found out that it would actually be a boat. Some of the people bringing you are flashing guns. You don’t really have any choice except take the risk – you just are with the herd. It’s either this, or I’m finished.”

As his dinghy crossed the Channel, piloted by a volunteer with no navigation system and no maritime experience, some of the other men on board wept and prayed. Farzad squinted into the fog, barely able to see the people whose cries he could hear. “I’ve never been adventurous in my life at all,” he said. “It’s the middle of December, it’s freezing cold, it’s eerie. You feel the closeness of death.”

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How the Refugee Council helped | ‘It made a massive difference to me’

Farzad arrived on 12 December 2019, and then went on to a hotel in Leeds. Barred from working until his refugee status was approved, he had nothing to do but await the processing of his application. Early on during a year and a half of limbo, volunteers from the Refugee Council arrived at the hotel, offering activities and help accessing NHS services. Later, after the approval of his refugee status, they provided a training course that eventually helped him get jobs at Ikea and in a Hilton hotel.

Just as important to Farzad, though, was the chance to do something himself. “I could see that many of the people around me couldn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “So I offered to translate, and they said yes. It made a massive difference to me because I felt useful. As someone who has been pretty functional and practical and now is a useless, idle person, the fact that I had a part to play gave me back my identity. I wanted to do something – not just think about my story and my loss.”

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The British political climate | ‘I didn’t know it was such a big deal’

Before he got here, Farzad had no idea of the intensity of the British political debate about small boat crossings. “I didn’t know it was such a big deal,” he said. “People have always immigrated from country to country by different means. I had no access to any of that – all your focus is just on getting somewhere safe.”

Would the slim possibility of being deported to Rwanda have deterred him? “I don’t think so. I was sure that the UK wouldn’t harm me more than I have been harmed in my own country. It wasn’t like I was analysing the political situation.”

Being a refugee in the current climate can be “horrible”, Farzad said. But he draws a distinction between what he reads in the news and what he hears from the people he meets.

“When you have conversations, they are shaking their heads when they talk about it – even people who support the party that is running this narrative. There is a sense of detachment with the politics – but then people see me as a friend and we go mountain climbing together, biking, I’m at their homes for Christmas. And they really don’t see me as a threat. I don’t think the news is representative of this English spirit of behaviour towards foreigners or refugees.”

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Life now | ‘You always have that sense of missing home’

Four years after he arrived, Farzad is working in Leeds. He still volunteers with the Refugee Council, helping to resettle Afghan and Syrian refugees. Although he’s adapted to life in Britain, he misses home. “My biggest fear is for my parents and siblings. You always have that sense of missing home.”

He still speaks with his mum every few days, for an hour or more, on Zoom. (“I don’t know if it’s the same culturally here for a man of my age,” he said wryly.) Coming up to Christmas, that homesickness is especially acute. “When I am getting together with people, and I see them with the family they haven’t seen all year – we have the same thing around Nowruz [Iranian new year]. So I get jealous that I don’t have that chance.”

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Why you should donate | ‘It is better for all of us not to treat newcomers as threats’

Even in the time since Farzad arrived, the climate has become more hostile towards asylum seekers in Britain. “I go to the hotels, and it’s changed – people are isolated, with big security operations, three or four to room. They hear this constant news of threatening policies. It traumatises people more. They lose their faith in themselves.”

The kinds of help offered by the Refugee Council and the other charities that are part of the Guardian and Observer appeal – from access to mental health services and advice on asylum applications to housing options and campaign work to help bring about a more humane system – made a huge difference to Farzad. But the need is still huge.

“It really means a lot to people,” Farzad said. “It is better for all of us not to treat newcomers as threats. They are really eager to contribute. The worst way possible is to isolate them and threaten to send them far away. There is a golden period after you arrive where you can get back to normality, and charities like the Refugee Council are helping with that. So please help us.”

Whether you can spare a little or a lot, please consider giving to our charity appeal by clicking here. Or, phone in during our charity telethon on 0203 353 4368 between 10am and 6pm on Saturday 16 December for the chance to speak to your favourite journalists, including Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Marina Hyde and Tim Dowling. Your generosity could make the world of difference.

2023’s most annoying moments: send your nominations

After the historic success of last year’s ‘17 things that annoyed me’ seasonal special, we’re aiming to make it a First Tradition, since nothing expresses the spirit of Christmas like grumbling about stuff that winds you up.

This year, we’d really appreciate your nominations for the most irritating features of 2023, whether it’s an overused political catchphrase or something you saw on reality TV (above). So send me your favourite hates, but remember that this newsletter IS NOT A DEMOCRACY: I retain sole editorial control and may be too annoyed already by other things to include yours. If this winds you up, think of it as a good first entry for your own list. And please don’t submit any Elon Musk tweets, we’re vastly oversupplied.

All that being said, hit reply or email us on first.edition@theguardian.com to get pet peeving. You’ll feel better for it.

What else we’ve been reading

  • If you have felt yourself getting more angry than normal lately (and why wouldn’t you, look at the state of the world), then you might find Laura Potter’s guide on how best to manage everything from rage to simmering frustration very helpful. Nimo

  • Sean O’Hagan interviews Jonathan Glazer, whose forthcoming film, The Zone Of Interest, is a formally experimental study of the home life of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz just outside the perimeter of the camp. “Even though you don’t ever see the horror, it is by far the most violent film I have ever worked on,” Glazer says. Archie

  • Even as the rules governing the format have been tightened over the last decade, sleep deprivation on reality TV has remained an exhausting constant. Amelia Tait hears from participants who went on 2am “night dates” and only knew the day was over when “the voice in the ceiling” changed. Archie

  • The story of Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts took the country by storm in the early days of the pandemic. The 99-year-old veteran walked the lengths of his garden on a Zimmer frame in support of NHS Charities Together. Three years later, the story could not be more different. Tim Adams chronicles how this textbook feelgood tale turned incredibly sour. Nimo

  • Saturday magazine published the wild true stories behind 21 of the funniest animal photos of all time. Obviously you’ll be clicking on this. Special mention for Izzie the black kelpie, finding herself bested by her sheep for once. Archie

Sport

Premier League | Richarlison scored twice as Tottenham ended a poor run of form with a 4-1 thrashing of Newcastle. Meanwhile, Everton beat Chelsea 2-0, West Ham were routed 5-0 at Fulham, and Manchester City beat Luton 2-1 after falling behind to the underdogs at Kenilworth Road.

Women’s Super League | Two goals from Alessia Russo (above) helped Arsenal thrash Chelsea 4-1 in front of a record crowd of nearly 60,000 at Emirates Stadium. In Sunday’s other matches, Brighton drew 2-2 against Leicester, Liverpool drew 1-1 against Bristol City, Everton beat West Ham 1-0, and Manchester United beat Tottenham 4-0.

Cricket | England endured what captain Heather Knight described as a ‘pretty tricky’ five-wicket defeat in the final match of their Twenty20 series with India as the hosts claimed a consolation victory at the Wankhede Stadium. However, England won the series 2-1, their sixth successive series victory over India in the format.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with “Rival Tory tribes threaten Sunak authority over Rwanda scheme”. The i says “Sunak fights for his future amid growing threat from Tory right”. The Telegraph reports “PM under pressure to amend Rwanda plans”.

The Times says “We will win legal battles on Rwanda, say officials”, while the Mirror carries comments from Keir Starmer under the headline “Lame duck for Xmas”. The Mail reports that Gary Lineker has signed an open letter criticising the government’s Rwanda policy, with the headline “Put a sock in it, Lineker!”

Finally, the Financial Times reports on the results of a poll that shows “Nearly half of US voters think Biden is spending too much on aid for Ukraine”.

Today in Focus

The stories behind Europe’s unmarked migrant graves

What happens to the people who risk everything to get to Europe – and don’t survive the journey? Ashifa Kassam reports from Lanzarote

Cartoon of the day | Edith Pritchett

Sign up for Inside Saturday to see more of Edith Pritchett’s cartoons, the best Saturday magazine content and an exclusive look behind the scenes

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

For as long as he could remember, Rob O’Byrne loved going to gigs. But in 2005, when he was just 17, Rob got into a serious accident that left him without any feeling or movement from the chest down. Though it has been harder going to gigs, Rob has continued enjoying live music as much as he can. In 2017 he went to see Coldplay, and near the end of the show large bouncy balls were released and in the frenzy two large men fell on him. After immediately apologising, the pair lifted him up in his wheelchair above the audience to get a better view of the stage.

The two men started moving forward, the crowd parted and suddenly a spotlight was on Rob. Chris Martin noticed the commotion and asked Rob to come on stage and play the harmonica with the band. “It really was like staring out at a sky full of stars, I wasn’t thinking there were 80,000 people looking back at me,” Rob writes. He took the harmonica and the extraordinary story home with him.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until Monday.