Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Interview in an Instant: Melanie McFadyean

In the third of our “Interviews in an Instant” with keynote speakers from STAR’s 2007 Conference, speaker Melanie McFadyean shares her happiest moments, tips for STAR members, and her views on the future of asylum policy…

Melanie began writing for the Guardian in the 1980s, and became a freelance writer in 1992. She has written for several publications including The Observer, The London Review of Books, Elle, and The Independent. In 2001 Melanie won an Amnesty International media award and has since served on their panel of judges. She has co-written two books, ‘Only The Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland:the Women’s War’ (1984) and ‘Thatcher’s Reign: A Bad Case Of The Blues’ (1984), authored a book about drugs, ‘Drugswise’ (1998) and a book of short stories, ‘Hotel Romantika’. She currently lectures in Journalism at City University in London and freelances.

When were you happiest?

In my whole life? Well if I narrow it down to the past week, then this morning. My husband put on a piece of music that made me laugh. It was “Stand by your Man”.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

That is difficult, one can only think Nelson Mandela, Noam Chomsky, Emma Ginn…Emma Ginn I think, she is extraordinary. She is part of NCADC (National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns). Without being at all sort of pious, tedious, full of herself, or losing her individuality or sense of humour she has given her life to campaigning for people in detention.

What first drew you to writing about refugees and asylum seekers?

My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany. She escaped but she had an aunt and an uncle who didn’t, so I grew up with it, knowledge of refugees. But the thing that got me in to it was someone rang me up and asked if I had heard this story about children disappearing? That is the way to get a journalist in to it, offer them a story like that. It was the story that got me in not some great principle, once you get in to it becomes self-perpetuating as people bring you more stories. But I am not as cynical as that, it wasn’t just the stories. I have worked as a teacher, as an agony aunt and always had an affiliation with children, and the idea that children were going missing…

How do you think attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers have changed in the past 5 years?

I think they have hardened. People don’t care anymore, but they care enough to scapegoat refugees and asylum seekers for everything. I think the most revealing thing I have seen is a map of the human body, used by the Medical Foundation for victims of torture. If you are doing a medical legal report you use them, it is a map of the body, front and back, and you mark torture scars on it. They are horrendous. You use these things in an appeal to prove someone has been tortured and it seems that there is a premium on torture, and to me that seems deeply suspect, why should people have to prove things in that way? Why only torture, why isn’t poverty torture? There seems to be a hierarchy of suffering. I think attitudes have only got worse.

What are the key challenges in securing a government asylum policy that is humane and treats refugees with respect?

I think that first you have to dismantle this idea of making profit from asylum seekers, because one of the things keeping it going are these hugely profitable detention centres. This idea of asylum seekers costing to country so much is rubbish, they cost the country nothing, they put in more than they take out. They don’t get the same benefit as indigenous people, or the same housing, all those distortions that come from the right wing media are all rubbish. You have to get rid of the idea that asylum seekers take up money, or that you can make money out of them. Detention centres are hugely profitable and if you look at the companies that run them they are huge, and they cast predictions of huge profit margins in the future. They reduce people to figures, and in the middle of all this there are people hanging themselves and starving themselves to death. So what do we do? Buy shares I suppose, challenge them.

Why do you think, given that most of us when asked express horror at the situations that refugees have fled, and sympathy for their plight, asylum issues prompt such public hostility and misunderstanding?

Because the immigration system as it has been set up by the Labour party in the last ten years is designed to create a culture of disbelief. The way people’s claims are written up, everything is designed to reject someone. It is not promoted or designed to find out what really happened. They are very quick to disbelieve and very quick to age dispute. Everything is stacked against you getting in. If you are lying or telling the truth it is all stacked against you. So I think public attitudes have got worse because politically there is this culture promoted through everything. And people don’t question it.

What do you think can be done to encourage responsible media coverage of asylum and refugee issues?

I really don’t know, if I knew I would do it. I tear my hair out sometimes. I mean I have been working as a journalist for 30 years and I have contacts, but I know when I phone them they are thinking “oh god, another asylum story”, I know that is what they are thinking. I think it is up to you young people.

Drawing on your work and experiences, if you could make one thing known to the world about what it is like to be a refugee, what would it be?

It would be something about the isolation and the assault on your identity. Because when your identity is under assault, it is almost impossible to function as a human being; you are angry and hurt and lonely and beleaguered and hungry and penniless and angry. To be dispossessed like that.

What top tips would you give to STAR members attempting to improve the position of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK?

Find the arguments. You should get together as a group of clever people and get incontrovertible evidence to challenge these prejudices. Produce all the facts. And then publish it, in whatever way you can. Drop it from helicopters if you have to. Make it really effective agitative propaganda. Just telling the stories doesn’t work any more; people have become inured to suffering. People don’t care and don’t want to listen any more.

If you could single handedly implement one change in UK Asylum Policy what would it be?

Tear up every single law that has been passed and start again! Every bit, I would go back to the refugee convention and rewrite it to include women who have been raped, battered children etc. I would remove this hierarchy of suffering, I mean extreme poverty is a form of torture. Rip it up, go back to the convention, expand it and make everyone stick to it.

Posted by Russell Brooks on 23/01/2008 at 11:19 AM