‘We identify ourselves as human beings’ If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

On Monday I will hop onto a train and then into a car and travel down to St Austell for the beginning of the second longest bike ride of my life and the first that has required more than a few days’ planning.

Spell It Out, a 2,400km world record-breaking ride across the south of England, began as a hypothetical exercise during the Thighs of Steel Adventure Inventor application process back in March. Finally, after five months of intense communication, organisation and logistics, the cycling begins.

It’s a huge relief.

Compared to the uncertainty of sitting in front of a computer screen trying to convince people to go on a long bike ride, actually going on that long bike ride will feel like a doddle. Even when the elevation chart looks like this:

Since we launched the Spell It Out fundraiser in May, over fifty cyclists have collectively raised more than £24,600 for Choose Love. We’re still some way off our target of £100,000, but I can feel the momentum building: we’ve raised nearly a grand in the past twenty-four hours.

~

I had an interesting chat this morning with a friend who works for Fat Macy’s, a wonderful social enterprise currently raising funds to open a new training academy in East London.

We were talking about how charities, social enterprises and other projects that do what we called ‘meaningful work’ get funding, bemoaning the fact that it often depends on the indulgence of wealthy individuals or companies.

‘High net worth’ funders are the lifeblood of many charities and their directors and trustees will spend a significant amount of their time schmoozing with those who have spent their lives earning the big bucks and now want to ‘give something back’.

Thighs of Steel has always been different. We don’t actively seek wealthy backers and we deliberately set our ticket prices low, widening participation to include people who are unlikely to have high net worth networks of privilege.

We think it is important that we have ninety cyclists with big hearts rather than ten cyclists with deep pockets.

Because human beings are important.

~

Researching this story earlier today, I was struck by the words of lawyer Jack Pelele, writing on Refugee Action about his experience as a refugee in the UK asylum system:

We must remember that behind our numbers and the fateful journeys we go through, we are people who have dreams, identify ourselves as human beings who were once useful to ourselves and our communities and can still be. Our value and worth do not end in victimhood or burden to those from whom we seek sanctuary.

Hang on — ‘we identify ourselves as human beings’ — I’m sorry, but how othered do you have to feel before you find yourself forced to assert your very humanity?

Well, funny you should ask. You see, Spell It Out has taken on a whole new level of urgency in recent weeks, as the government pushes forward with its barbaric overhaul of the asylum system.

If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

In practice, there are no legal routes to asylum in the UK. And the only alternatives to legal routes to asylum are illegal. This government, and the right wing press, depend on this tauntology to justify their existence.

Tightening border control forces people into ever more desperate and dangerous routes to safety and the proposed bill will not only criminalise refugees themselves, but also any organisations or individuals who try to offer them safe harbour — including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

And this comes on top of an asylum system that is already founded on detention and destitution.

How’s that for othering?

~

Thighs of Steel aren’t politicians, we’re not law-makers — we’re cyclists.

Over the next month, forty more cyclists will hit the road and help us create the world’s largest ever GPS drawing, on a route that spells out ‘Refugees Welcome’ from Cornwall to Kent.

Without big money backers, our ninety-plus cyclists depend on a solidarity network of hundreds, thousands of friends and followers stumping up £5, £10, £50 of their hard-earned.

It’s true that one millionaire can single-handedly transform the fortunes of a struggling project stripped of funding by the pandemic.

But thousands of small-time donors generate enough energy to show the world that the people of Britain still believe in compassion to those facing tragedy.

We think that’s important.

Because we also identify as human beings.

DONATE HERE

~

Many thanks to everyone who are making Spell It Out possible: the hard-working Thighs of Steel clan; the hosts we’ll be staying with, from Warmshowers and Workaways to farmers and friends; St Austell Holy Trinity Church for helping us with our Grand Depart and Migrant Help for meeting us at the finish line in Dover.

And, of course, bottomless thanks to the ninety-plus Thighs of Steel cyclists — and their donors — who are doing what they can.

Join us, if you can.

Factfulness

A dear friend of mine is currently reading Factfulness, an optimistic book about facts written by development darling Hans Rosling and his able collaborators.

The book opens with an absolute minefield of a multiple choice general knowledge quiz, which you can take here.

I’ll wait.

As you may have noticed, the quiz is intended to blow your mind with how much better life in our global village is today than most people (including experts) believe.

Less people live in extreme poverty than we think, more young women have access to education than we think, and global life expectancy is higher than we think.

In 2017, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer these questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. Fifteen percent scored zero.

In fact, chimpanzees would have outscored the 80 percent of humans who did worse than random chance when they took the quiz.

There are two reasons I like this book, despite not having read it:

  1. The disparity between how well humans did – 2 out of 12 correct answers – and how well we should do if we simply picked one answer at random from the three given – 4 out of 12 correct answers – shows that our sources of information (AKA the news media) is systematically biased against reality and in favour of negativity. Newsless since 2017, I have long been an advocate of the No News is Good News information diet. Now I have some evidence that I might also be better informed.
  2. Although the general drift of the book is that things are, in general, getting better, the authors don’t argue that this is a result of anything other than decades of extremely hard work. Nor do they make the argument that everything is rosy in our planetary garden. As Rosling mega-fan Bill Gates puts it: ‘the world can be both bad and better’.

But one thing that immediately struck me as I was discussing the quiz with my dear friend was the absence of any questions about displaced persons.

And, as the 2019 Aegean Boat Report reminded me earlier this week, the world can also be both bad and worse.

At the end of 2018 – the latest year for which UNHCR have data – there were 74.79 million ‘persons of concern’ across the world, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless persons.

Ten years earlier there were ‘only’ 34.46 million such persons of concern. The number of human beings suffering has more than doubled.

Bad and worse.

UNHCR only have solid data going back to 1951, but, for reference, Wikipedia states that World War II created 11 million displaced people.

The last big surge in refugee numbers was after the break up of the Soviet Union. In 1992, there were 17.83 million refugees according to UNHCR figures.

At the end of 2018 there were 20.36 million – and this excludes the 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees cared for under the auspices of a different UN agency.

Bad and worse.

Raw refugee numbers have doubled in the last decade, but the biggest single reason for the twenty-first century surge in UN persons of concern is down to a huge increase in the number of those displaced within the state they used to call their own.

In 2012 there were 17.67 million internally displaced persons in the world. At the end of 2018, there were 41.43 million.

This figure includes those driven from their homes in Syria, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and Colombia. They don’t meet the technical definition of ‘refugee’, but when you’re fleeing for your life it doesn’t much matter where you draw the border lines.

I’m a huge fan of Hans Rosling’s factfulness because it reminds us where we should be putting our efforts. The problem of displaced people – whether we call them refugees or not – is bad and getting worse. It deserves our attention.

If the mixing of peoples was the order of empires and the ‘unmixing of peoples’ the order of nation-states, what’s on the horizon?
Kapka Kassabova, Border (2017)

Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border