Much has been made of British citizens fighting in Syria and the problems they might pose on their return. (In November last year I wrote the first interview with a British veteran of the Syria conflict, for the Guardian). With high profile horror stories involving British jihadists, such as the videoed beheadings of British and American citizens, the emphasis in the UK has been on punitive measures: the stripping of passports, default criminalisation, and hefty jail sentences.
But what about people who may have joined ISIS or other militant groups, but haven’t been involved in active combat, haven’t committed any serious crimes, and want to reintegrate into society? I wrote an article for Al Jazeera looking at “soft” counter-terror programmes to exit people from extremist groups, which have been proven to be effective in other countries.
Some European countries, such as Denmark, are successfully running such programmes, whereby returnees from Syria and Iraq – who have not committed serious crimes abroad – are monitored, treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and given theological teaching and socioeconomic support. No such scheme is currently in place in the UK, but behind the scenes the Home Office is exploring softer measures to deal with the influx of war-experienced returnees.
You can read the full piece over at Al Jazeera.
On 19th September, Scotland voted against independence. It came after a long referendum campaign which prompted debate about the nature of devolution and the division of power in the UK. All in all, 1.6 million people voted in favour of independence, in a referendum that had record-breaking levels of turnout. The day after the vote, I wrote a quick piece for Deutsche Welle interviewing campaigners about their responses:
“What motivated many people in the yes camp was not simply blind nationalism, but the desire to break out on our own and build a progressive state in the model of some of the Scandinavian countries – unlimited by a Conservative English government we didn’t vote for,” said Stewart. “Now we will have to work with what we’ve got and see if Westminster delivers on the greater powers it promised.”
The rest of the piece is over at Deutsche Welle.
Ben Mulwa, one of the Westgate survivors I interviewed.
The attack on Kenya’s Westgate mall by Al-Shabab militants in September 2013 left 67 people dead. While I was in Kenya earlier this year, I interviewed two survivors of the siege on the mall. Their stories were published by Al Jazeera to mark one year since the attack.
One of the men fired into the security booth. A second gunman pointed his gun towards Mulwa and the security guard opposite him. A shot rang out and blood splattered. The guard had been shot in the head. He died instantly.
“The whole of that morning I had been playing with my daughter, who was 11 months old. All I remember is that I cried out – ‘God, why do you want me to leave my daughter?’ That’s when I heard the second gunshot. It was so loud. I wasn’t sure if I’d been shot or not,” he said.
Mulwa found himself lying flat on the ground. He closed his eyes and stayed very still. He heard the gunshots receding as the gunmen moved to another area.
The rest of the piece is here.
Earlier this year, I traveled to east Africa. One of the pieces I researched was for the National (UAE), looking at the return of Somalia’s huge global diaspora and the effect this is having on the economy and political stability of this fragile nation. I spoke to returnees about the dangers they face, as well as about the huge opportunities.
The long, messy conflict in Somalia – which saw warring tribes pitted against each other before Al Shabab came into the fray – means that infrastructure is practically non-existent. Just 10 per cent of Somalia’s roads are paved, while 95 per cent of the country’s 10 million inhabitants have no electricity. The surge in diaspora returns has triggered some instant, visible changes. Construction has restarted in Mogadishu; the colourful shopfronts are no longer just shelled-out facades, but functioning businesses. Hotels and restaurants are springing up. Solar-powered street lights have brought Mogadishu out of darkness. And many hope that the enlargement of the private sector will aid political stability. The government certainly wants to promote the image of an economic renaissance in Mogadishu, in order to attract international investment for desperately needed energy and transport projects.
You can read the full piece over at the National‘s website, and the clipping is below.
TV vans outside Park View school in Birmingham. (My own photo).
I wrote a piece for Deutsche Welle about the new counter-extremism guidance in schools that was introduced following the “Trojan Horse” scandal. You can read the full piece here.
The government’s new guidelines for “promoting British values” in schools are on top of the existing “Prevent violent extremism” program, which makes teaching about online safety and other elements of counter-extremism compulsory. There have been questions from head teachers, who say that the new guidelines have been rushed through without an adequate consultation period.
I’ve continued to blog regularly for the New Humanist, where I’m assistant editor, and for Middle East Monitor. I’ve also appeared on numerous Monocle 24 radio shows, including both general discussions of foreign policy, and analysis of ongoing political instability in Pakistan. On Thursday 4th September I appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Richard Bacon Show, discussing the top stories from social media that week.
Allegations of an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham, which surfaced earlier this year, caused a national outcry. The debate was intensely polarised, with the government sending in a former counterterrorism police officer to investigate, and local residents arguing that the schools simply reflected the faith of their primarily Muslim intake.
In the aftermath of the scandal, I went to Birmingham to speak with people involved about the impact this national scandal has had on the local community. i wrote a long report on the subject for the latest issue of the New Humanist, which is out now.
The sharp differences in narrative illustrate the polarised debate over Birmingham schools: one camp argues that these schools were indoctrinating children, while the other maintains they simply accommodated the cultural needs of their Muslim intake. What is the truth?
You can read the full piece over at the New Humanist website, and the clipping is below.
On Saturday 16th August, the Norstream, a P&O Ferries commercial ship, arrived at Tilbury Docks in the British county of Essex. The ship, which had come from the Belgian village of Zeebrugge, was loaded up with 64 containers. Around 6am, dock-workers heard “banging and screaming” coming from one of the containers. It was opened. There were 35 people crammed inside. One man, in his 40s, had died on the journey. It turned out that the group – which included 13 children – was entirely made up of Sikhs fleeing from Afghanistan.
I wrote a piece for the German outlet Deutsche Welle about the case, explaining the background:
Currently, a European law known as the Dublin Regulation dictates that someone seeking refugee status must make their claim in the first country that they land in. This means that there is a disproportionate strain on countries on the southern and eastern borders of Europe; countries such as Greece, Italy, and Poland. Many of these countries have overstretched asylum systems and struggling economies; therefore, many migrants want to remain under the radar until they can reach Germany, Sweden, or Britain.
I also blogged on the story for the New Humanist:
The Independent points out that just 0.23 per cent of the British population is made up of asylum-seekers. The horrific plight of the 35 found at Tilbury should serve as a reminder that immigration policy is not simply a political hot potato over which to trade inflammatory rhetoric; seeking to make these policies more humane, to accommodate the world’s most vulnerable, is a matter of moral obligation.