The tragedy of Shukri Abdi – lessons still not learnt

Last week was Refugee Week. While it is incredibly important to understand and celebrate the contribution of people that have often overcome unimaginable trauma before arriving in the UK, we must continue to reflect on how welcoming we are as a country and whether our infrastructure is fit for purpose.

A hostile environment

In recent years we have seen a growing narrative where refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are treated as a single mass of people flooding into the UK and framed as a burden on our resource-strapped state. A highly legislated state means immigration status checking is now also the responsibility of healthcare workers, bank managers and teachers.  This, along with the divisive campaigning of the right and the far-right during the EU referendum and ensuing Brexit negotiations, has created an incredibly hostile environment that makes already vulnerable families feel even more marginalised and invisible.

Shukri Yahya-Abdi

Shukri, a 12 year old girl of Somalian heritage, tragically drowned in the River Irwell in Bury, Greater Manchester in June, 2019. Shukri was born and raised in a refugee camp in Kenya along with her four siblings, and came to the UK with her family in January 2017 as part of the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme. Under this scheme, only the most vulnerable families (vetted by the UN) are accepted for resettlement in the UK. Shukri and her family were rehoused in Bury East, a under-resourced area that is not as ethnically diverse as many other areas in the Greater Manchester conurbation. Placing the family in this predominantly white area, far from the established Somali communities in Greater Manchester, meant the family would find it hard to easily access the established community networks and voluntary sector infrastructure that would have been equipped to support families such as Shukri’s.

Parallels with the murder of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah

While the inquest is currently adjourned and it will take some more time for the full facts of the case to be laid out, there are already similarities with the case of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah – the 13 year old boy our Trust and Centre are named after.

Image: Ahmed Iqbal Ullah (Photograph donated to the AIU RACE Centre)

Shukri drowned in a river even though she was scared of water and couldn’t swim. She went there with fellow pupils who, according to witnesses, did not appear to be her friends. Her mother had reportedly asked her school numerous time to deal with the racist bullying Shukri suffered during the months before her death. Ahmed’s family reported high racial tensions in his school and had begged him not to go into school on the day he was killed. As the incident involving Shukri and other pupils from her school began to unfold on social media, Greater Manchester Police released a statement that ruled out the possibility of any suspicious circumstances; this was retracted soon after. Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of Ahmed’s murder a police spokesman told the press that there was no evidence of racial overtones to the killing.

The MacDonald Inquiry, commissioned to investigate the handling of Ahmed’s murder, analysed the schools and education authority handling of the death, found that it over-simplified issues at the time. It wasn’t that Ahmed was killed because of the colour of his skin, but there were institutional and policy failings in how racism was dealt with in the school and how its anti-racist strategy and response to the murder polarised the school.

Image: Murder in the Playground – report published on the Macdonald Inquiry. Copies available in the AIU Centre library.

Similarly, whilst the school Shukri attended (which has now changed its name) has reached out to the family it still doesn’t appear to acknowledge racism as a factor in her death. Instead it has portrayed her death as a case of youthful exuberance on a hot summer evening taking a tragic turn. As with the case of Ahmed’s murder, it feels over-simplistic to believe that it was purely interpersonal racism that lead Shukri to follow her classmates to the river and that institutional racism wasn’t part of the picture.

Black Lives Matter

Both these cases are complex, have multiple contributing factors and most likely include a catalogue of decisions and system failures that led to the tragic loss of these young lives. Evidence of structural and systemic racism in our education system and other agencies responsible for pupils’ safety and wellbeing are well documented. A multitude of policies and issues, from the attainment gap of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic pupils to the fact that refugees and asylum seekers are often offered housing in the poorest areas of the country, mean that it will take more than unconscious bias training or changing the name of a school to prevent this type of incident happening again.

Being Black, female, Muslim and a refugee means that there are already so many layers of disadvantage that Shukri would have had to navigate throughout her life and it equally seems that those barriers exist when trying to understand the circumstances that led to her death.

As cities across the UK, US and the rest of the world continue to march, protest and demand change after the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the case of Shukri Yahya-Abdi has garnered huge support nationally as a case where yet again a Black life has not mattered enough. There is a large national demonstration planned on June 27th 2020 where thousands of protesters are due to gather to demand answers and justice for Shukri. Please see the locations and dates of marches organised by the campaign below:

At the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Educational Trust we ask: when will we see real and meaningful change at a government and institutional level, and when will young Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people not only be safe but also thrive in our education system?