In a special feature to mark Refugee Week 2008, openDemocracy ran a short project to bring unheard voices, new ideas and testimony of the lived experiences of refugees in Britain into the public debate. MigrantVoice incorporated a multiauthored blog, podcasts, and a substantial article debate including contributions from Saskia Sassen and Philippe Legrain, and edited by Rosemary Bechler. Partnerships with Sheffield's City of Sanctuary and the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (MRCF) based in west London added valuable new topics and voices to the discussion. You can access the blog, read the article series, and listen to the podcast for World Refugee Day here.
London to become 'Olympic City of Sanctuary' for 2012
London joined 11 other UK cities in a making the commitment to become a 'City of Sanctuary' for people claiming refuge in the UK with a launch event at St Martin-in-the-Fields last week.
One man's experience of the UK asylum system, as told to openDemocracy at Sheffield's City of Sanctuary, as part of Refugee Week 2008.
When I came out of Afghanistan it was during the Taliban, and I think all people know about this difficult time for our country.
We people over there in Asia, especially in countries like Afghanistan, we are talking about Europe - not only UK but Europe - as democratic countries, as countries where you receive fair treatment. And so when I came here I was expecting that "they will listen to my story, and they know about our problems - especially the problems of Afghanistan - and I will be definitely granted indefinite leave to remain and I can stay there and improve my life".
Asylum Seeker Support Initiative - Short-Term (Assist) is a Sheffield-based charity dedicated to helping destitute asylum seekers in the area. Coordinator Robert Spooner explains why the group was formed, and details some of their current work.
I work for Assist, Asylum Seeker Support Initiative - Short-Term, because we didn't think it was going to be long-term, but it obviously is now. Its been 5 years since the initial meeting which grew out of a conversation club, and the discovery of injustices happening to people being refused by the Home Office when they had very good reason for not going back home. This small group met, and within about 3 months we had got enough money to start helping those who are entirely destitute without money or anywhere to live and with reduced access to health services. So since that time we've been telling people - I myself am a local preacher in the Methodist church - as part of my preaching telling people what was really happening and people responded by giving us money.
Thank you - all the MigrantVoice authors and bloggers for writing at short notice with passion and point. In a week we have moved beyond the shy introductions stage to 'pleased to meet you' and opened up a conversation on some of the big issues which has provided much food for thought. This excellent introduction will remain open not only for newcomers to browse, but for comment and addition.
The Edge of Heaven, directed by Fatih Akin, is a carefully crafted, tender account of six interwoven lives. Ali is a effervescent Turkish expatriate living in Germany with his bookish son Nejat. The film begins with Ali inviting Yeter, a Turkish prostitute, to become his live-in girlfriend - much to Nejat's dismay. Yet Nejat quickly gains respect for the grim but kind hearted Yeter and after her sudden death, he returns to Turkey to search for her daughter Ayten. Ayten meanwhile, is a defiant political activist desperately refuge in Germany after an encounter with the Turkish police. Penniless and homeless, she is taken in by a German student named Lotte and her disapproving mother. When Ayten's asylum plea is rejected, Lotte follows Ayten to Istanbul to help secure her release from prison.
I came to the UK seven years ago as a young refugee from Rwanda. Eager to integrate, I joined a local refugee community. I coordinated activities that brought together young refugees. They enabled them to meet and share ideas, learn from one another as they settled into the society. On the other hand though, the media at the time was not portraying a positive image of refugees and asylum seekers. So much was said about them being bogus, that they were here to take over all jobs and take benefits that the British people had worked for for so many years.
Sonja Linden started out writing 'verbatim plays' and I like many others can testify to the 'palpable effect' these first hand accounts of detention and forced removal have had on her audiences. The Darfuris or Rwandans whose words and experiences she drew on thank her, however, in particular, for making their characters feisty and rounded - not just victims, however innocent. It's a moving account.
My name is Nora Hussein I would like to provide a slightly different account on the topics of refuge, belonging and integration, as I believe the issues are very closely linked.
I am a second generation British Somali female, currently living in London. My father first came to the UK in the early sixties as a migrant worker and was later joined by my mother in the early seventies. I consider myself to be British born and bred, and yet I have a strong affinity and link to my ‘home' country Somalia: a country that I have only visited for barely two weeks in my entire thirty years - a country, which ever since I have been old enough to comprehend, has been embroiled in turmoil and civil war. And yet when I was there in 1999, although amenities were very basic, and life in general on a completely different par to what I was accustomed to, I encountered a strange sense of belonging.
I just heard from a good friend of mine that his wife and daughter have been refused permission to return to their home in Britain. My friend, who writes a blog under the pen-name ‘Jeremiah', is married to an African woman who was refused asylum in the UK. They have a two year-old daughter together, but the UK government wouldn't allow Jeremiah's wife to stay unless she went back to her own country to apply for a visa. Under the threat of arrest and deportation she finally agreed, after arranging a safe house where she and her daughter can stay in relative anonymity, as it is still unsafe for her to be recognized there. Mother and daughter have spent the last four months in hiding, waiting to get the necessary documents and then an appointment with the British embassy. And then they refused her.
"Ok, now give me youthful enthusiasm!"
We all beam up at the camera as the local journalist takes photos of us preparing banners for Refugee Week; balloons, laughter and colourful paint. ‘Maybe we could paint ‘Refugee Week' on one of your faces?' The irony kills me; reluctant for a foreign face to appear in relation with this issue unless they are a criminal or footballer, a pretty white face is a lovely stage. For one day only it will be me, the lucky one to be branded with the colourful stamp of ‘refugee' while I hold a balloon next to me to represent a whole sub-population of faceless individuals. And why is this the case? Firstly, for many misguided people my face seems to fit the image of community in a way that of a foreigner does not. Furthermore, refugees themselves are often reluctant to come forward in the public eye and challenge this, and who can blame them given the public backlash these issues often face: it is a vicious circle...
On Tuesday this week, London's Trafalgar square was transformed into a temporary "refugee camp" by the UNHCR in an awareness raising initiative to highlight the ongoing situation in Darfur, which saw similar scenes in 20 countries across the world. Zrinka blogged earlier this week about her own unexpected reaction to the exhibition. The hope is that the day-long camp had an impact on those who know nothing about Darfur, the UNHCR or refugees in general, the "absent majority" as Jenny put it in an earlier post.
Rosemary and Zrinka have raised some extremely important questions - not only ‘who cares for who', but what makes us care, and how we choose to express it. I would like to try and shed some light on the second two questions in light of my experience campaigning on asylum issues.
It seems to be a question of proximity, both in terms of coming into contact with the issues and our ability to act. People are more willing to deal with refugee and asylum issues when it is a question of isolated acts of human kindness; we find it easier to perceive an asylum seeker as a charity case than a dignified human being with ‘political baggage'. The same difficulty is encountered with many other social issues, especially homelessness: however complicated the problem is, a small donation is a concrete step towards a simple (and deserving) end, whilst interacting with the system is an up-hill struggle which rarely boasts such direct rewards.
In 2002, the government made it illegal for people claiming asylum to work. In April 2008, the Refugee Council and TUC launched a joint campaign, Let Them Work campaigning for the right to work for asylum seekers, as a fundamental human right. On our own discussions and interviews with refugees and asylum seekers, together with campaigners and activists, work was often identified as the most important policy change that would improve the lives of asylum seekers in the UK.
On one of the many earlier occasions when desperately provoked people broke out of Campsfield or some other detention centre, the message to the British people was not to approach them on any account because... the implication was.... or was it? ... let's say the suggestion ... that they were violent criminals of an indeterminate but horrendous kind.
No-one would expect a coffee-table book tete-a-tete. But 'Arresting Aram' and some of the other comments made this week about the 'surprising' pleasure and interest some of us have had in meeting the people involved - confirm my earlier suspicion that a much more 'dangerous' outcome, for the authorities at least, and for the militarisation of immigration and asylum which is under way, might be the formation of the kind of bridges that Jenny talks about in her last post: the bridge between the people behind bars and the people who don't know how innocent most of them are.
"Me and my husband had good jobs in Uganda and a nice house with four bedrooms and a compound. I had money in my country. That is not why I came here" - Mary, destitute asylum seeker.
I picked Mary out from the crowds of people gathered in the gardens where we arranged to meet without knowing what she looked like or where she would be. There was something about her that was different to the swarms of lively, animated people around her. She stared straight ahead, with a look of bewilderment and loss fixed upon her face, in only a way somebody can when they have no idea of what their future will bring.
My name is Suren Khachaturyan. I'm 37 years old from Armenia. I have been living in Great Britain for 7 years now.
As the Home Office describes - I'm a "failed asylum seeker" who does not belong to any group or category of people in the UK. I'm married to a British woman and living together with her and her 10 year old son in Wales.
I don't want to take your time or to waste mine to explain why it is I came to this country, and how I'm getting on with my life - even if it's interesting for you. That is because, I would like you not to concentrate on my asylum case or anyone's case and where they came from.
Another reason why many of us look away is simply because the scale of what we are up against is so huge and so daunting. At the opposite end of the problem from the individual moral dilemmas with which we are increasingly familiar - there are the coordinated actions of countries, at the UN or the EU.
Take the news from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees this week. Here are some of the headlines from UNHCR's Global Trends report:
When the doorbell rang at 6am Kate, my wife, went to answer it while I stayed upstairs with the children. Even before she got to the door she knew it was Immigration. There were four immigration officers and two policemen, come for our friend Aram, who had been living with us for several months. He had applied for refugee status in the UK and been refused, so he was homeless and couldn't work or claim any State support.