“It’s helped me to understand new things about the world”...
“I really feel sorry for those people who’ve had to come here due to war and that - I used to just think they came for our jobs. Now I know they come for safety”
These are some of the comments made by young people in Wales who’ve taken part in the ‘Think’ Project, a programme devised by the Ethnic Youth Support Team (EYST) – an ethnic minority youth-focused charity based in Swansea – which seeks to challenge racism and far right ideology which has been on the increase.
In Wales, the UK and across Europe, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments appear to be growing, spurred on by an unsympathetic media and opportunistic politicians. The worsening economic climate, the decade long ‘War on Terror’ and the more recent so-called ‘clampdown’ on EU migration have all contributed to this atmosphere of negativity and hostility, which of course plays out in our playgrounds, our neighbourhoods and our local job markets. And the victims include young children living in Wales, who are bullied, victimised or abused, for having a different skin colour, different religion, or a different way of speaking.
At EYST, these victims are our clients. And, while we still seek to support these young people to respond to whatever challenges they may face, we also recognised a need to take a more preventative approach to racism and the apparent growing normalisation of far right ideas: hence the ‘Think’ Project.
But our approach is not the commonly used punitive and universalist approach of ‘stamping out’, ‘kicking out’ or ‘zero tolerance’ to racism. Our approach is to engage in a very targeted way with very young people who may have the most negative views of or grievances against Muslims, asylum seekers, or foreigners – the most disengaged within society, young people not in education or employment, those involved in offending, and so on. Through open dialogue and debate we seek to understand their points of view and why they may feel the way they do. Then, we aim to give them the facts and information they need to be able to make up their own minds and think for themselves.
This work should be delivered by tutors who are uniquely skilled in engaging with vulnerable young people, at respecting and empowering them, and who also have personal life experiences of racism to share with the project participants. Credibility, humour and ‘keeping it real’ with the young participants has thus proved enormously important. Crucially, we have found an effective method is to bring in guest speakers who have fled their own countries, and sought asylum in the UK, to share their stories, which more often than not provokes a deep empathy from the young people who hear these stories – often for the first time.
Over 250 young people from towns across South Wales have successfully completed the 3 day programme since its start in April 2012. Around 95% have significantly changed their views about asylum seekers, and have learned the difference between economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and why they have come here. A report written by Professors Ted Cantle and Paul Thomas, launched at the House of Commons in March 2014, recognised these methods as unique and highly effective.
The Welsh Government’s Community Cohesion Strategy of 2009 also recognised the increasing support for far right ideas in certain communities within Wales, and a forthcoming report they have commissioned on the extent of this support will no doubt confirm this. Hate crime figures are also up, while still recognised to be the tip of the iceberg due to under-reporting. Yet it seems that there is little joined up thinking on how to support institutions – especially educational ones - on how to challenge this.
In Swansea, EYST lead a multi-agency working group on racism and far-right extremism, which has good representation, but we would like to see this replicated on a national level. Young people in Wales deserve at least the opportunity to learn the truth about the people living next door to them, or sharing their classrooms, and to do so in a way which is engaging and based on real life. If we don’t do this, then we are simply waiting for media scapegoating to turn into racist bullying, murders or much worse.... Never again