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My home, your home – the volunteers welcoming migrants into their homes and communities

A global trend of criminalising those who help migrants is underway – but less spectacular acts of defiance are also bringing volunteers up against the cruelties of immigration regimes.

Yasmin Gunaratnam
16 August 2019
"Migration is not a crime" stencil graffiti
"Migration is not a crime" stencil graffiti
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Banksy

An estimated 150 migrants are dead or missing following the capsizing of two boats off the coast of Al Khoms in western Libya on Thursday 25th July. The deaths come at a time of more callous anti-immigration measures, which include the threat of legal action against non-governmental search and rescue teams in the area and in the central Mediterranean.

The criminalisation of those who help migrants is part of a global trend. Carola Rackete, the captain of the NGO boat Sea-Watch 3, was placed under house arrest in June this year and faces further criminal proceedings. Rackete had docked in Lampedusa without permission. On board were 53 people her team had rescued from a dinghy, drifting off the coast of Libya.

In the US last year, Scott Warren was charged with “conspiracy to transport and harbor migrants”. He is being retried in November, after a jury was unable to reach a conclusion. He faces up to 20 years in prison. Warren had provided food, water and clothing to two undocumented men at the US-Mexico border.

Media interest in Rackete and Warren can give the mistaken impression that turning against social abandonment border policies entails spectacular acts of defiance. But as reinvigorated sanctuary movements are showing, there are many others throughout the world, including the UK, who also habour migrants. They do so legally, with less risk and a more modest media backlighting. But they too act to counter the violence of immigration regimes that extends far beyond the border crossings.

The global sanctuary movement

The British sanctuary movement includes cities and universities in the Cities of Sanctuary network, as well as religious congregations. Through an international study of hospitality to migrants and exiles, in England, Sweden and Turkey led by Dr Fataneh Farahani, I’ve been meeting British residents who are a part of these growing sanctuary initiatives.

Sanctuary Meetings is a Quaker initiative, inspired by Jim Corbett who co-founded the Sanctuary Churches Movement in the US. “We understand a Sanctuary Meeting as a protective community with people whose basic human rights are being violated by government officials”, a Quaker briefing states. “The public practice of sanctuary also holds the state accountable for its violation of human rights.”

Bridget Walker is active in the Sanctuary Meetings community. As we talked it became clear how far-reaching and responsive Quaker networks can be. Bridget was once contacted by a French friend volunteering in the Calais Jungle. A young Eritrean man had made it across the Channel in the back of a lorry and had ended up in Hull. Through her Quaker contacts, Bridget was able to put him in touch with people that could provide immediate help. She sent him money to tide him over as he made his claim for refuge. They kept in touch. He spent Christmas with her family.

Bridget has also helped to secure the release of a Jamaican-born teenager who was detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The young woman had joined her father in the UK at age ten. When she turned eighteen, she found out that she didn’t have residency rights. Bridget crowdfunded money from Quaker friends to help her apply for her indefinite leave to remain (ILR). Fees for ILR applications for a dependent child increased by 363% between 2012 and 2017. ILR fees are currently £2,389 per person and can drive young people and families into cycles of debt.

The charity Sanctuary Hosting in Oxford is another recent sanctuary initiative. It was able to harness the shift in public opinion that saw a huge rise in donations to refugee charities, following the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi in September 2015. A year later, working with the British Red Cross and Citizens Advice (Reading), the group secured funding to formalise its network of volunteers in the Thames Valley. With 76 volunteers currently on its books, Sanctuary Hosting has provided over 17, 000 nights of accommodation.

Such support is necessary because even when people are given legal permission to remain in the UK, day-to-day survival under the government’s hostile environment policies is near-impossible. Those waiting for a decision on an application for refugee status are not allowed to work or claim non-contributory social security benefits. Some may be eligible for asylum support from the Home Office. This means accommodation and £5.39 a day to live on. That’s £37.75 a week.

Kate Bowen, an early member of Sanctuary Hosting, explained that when someone has obtained refugee status, they are given 28 days’ notice – the “move on” period – to leave their asylum accommodation and find somewhere to live. A decision can be made at any time, making it difficult to plan ahead. “So in 28 days,” Kate said, “they have to save up enough money to get a deposit on a room somewhere. Once they have an address, they then have to get a job, doing all this in just 28 days. It’s just not possible. That's why agencies like us have to help them."

“Life put on hold”

A recent report by NACCOM, the No Accommodation Network, found an increase in the number of those refugees using night shelter services who had recently moved on from asylum accommodation. In comparison to 2018, the percentage of refugees using the shelters who had left asylum accommodation in the previous six months had risen from 21% to 36%. The NACCOM report recommends an extension to at least 56 days to the moving on period.

Across the different hardships alleviated by informal sanctuary, there is a recurring theme. Our immigration rules constitute a politics of both deterrence and abandonment. They strip individuals of almost anything – education, work, family, affordable healthcare, a liveable income – that would allow them a viable and dignified life.

Several of the volunteers I have met talk about the emotional toll of cycles of waiting, despondency, retraumatisation and “life being put on hold” for those applying for more secure citizenship and residency rights. The appeals process for immigration decisions can take months, even years, if the Home Office appeals against rulings in favour of migrants. Although the number of appeals has reduced, the success rate is high. According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice, over 50% of appeals against immigration and asylum decisions that go to court were reversed in the last financial year.

Living in one temporary place after another while waiting for your future to be decided, changes the experience of time, its pace, rhythms, intensity and duration. Drowning in uncontrollable time, what comes to mind as a practice of time-boarding, is a dispersed, barely legible cruelty. It is easily overlooked and difficult to hold to account. Anthropologist Sharam Khosravi describes these experiences as time stolen, citing the recent Windrush cases as a brutal example of the theft of time invested in building a life.

A roof over one’s head is a vital lifeline. But hosts are also crucial witnesses to the behind-the-curtain banal violence of Britain’s immigration regime.

“A sticking plaster makes a difference if you’re bleeding”

There is little naivety about the political shortcomings of the privatising of hospitality in these informal types of support. Volunteers are aware of how civic responses risk letting politicians off the hook for bolstering dehumanising systems. “We’re absolving society of how they do politics,” one Sanctuary Hosting volunteer said. For her, the impetus to host came from a feeling of political powerlessness. Others feel uneasy about the unequal relationships of power in hosting and the dependency and indebtedness that can result. There is a sense of what the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” to these feelings, where acting against a social impasse even if limited, can help to make everyday life more bearable.

The Quakers are also concerned about racism. Not only the racism of immigration policies but also their own. Over the past six months they have held workshops to examine power inequalities, including whiteness. White privilege and its intermeshing with other social differences was a leading theme in their annual gathering in May this year. They want to grapple with how the live wires of colonial thinking and whiteness affect the work they do. “Some of us felt that using our privilege to help others is two edged,” Bridget Walker says, “yes, it helps the person in need but can also continue to maintain the privilege embedded in the structures of our society. We need to do more work on power.”

With intolerance on the rise, feelings of despair about the times that we live in are commonplace. Yet, spaces of welcome and sanctuary are growing, however politically ambivalent. “We’re like little bits of sticking plaster” an Oxford host said, “but it makes a difference if you’re bleeding”.

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