On Monday night I left Oxford Town Hall after a Refugee Week event totally distressed by the stories I had heard; Margerie and Innocent Empi, two refugees from Uganda and the DRC, journalists Melanie McFadyean and Melissa Benn, and Tariq Ali had all spoken about how we treat those seeking asylum in the UK. I was angry, ashamed and driven to act. I thought, if only everyone had heard what I have heard tonight; if only everyone could feel what I am feeling...
I left the hall with a strange sense of hope, that somehow our community could follow the fantastic examples which we have recently read about in places like Sheffield and Glasgow and come together to try and start a movement from the grass-roots up. The atmosphere was buzzing; a room full of 250 citizens who, simply by turning up, had showed their commitment to educating themselves about asylum issues, and many of us are already engaged in campaigns and local initiatives. Newcomers had heard about the meeting from the local papers, both of which had run positive stories about Refugee Week, or through leaflets which we have distributed in the town centre over the last two weeks. I recognized a pocket-full from Saturday's performance of The Asylum Monologues, and from Sunday's film on Sudanese refugees, The Art of Flight. I was delighted by the turn-out - I thought, yes, events like Refugee Week work; once people hear the stories the reality hits them.
Yet on Tuesday morning I woke to find my hopes dashed as I finally managed to find some information about the disturbances at Campsfield detention centre on Saturday. The Oxford Mail were running a story titled ‘Dogs on beds sparked riot' which claimed that a riot had been sparked by a row over search dogs entering cells and climbing in detainees' bedding. One can well imagine how such a degrading act among people at breaking point could spark protest. What disturbed me the most, however, were the comments posted on the site. The article received by far the most comments of any article that day, and most of them were nothing but explicit racism. One man insinuated that black people should be hung, whilst another referred to the detention centre as a ‘hotel' for freeloaders. Where were these people on Monday night?
It appears to me that there are two distinct dialogues running parallel in this country, and impossible as it may seem, they must be bridged; we need to approach the absent majority - those who refuse to take a leaflet and are subconsciously fooled into thinking all asylum seekers are criminals by the bars on detention centres like Campsfield. This is no easy task, but it is my belief that through education, not only in schools, but in the workplace, and through broad-based community campaigns, we can begin to tackle the social injustice and the informational asymmetry which gives rise to such deep seated prejudices. Football teams, drama groups, youth clubs, media projects... initiatives which encourage local integration are invaluable. We also need to think about taking our campaigns to new audiences. By staging a STAR performance of the Asylum Monologues in a pub on Saturday night, for example, a whole new crowd was engaged and the response was overwhelmingly positive.