There is still a long way to go: Community Care’s campaign comes to an end

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Two aims of the Right to Refuge campaign were to present a more
balanced picture of the asylum issue and to give a voice to one of
the most marginalised groups in society, write Janet
Snell and Natalie Valios.

Over the course of the campaign, we have highlighted some of the
problems faced by asylum seekers and refugees. But we have also
tried to focus on the major contribution so many of them are making
to society and the talent and skills which are there to be
tapped.

We have tried to counter the biased coverage, particularly in the
tabloid press, and have challenged factual inaccuracies and myths
when they have appeared.

We have lobbied politicians and also contributed to the public
debate on asylum through television, radio and the local and
national press.

During the campaign we have encouraged asylum seekers and refugees
to contribute to the magazine and we are ending, at the suggestion
of our guest editor Njomeza Kartallozi, by offering a platform to a
group of refugees who are now well established in the country who
want to tell their story.

The Right to Refuge campaign has made a difference but we are aware
it is just a start and, as these personal accounts testify, there
is still a long way to go to achieve a fair deal for asylum seekers
and refugees.

Right to Refuge campaign highlights

May

  • Media launch at the Refugee Council’s one-stop centre in
    Brixton, south London. The campaign is also launched to our readers
    at Community Care Live in London.
  • Our survey of professionals reveals 67 per cent felt their
    asylum seeking and refugee clients were treated in a racist way by
    the authorities. And 87 per cent thought services were failing this
    vulnerable group.
  • Community Care circulates an asylum information pack
    to local authority press departments with suggestions for engaging
    the local community and promoting positive coverage of the asylum
    issue.

June

  • Community Care editor Polly Neate writes to then
    Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith urging him to apologise for
    the inflammatory language used by his MPs about asylum seekers.
    Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin later meets assistant editor
    Janet Snell to discuss the issue.
  • Nearly 80 MPs sign an early day motion in the House of Commons
    in support of the Right to Refuge campaign.

July

  • Community Care editor Polly Neate appears on BBC One’s
    Face the Nation in which experts and a studio audience debate the
    channel’s Asylum Day coverage.
  • Community Care writes a series of letters to local
    newspapers highlighting the campaign and urging a more balanced
    view of asylum.

September

  • An exclusive Community Care poll reveals widespread
    public support for a change in the law to allow asylum seekers to
    work.
  • Community Care‘s deputy editor Mark Ivory takes part
    in over 20 local radio interviews and phone-ins on the asylum
    issue.

October

  • A group of unaccompanied minors hand in Community
    Care
    ‘s Right to Refuge petition at 10 Downing Street signed by
    nearly 3,000 people calling for a fair deal for asylum seekers and
    refugees and demanding an end to the detention of children.
  • Community Care holds a parliamentary briefing led by
    Labour MP Neil Gerrard, chairperson of the all-party group on
    refugees, at the House of Commons, which highlights key issues of
    the campaign.
  • A Right to Refuge conference attended by 100 people is held in
    London to round off the campaign. Speakers include Maeve Sherlock,
    chief executive of the Refugee Council. A debate on media coverage
    of asylum is led by social commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and
    Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday.   

Four asylum seekers tell their stories:

Wafa Hussein, refugee welfare liaison officer, arrived
from Sudan in 1989.

“I was a teacher and came to the UK to study but two months
after I arrived there was a military coup back home.

My husband and our three-year-old daughter were still there. He
was a well known left-wing lawyer. The last time there was a coup
my uncle was killed. This time the army raided our house and my
brothers were jailed. One of them lost an eye.

Eventually my husband and daughter were smuggled here and we
applied for asylum. Amnesty International backed our application
but we heard nothing from the authorities for three years. We were
housed in a bed and breakfast hostel in London where we were
racially harassed by the other homeless families. Also some members
of our own community here avoided us because it was considered
shameful to be an asylum seeker.

We managed to rent a small flat in Bayswater and I found a job
as a graphic designer.

I met another Sudanese mother and we set up a Saturday school to
teach children their mother-tongue and give them extra help with
homework. Now 250 children aged five to 16 attend that school and
it supports them with core subjects on the national curriculum. We
also helped set up a similar school in the London borough of
Kensington and Chelsea.

Eventually we were granted full refugee status. I began to find
out all I could about this country and I used that knowledge to
help set up an organisation for Sudanese women.

As for my family, my daughter is 17 now and she is more British
than Sudanese. I accept I can’t impose Sudanese culture on her but
my own plans are to return to Sudan one day as home is home after
all.

But there are good things about this country like the chance to
learn and the fantastic diversity in London.

I’ve made friends with many British people and I feel we have
gained from a genuine two-way relationship. But what pains me is
when people are treated unjustly, especially those who have already
fled injustice. Some gains may have been made for refugees and
asylum seekers but the reality is the struggle continues.”

Abdi Hassan, co-ordinator at Waltham Forest Somali
Welfare and Cultural Association, who arrived in the UK in
1986

“I was an activist against the Somali government, but the
pressure became too much. There was harassment and killing and I
decided to leave because I feared my life was at risk.

I had a link to the UK because I was born in British Somaliland.
I had an idealistic picture of how it would be in the UK, but my
expectation was higher than the reality.

I had a tough time for the first few months. I felt lonely
because of the language barrier and culture and climate
differences. However, in the 1980s housing wasn’t difficult for
migrant people and it was easy to join English classes.

I waited for nearly three years to obtain refugee status. It was
a frightening time because of the fear that you will be sent
back.

I was on benefits to start with, then I did a degree in civil
engineering. But I faced problems getting a job. That’s the most
painful experience I’ve had in this country as I desperately wanted
to be part of main society.

I feel confident and proud if I can contribute to the country.
If you can’t it makes you down.

I haven’t really experienced racism but I’ve been a bit unlucky.
I was stopped three times by police while driving in one year. When
somebody hit me with an iron bar the police didn’t question people
to see who did it. I don’t know whether it was pressure of work or
a type of racism.

I know British custom and culture and can communicate now. I
feel in between the two communities but this is my home now and I
see myself as British.”

Indira Begiri, advice worker for Christian Action and
Response in Society, north London, who came to the UK from Kosovo
11 years ago

“When we first arrived we weren’t thinking about asylum – we
thought we were coming for a few months while trouble at home blew
over. We had our 10-month-old son with us and when the immigration
officials stopped us at the airport they said we would not be able
to manage on the amount of money we had.

Our plan had been to work to support ourselves but they said it
did not work like that. We were held for eight hours which was
difficult with a small child and when an adviser eventually told us
to either apply for asylum or go back we said we would apply and
they took our details there and then. But we heard nothing for five
years which is a long time to have no identity.

We went to stay with my brother and after six months my husband
was allowed to seek work. He was an economics graduate and had been
working for a financial company but he was told his qualifications
were not accepted here.

He found a job in a restaurant but they treated him very
badly.

I had been a paediatric nurse in Kosovo and I managed to find
work as a nanny. We were just working to survive -Êwe
never thought far ahead and all the time I was thinking we will be
going back soon.

Two things changed that view – war broke out in Kosovo and my
son became very ill when an infection attacked his heart. In Kosovo
he would have died but Great Ormond Street Hospital in London saved
his life.

It made me think that our life was here now. Then I had my
second son in 1996 and my daughter two years later. My husband had
a job in a greengrocer’s shop and was getting on well and we
started to feel more settled.

But it was always a struggle between us and the Home Office.

When my son was born here they told me it meant nothing and that
he had no rights and just the same status as us – in other words no
status. Because we had no documents we could not travel – even when
family members died at home we could not attend the funeral. It was
like being prisoners. And trying to do normal things like open a
bank account was virtually impossible without a form of ID.

In 1997 we were told we could have temporary leave to stay and I
jumped up and down to have some sort of security at last.

That’s when I began to think perhaps we should start finding out
a bit more about Britain. I gradually started making more friends
and I felt for the sake of the children we had to try to make it
work.

We were eventually granted British citizenship, but it took 11
years. I

f I had been granted status a few months after arrival it would
have made a difference. But we felt that our attempts to integrate
here were always rejected .

I felt that this country was not interested in my abilities and
what I had to offer. They just wanted to give us £60 a week to
keep us in our place.

We have a life here but we are considering going back. It was
the death of my father-in-law that started us thinking that way. I
think of my kids as Kosovan though my elder son says he’s
Kosovan/British.

But no matter how much you do in this country, people always
look at you with suspicion. Even with my British passport I still
feel like a refugee.”

Zrinka Bralo is the director of an organisation helping
refugees in London. She came to the UK from Sarajevo in Bosnia 10
years ago.

“I had been through nearly two years of war… the feeling of
helplessness and hopelessness was overwhelming. The people you went
to school with were now shooting at you. Every time you heard a
shot you thought ‘where is my mother, my brother?’ I left because I
couldn’t function anymore. I was falling apart mentally and
physically.

I arrived here with family members but we all had nervous
breakdowns after being refused asylum. Others left for the US
because they couldn’t take the pressure. When you experience
something so traumatic and lose everything the only thing you need
is to be believed.

I stayed because I had nowhere else to go and I had already
started a life here. In Bosnia, my perception of the UK had been
through the media and pop culture – Margaret Thatcher and Monty
Python’s Flying Circus
. I had no idea what sort of social
welfare system there was. My main reason for coming was because I
had friends here who invited me and I could speak English.

As an asylum seeker you are a second-class person and you are
not supposed to have a choice, and that is racism. You are supposed
to be grateful.

Being white and English speaking, my life is not that difficult.
But I have seen the discrimination some can experience.

After three years I was granted exceptional leave to remain and
have now qualified for indefinite leave but I wasn’t granted
refugee status, which would give more security and sanity.

The best thing about the UK is the legal system. It’s strange
that people don’t appreciate one of the reasons that refugees come
here – the respect for the law and the legal system. In every
country where refugees come from there are political trials and
corruption.

The worst thing is poverty. A lot of people struggle but that’s
not the fault of asylum seekers. Poverty needs addressing outside
the asylum debate.

This is home for me now and I believe, especially in London,
everybody can find their tribe.”

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