The importance of Refugee Week

Showing a group of young volunteers from Africa the grimmer parts of  London gave Mark Drinkwater a new perspective on service planning

Asylum seekers and refugees receive a hostile press. It’s something that social workers will identify with. However, while social workers return to their comfy dwellings each night, “home” is still something of an aspiration for asylum seekers.

In one job, I worked with a number of homeless asylum seekers and a particularly unrewarding task was dealing with the Home Office department responsible for asylum seeker support. It was a daily trial as I dialled – and redialled – attempting to navigate the Kafkaesque phone system.

Some days I would be lucky enough to get through to someone; although momentary elation would soon give way to ennui as I realised the case worker seemed even more ground down than me by the inefficiencies of the system.

It was a truly soul-sapping process for me, but nothing compared with the experience of the individuals I was trying to help. For them, it further added to their feelings that the system was designed in a way to avoid helping them.

Poverty levels

I had hoped that in the intervening years that things might have improved. But last month a survey published by a coalition of refugee charities, the Asylum Support Partnership, revealed the extent of poverty for those seeking asylum. The report found that almost half of the visits to refugee charities are from people considered destitute. Such statistics are a sad indictment of a society that does not adequately support some of its neediest.

On a more positive note, I recently had the pleasure of taking a group of 20 young volunteers from a Voluntary Service Overseas scheme on a tour of south London. It was part of their induction week before starting three-month placements with local charities and statutory services.

These interns – mostly from African countries, including Sudan, Senegal and Uganda – seemed to be wondering why they had been posted to a “developed” country. My brief had been to show them some examples of deprivation.

On the tour, we stopped outside a vast, but empty, housing estate when one young person asked, “So, with all these empty flats, I guess you have no homeless people in the UK?”. It was hard trying to account for a policy of decanting residents, creating hundreds of empty homes and then waiting for an upturn in the market before bulldozing them and building replacement flats. As the questioner implied, these vacant properties could have housed the scores of homeless people we had passed earlier on our travels.

Fresh outlook

The questions posed by these young visitors made me realise that it’s useful having a fresh outlook. It made me think about whether the refugees and asylum seekers who reside in this country might also be able to contribute to the planning and delivery of our services.

Next Monday is the start of Refugee Week. It’s a time when towns and cities, from Cardiff to Carlisle, will be hosting cultural celebrations for displaced people. The aim is to create better awareness of the issues facing them.

In particular, I’m looking forward to visiting Refuge in Films, a three-day festival at the British Film Institute, organised by young refugee groups in London. It’s an opportunity to gain an insight into the experiences and positive contributions of refugees and asylum seekers. There, I hope to be joined, once more, by some of the VSO volunteers. This time, we should get a more positive perspective on cultural life in the UK.

● Refugee Week takes place from 15 to 21 June. See for details.

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