Towards a Borough of Sanctuary, 27 May 2016. Meeting convened by Sutton for Peace & Justice in association with Refugee and Migrant Network Sutton. Reporting by Tessa Cornell of Sutton for Peace and Justice.
The first speaker was Katie Barringer of the Refugee Support Network.
Katie said that terms like refugee, asylum seeker and migrant are often used interchangeably and in confusing ways in the media. The first two have a legal definition, and of the recently publicised 333,000 migrants entering the UK last year, just 25,771 were asylum seekers.
There are multiple and overlapping reasons why people seek asylum – such as persecution due to a person’s race, religion, nationality, political beliefs and social group – but success in achieving refugee status can be dependent on country of origin. Of those from Syria, 87% of asylum claims were successful but of those from Pakistan just 22% have been granted (the average for all countries is 41%). However, 38% of appeals are ultimately successful, revealing that initial decisions are not accurate.
Those claiming asylum are dispersed around the country, to areas where the costs of supporting then are lower – so few end up in London and the south east. Once a claim is successful and a person has refugee status, they tend to move to an area where they have more in common with the local community and can get support. Their rights are similar to those of a British citizen in terms of work and education; but they need to ‘reclaim’ after five years and this can make settling down and making long-term decisions difficult.
Asylum seekers face many issues – language and cultural barriers, mental health issues due to trauma suffered in their own country and on the journey to the UK, poverty, lack of contact with established communities, previous skills and experience not being recognised, stress at the pace of their claim, inability to work coupled with very low benefits, the risk of exploitation, and so on.
Katie explained that the Refugee Support Network works with children who have arrived without families, generally boys aged 13-18. Education is the focus of their work, as those using the service have said it is that which provides them with hope. They are always in need of volunteers to act as mentors.
Katie was followed by Lucy Minyo of the Refugee & Migrant Network Sutton (RMNS).
Lucy outlined the work of this local group and described how they help clients with issues such as accessing health and education services, applications for benefits and immigration status renewals. They offer advice and advocate on behalf of people as well as organising drop in sessions and language classes, seeing many hardworking, resilient people every day.
Although few of those seeking asylum are initially placed in this area (currently just 11 are registered in Sutton) there will be unaccompanied children and those whose claims have been processed who relocate. We also don’t know where Syrian refugees will be housed. RMNS see around 400 people a year.
Next up, Antaneeta Ragini Jeyakumar described her experiences as a recent refugee to the UK, with the help of interpreter Evangeline Rajini Kantharatnan.
Antaneeta explained that she arrived in the UK in 2014 having fled war in Sri Lanka. She, along with her family, were initially sent to a hotel and then to Newcastle, where she knew no-one and there was no familiar community to support her. When her visa decision was received she decided to come to London where there was an established Tamil community. At first she was unsure of where to go or what she could do, but then found out about RMNS. Since that RMNS has been a great source of support, giving her help with housing issues and benefits claims, and as a result she has grown in confidence.
The last speaker was Mike McLoughlin of Sutton for Peace and Justice.
Mike highlighted some facts about the current situation for refugees around the world. There are currently 2 million refugees in the Lebanon, which is the size of Cornwall, but there have been objections to the UK taking 20,000 from Syria. Malta has taken 3 refugees for every 1000 of the population, Sweden has taken 3.1, but the UK has 1.6 per 10,000. Our economy is 78 times larger than Jordan, but they have taken 600,000 refugees.
In response to concerns raised by those who would like to reduce immigration it is worth noting that immigrants are more likely to work in the NHS than to use its services; crime rates are lower than among the native population; and with an aging population we need young immigrants; and the lack of affordable homes is a failing of successive governments. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until their claims have been processed.
Mike then gave an outline of how Sutton could become a ‘Borough if Sanctuary’. City of Sanctuary is a national charitable body that seeks to nurture a grassroots movement that builds bridges between different organisations and between local people and refugees. To qualify as a ‘City of Sanctuary’ we must demonstrate that we have support and engagement from the wider population, and then seek the support of the local council as well.
Mike Cooper, Chair of Sutton for Peace & Justice, led a question and answer session and a general discussion of the issues and what we could do locally to help support refugees and asylum seekers and get Sutton recognised as a ‘Borough of Sanctuary’.
It was noted that there are a number of other groups around the country working to the same aim, the closest being Camden, Brighton, Chichester, and Medway, and the Sutton campaign will keep in touch with all of these.
Examples of practical ways that local people can support refugees and asylum seekers included: volunteering with local support organisations, mentoring, engaging them in local groups and empowering the through, for example sport and drama. It was also suggested that local groups could raise funds to pay for asylum seeker families to be enabled to live locally.
It was emphasised that the campaign should seek to change attitudes, dispel myths around those seeking asylum, and celebrate the contribution that can be made to the country. Hostility to refugees can be damaging and hurtful, especially for those arriving at a young age, and families can be left isolated.
The campaign would reach out to and link up with local individuals and groups, to raise awareness of the issues and share what they are doing; it should specifically seek to engage schools.
It was reported that the campaign was setting up a website and mailing lists for individuals and ‘supporter organisations’, that would be used to keep people informed about the campaign and action they can take, and to share what local groups are doing and the services they provide.