Skip to main content

Sanctuary in Parliament – Celebrating the Freedom to Speak

The Sanctuary in Parliament event on September 2nd far exceeded our greatest hopes and was a ground breaking and history making event for City of Sanctuary and for many of the individuals who attended.

The act of having dozens of refugees and supporters freely, movingly and eloquently speaking in Westminster, of all places, was immensely empowering, and we will be working tirelessly to find ways of harnessing and extending this ‘voice’ locally and nationally.

Here is a summary with impressions and quotes from Sarah Eldridge and Tiffy Allen

Some wept silently in their seats. Others looked around in awe – that they could walk unchallenged, speak unpunished in this, the Mother of Parliaments. Here were people who had been forced to leave their countries because they dared to speak out against their own leaders. And now, politicians from a foreign country were stopping by to listen to them.

The event was sponsored by Sarah Teather MP, with the aim of introducing City of Sanctuary to MPs and allowing the voice of refugees to be heard in Parliament.

And that voice was heard, loud and clear. City of Sanctuary representatives from almost 20 cities attended. Many refugees spoke out from the front, while others had conversations with some of the 35 MPs who called in. They spoke of being persecuted, detained and stripped of their dignity – after they fled to the UK.
In poetry, drama, and plain English they told how it felt to be at the sharp end of the asylum system – detained like criminals, banned from working, forced to live on charity, afraid that at any moment they could be detained and removed from the UK.

By the end, strong new friendships had been forged, MPs had stayed longer than they meant and been visibly touched, and City of Sanctuary had grown in strength, confidence and unity, heartened that we have more supporters and friends than we ever thought possible, and determined to build on the energy, confidence and momentum created by this day.

The experience of being in parliament will remain with me – I couldn’t do this in my own country.” Refugee CoS Member – Bristol

I want a City of Sanctuary group in my constituency!” – MP for Cheltenham

We need to speak up, blow our trumpets even louder until all labels are removed and people are cared for as people above everything else…. I think we need to take ownership of our voice and keep speaking up”. Refugee from Derby

I will certainly go away and think about what you have told me today” – MP for High Peak

I am excited about the next step forward, I have found hope.” Refugee, Leeds

Our letter writing to MPs at the CoS conversation club worked really well and I was delighted to see 7 MPs from the North West there”. Coordinator, Manchester

It was wonderful of my MP to come along to meet me, and he was incredibly supportive, offering any help he could give …. I feel incredibly proud to be part of such a fantastic community of people” City of Sanctuary supporter, Exeter

Cardiff CoS had a group discussion with MP Jeremy Corbyn for Islington about the delay in decision making about an asylum case.” Refugee, Cardiff

City of Sanctuary is the best thing Britain has produced in years.” – Maurice Wren, CEO, Refugee Council

My abiding memories now are the 2 very moving presentations of the loss of country and culture – first shown in the African drama where the memories of life at home turned into music and dance and secondly the poem written and spoken so poignantly by the lady from Iraq...” City of Sanctuary supporter, Birmingham

“Don’t worry, no matter how long it rains or snows,
The sun must shine again
Then you will be able to thank almighty God,
And all the good people
Who helped you through”
Refugee Poet, Swansea

A DETAILED ACCOUNT OF WHAT HAPPENED from Margaret Hooper

Sarah Teather, MP gave us a wonderful welcome and set the tone for the event. The opening drama, an extract from ‘Nine Lives’ by West Yorkshire Playhouse about one asylum seeker’s experiences, was powerfully acted! The author had visited several ‘drop-in’ & welcome projects and had gathered many true stories on which to base her play. This was followed by moving testimonies about the pain and indignity of being stuck and misunderstood in the process, presented by Bristol and Leicester.

Schools of Sanctuary – from Bristol we heard how taking refugees and asylum seekers into schools to share experiences and stories gave insights to even the youngest children. Two girls from Sheffield who previously knew nothing about refugees talked about how they were affected and what support they were about to organise in school.

Health stream of sanctuary – from Manchester we heard about the REACH healthcare project which helps refugee doctors and other HCPs to qualify, relocate and work in this country. From Yorkshire, the personal story of a refugee whose life changed when she started to volunteer for a health befriending project.

Another drama by refugee women from Southampton painfully presented the loss of all personal identity, status and hope for many who seek sanctuary. Others had written moving poetry to describe their own stories and feelings and the loss & grief of leaving their own country to seek asylum. We heard other very personal stories that highlighted the hopeless feelings of those sent to detention and the pain of all that is lost – but also how small actions can lead to a road of hope.

Destitution: Julian from Newcastle described the destitution project, where 43 lives have been turned around through their work. In the last year 12 City Councils have signed a motion against destitution and other cities have been encouraged to follow suit. Destitution is not an effective method of making people return to their country – it is ineffective and inhumane.

Alex Fraser from Red Cross spoke about their latest report about the transition between asylum status and accessing leave to stay. It highlights the well known problems of disjointed working between departments, poor education of staff in matters of asylum, difficulty with NI numbers and language and form filling difficulties. All of these could be addressed and prevent new refugees from becoming destitute.

Many people spoke about the need to extend work permits – 11 EU countries currently allow asylum seekers to work after they have been in the country for 6 months. He also talked about the crisis in legal representation as many firms have stopped giving support to those without legal aid.

Refugees from Swansea read moving poems about fear of being sent back and aching memories from a lost childhood, while Leeds illustrated the importance of welcome.

Both the CEO for Refugee Action and Refugee Council spoke about the unnecessary suffering caused to this group of people and how political action was the only way forward to change. Awareness raising and pushing for change is long and hard work but the groups were encouraged to keep going and build on the momentum of today, and on the friendships and connections with MPs.

35 MPs visited the committee room over the event and some stayed to join in the small discussion groups we held between items – people made new friends and shared many ideas! Most MPs signed the City of Sanctuary pledge. 3 MPs (Fabian Hamilton, Kerry McCarthy and Sarah Teather) spoke from the front about their support for the work & how our country should be at the forefront of welcome to people seeking sanctuary.

MPS WHO ATTENDED:

LABOUR: 21

Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle Central
Jeremy Corbyn MP for Islington North (wrote newspaper article – see below)
Fabian Hamilton MP for Leeds North East (spoke at event)
Louise Ellman MP for Liverpool Riverside
Kate Green MP for Stretford and Urmston
Yasmin Qureshi MP for Bolton South East – spoke to registration and took pack
Pat Glass MP for North West Durham
Catherine McKinnell MP for Newcastle North
Ben Bradshaw MP for Exeter
Andy McDonald MP for Middlesbrough (would like to be invited to a CoS meeting in Middlesbrough)
Gerald Kaufmann MP for Manchester Gorton
Kerry McCarthy MP for Bristol East (spoke at the event)
Alan Whitehead MP for Southampton Test
Mary Creagh MP for Wakefield (Shadow Transport Secretary) – spoke to constituent outside the Room
Kevin Brennan MP for Cardiff West
John McDonnell MP for Hayes and Harlington
Stephen Doughty MP for Cardiff South and Penarth
Paul Blomfield MP for Sheffield Central
Geraint Davies MP for Swansea
Julie Hilling MP for Bolton West
Martin Caton, MP for Gower

LIB DEM: 6

Sarah Teather MP for Brent (our host)
Jenny Willott MP for Cardiff Central
David Ward MP for Bradford East
Martin Horwood MP for Cheltenham (wants to set up a CoS group in Cheltenham!)
John Leech MP for Manchester Withington
Mark Hunter MP for Cheadle – spoke to registration and took pack

CONSERVATIVE: 6
Mark Pritchard MP for Wrekin (Shropshire) – spoke to registration and took pack
Caroline Spelman MP for Meriden (Solihull)
Jeremy Lefroy MP for Stafford
Andrew Bingham MP for High Peak
Peter Bottomley MP for Worthing West
Edward Garnier MP for Harborough

SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC AND LABOUR: 1
Mark Durkam MP for Foyle (Northern Ireland)

LORDS: 2
Bruce Grocott, Life Peer in the House of Lords (also University of Leicester Chancellor)
Baroness Sally Hamwee (Lib Dem)

Attachment Size
Article by MP Jeremy Corbyn “Inspiring immigrants shame Parliament’s rush to judge” 238.77 KB
Sanctuary in Parliament Pledge card 1.07 MB
Special Sanctuary in Parliament Newsletter September 2014 235.33 KB