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Inspiring “Ending Asylum Destitution” Conference

We are pleased to bring you this personal response from Helen Kemp – Bradford City of Sanctuary to the Ending Asylum Destitution Conference, Bristol, 6th March, 2015. With many thanks to our colleagues in Bristol who worked so hard to deliver this excellent event. Please also note the very useful attachments below , including the Joint Commitment to Action and Examples of Local Actions – both useful tools for groups to use when engaging their local councils in addressing destitution.

“A beautiful sunny spring day in the wonderful water world of Bristol, the perfect setting for this coming together of 183 concerned citizens from 29 towns and cities across the UK, united by one cause: the ending of the government enforced policy of destitution for failed asylum seekers.

Under the banner of City of Sanctuary, and in partnership with Bristol City Council and Still Human Still Here, delegates from across the City of Sanctuary and Refugee Support network came to listen, and later to share their ideas. After introductions by the Chair, Rev Richard McKay, Chair of Bristol City of Sanctuary, and a Key Note speech by George Ferguson, the elected Mayor of Bristol, five destitute asylum seekers spoke movingly about their lives and the parlous situation they now find themselves in. They articulated their stories perfectly, providing a personal voice to such an important issue. I was one of those who did not have a dry eye from beginning to end of these stories, and there were many other handkerchiefs and dabbing of eyes in evidence besides mine. This was setting the scene, this brought home to us all, as nothing else could, the terrible situation, the inhumane treatment that is meted out to people by official government policy, and this is being done in our name.

Inspirational speakers followed. For me the most memorable was former government minister Sarah Teather MP, who gave us a bit of an inside view from “the other side.” Here was a politician who resigned from her cabinet post because she felt that her party no longer fights sufficiently for social justice and liberal values on immigration. Sarah also headed up the just published cross party Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention Report on Government policy on Refugees, which is highly critical of the current system, deeming it “expensive, ineffective and unjust.”

Sarah reminded us that although press coverage is going in one direction, there is a huge groundswell of public opinion going in the opposite direction, embracing the values of hospitality and humanity, and our very presence in this room, representing the refugee support sector, city councils and the City of Sanctuary Network which weaves a web across The UK, which is growing all the time, and which is successfully getting local councils to sign up to the City of Sanctuary commitment, is proof of the fact that slowly but surely the landscape of this debate is gradually changing.

See Sarah refer to this movement in a one minute short video here.

We also heard from Jonathan Ellis of the Red Cross, and Gillian Douglas, Service Manager from Bristol City Council Housing Options department. Lunch break and networking out in the sunshine on a balcony overlooking the skyscape of Bristol was followed by the afternoon session, several more speakers, including Mike Kaye the Advocacy Manager of “Still Human Still Here”, local MP Kerry McCarthy after which we divided up into workshop groups to discuss six different aspects of the Destitution problem. I opted for “Central Government”, along with over thirty others, we spent an hour and a quarter in very interesting and animated discussion.

It is impossible to say what the outcomes of these workshop debates will be, suffice it to say that many seeds have been sown, as they always are at City of Sanctuary events, and if the achievements of the movement to date are anything to go by, there will be many more of these seeds germinating, taking root and flowering, in the weeks, months and years to come. For the sake of humanity, this is a fight we have to win.

Finally we heard from the Minister for Communities, and Bristol West MP, Stephen Williams, before a summing up and exhortation by the Chair, to bear witness to our Commitment to Action (attached below) by Councils and Citizens Towards Ending the Destitution of Asylum Seekers. Signed by Bristol City Council and City of Sanctuary, this document provides a useful list of actions which can be taken by councils to address the issues around destitution of asylum seekers and City of Sanctuary will be promoting it across the network of 42 towns and cities.

Conference ended in a slightly unusual rather beautiful way – with the planting of a hawthorn tree on College Green, in front of Bristol City Hall, in the late afternoon sunshine. I queued up to place a couple of shovels full of earth around that tree, leaving a tiny corner of my heart there too, to be collected by my descendants perhaps, in years to come.

Conclusion: this conference drew many strands together, informing, inspiring, reminding us powerfully of all the issues that need to be addressed, and I believe that all the delegates will, like myself, be leaving with renewed determination to continue for as long as it takes, working towards returning Britain to that long tradition of offering protection to those fleeing from persecution, that was for so long our legacy, and the heritage of which we once were proud. Britain has a reputation for fairness and justice that is the envy of many other nations, but in the way we treat asylum seekers, 70% of whom fail the asylum process at the first attempt, we are not living up to that reputation. This has to change.”

Attachment Size
Joint Commitment to Action by Councils and Citizens Towards Ending the Destitution of Asylum Seekers 120.68 KB
Ending Asylum Destitution – Examples of Local Actions 461.24 KB