On the 1st December 2015, City of Sanctuary and Sanctuary Alliance partners converged on Westminster for the second time to hold the annual Sanctuary in Parliament event. It was a roaring success, with almost 200 refugees, asylum seekers and their supporters from scores of our local groups attending the event held in Committee Room 14. Many shared their stories, and we attracted over 40 MPs to hear them speak and to hear our message that the British people want to extend welcome to those fleeing war and persecution, on the very day of the Third Reading of the Immigration Bill 2015 just down the corridor in the House of Commons.
The event was jointly hosted by Thangam Debonnaire MP for Bristol West and Caroline Lucas MP for Brighton, Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees.
Participants listened to talks, poems, testimonies, and watched a film and play. We were also joined by nine barons, baronesses, lords and a bishop. The main themes of the day were Destitution, Safe and Legal Routes and Detention. Over the course of the event refugees and sanctuary supporters from all over the UK and Ireland met their MPs and talked to them about the role they could play in helping refugees feel welcome in the country. Groups went to the Commons chamber to observe the immigration debate and make our presence known. There were disappointingly few MPs attending the debate, but there were some brilliant points put across by MPs, many of whom had previously been with us in Committee Room 14, including Anne McLaughlin MP for Glasgow North East who spoke in the Commons about stories she had heard at the Sanctuary in Parliament event, urging others to come visit, as well as Caroline Lucas MP.
All throughout the day, the corridor just outside the committee room was an adjacent hive of activity, with sanctuary seekers, supporters, partner organisations, MPs, lords and more coming to register, put on their stickers of support and talk to each other, an opportunity for constituents to meet their MPs and talk to them about the Immigration Bill and what they want to see change. Throughout the day, groups headed to the viewing gallery to watch the debate, a rare opportunity to watch the political process in action. Other people were in the lobby, talking to MPs and directing them up to the room to learn more about the stories being shared there. Attendees also handed in green slips, requesting an audience with their MP to talk about the bill and get a dialogue going. Sanctuary in Parliament was not just limited to Committee Room 14!
Setting the scene, for the first theme, Jonathan Ellis, Vice Chair, City of Sanctuary called for an end to asylum destitution and said “the scandal of destitution cannot be accepted.”
Coinciding with 2015 being the 10th anniversary of City of Sanctuary, Inderjit Bhogal the founder of the movement said that, “Sanctuary in Parliament is a plea for justice.” Of destitution, Inderjit said that with resources like those of the UK, nobody should be poor. “How we treat people seeking sanctuary and safety is central to being human and hospitable,” said Inderjit.
Caroline Lucas MP spoke about the incredible work of City of Sanctuary and described the Immigration Bill as a “divisive and horrible bill” that fails to recognise the contribution of sanctuary seekers, international students etc. She also spoke of the need to “put compassion over punishment when it comes to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers” going on to stress that “we are all enriched by having refugees and migrants.”
Refugees from different groups then gave emotive testimonies about their personal experiences of destitution.
Amjad, a doctor from Iraq, spoke about the hardship faced by asylum seekers who have no right to work in the UK. “You cannot imagine how difficult it is not to work. I am losing my confidence, my skills, my knowledge”. City of Sanctuary, amongst others, are still calling for the government to give permission to work for asylum seekers who have been
waiting over 6 months with no decision on their case.
Amber also spoke of her experiences, worried that new government legislation could leave her and her children completely destitute. She feels “in limbo”, awaiting her asylum decision with fears of ending up on the street with her children.
Dave Smith, founder of the Boaz Trust talked about three things which he says cause asylum seekers to become destitute. Among them the insistence by the authorities of proof of persecution, the culture of disbelief in the Home Office and the adversarial system which mean that asylum seekers are not given the opportunity to tell their own stories properly, instead are always asked questions. Dave is also involved with the NACCOM network and said in his experience “Destitution ruins lives. And it costs far more in medical bills than to put people into accommodation.” He gave an example of a refugee doctor who had been destitute for 8 years, and whose experience had shattered her confidence to practice medicine.
Due to the complexity of how people end up being destitute, it is difficult to quantify how many destitute asylum seekers there are in the UK, but the Red Cross estimated that there were 2,000 destitute asylum seekers in Greater Manchester alone, and we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.
SAFE AND LEGAL ROUTES
Amal, one of the Glasgow girls, started us off in the section about the need for safe and legal routes. She spoke of her experience visiting Athens and the Greek island of Lesbos. She described the terrible situation in Athens’ parks, where people were sleeping out in the open. With Greece’s economic crisis meaning that they cannot support the Greek people, asylum seekers in the country are faced with extremely difficult conditions. Amal spoke of the desperate situations on the islands. She asked, “Why would you make such a dangerous journey unless you did not have a choice?” Condemning the treatment of asylum seekers she said, “I thought that the UK was a country that championed human rights but they are not relevant to asylum seekers.”
Sabir Zazai, Director of the Coventry Refugee Centre and national City of Sanctuary trustee was moderating the session, and commented that “our policies treat children as asylum seekers first, and children second.”
Next, the room also heard from a sanctuary seeker who had fled Syria. He recounted his forced journey, a long and dangerous one where he arrived on a Greek island on an overcrowded boat and then had to walk for 10 hours to a reception area. He then continued the long journey into Europe, during which time he was chased by police with dogs. He arrived in Calais where he said the conditions are awful and people are entirely dependent on charities. He arrived in UK after many attempts and made his claim. He summarised the need for safe and legal routes perfectly; “Please make the journey easier for those who have been through so much.”
The room were then honoured to hear from another Syrian refugee, who, on the year anniversary of his 14 year old daughter’s death came to speak to Sanctuary in Parliament to keep her memory alive. He said she had died in a refugee camp, having not been able to access the medical attention she needed.
Another Syrian refugee, a lawyer by profession, spoke of his sadness at the collapse of Syria and condemned terrorism saying it “has no religion, it has no nationality.” He came to the UK through government’s resettlement programme, and said “It is beyond a dream to come here and have another chance of life.”
Several MPs then spoke, with Sara Champion MP condemning the Immigration Bill, and speaking passionately about the importance of offering sanctuary.
Professor Heaven Crawley from Coventry University addressed the often asked question, “Why does everybody come to the UK?” Her answer: they don’t! She reminded the gathering that the refugee crisis isn’t just about Syria, and whilst the majority of those coming to Europe are from Syria there are also many from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq, amongst others. She ended by quoted the famous poem by Warsan Shire, “nobody puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Leonard Zulu, Senior Legal Advisor, UNHCR commented on how disheartening it is to see persons fleeing human rights violations, conflicts or persecution and having to resort to unsafe, illegal and irregular routes to access asylum. These journeys are often at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers who abuse their rights, extort money from them or rob them of their property. He said that at times even when they arrive at their destination the suffering continues because they are compelled to take up work under exploitative conditions to repay the cost of smuggling while their asylum claim is being processed. He gave some harrowing statistics of those who have not had access to safe and legal routes to Europe, telling us that 3,485 are estimated to have died at sea so far this year, and during the month of November an average of 4,700 have been arriving in Greece.
The Sheffield-based SBC Theatre Company performed a powerful piece, highlighting the incredibly damaging effect that detention has on people. Set in a room in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, it looks at the abuse one woman, Tanja, suffered in her quest for sanctuary.
Women for Refugee Women then performed their poem ‘Set Her Free’:
“I remember feeling scared and uncertain,
Detention is like walls closing in,
Detention is prison without time limit,
Detention is prison without sentence,
Detention is you are guilty without crime.
Set Her Free; Set Us Free”.
It was a testimony of many women’s experiences put together in a poetic form that moved everyone in the room.
William, a member of Freedom Voices spoke about his experience of detention when he was detained upon arrival in the UK. He explained that he did not know people were detained in UK, and then he was detained for almost three months, the reason being that he had no family connections. He was surprised to be released because he still did not have these connections, and even up to today he does not know why he was detained. He spoke of the huge cost to both him and the tax payer. Although he was granted refugee status, for him “It’s hard to explain the impact of detention! It’s huge. Detention is wrong. It ruins lives. It’s inhuman. We need change”.
Gee, in reporting the horrors he experienced in detention, also described the support he received from all communities and in Northern Ireland, a powerful reminder of how the sanctuary narrative can bring people together:
“All I knew is that I was practising my own rights to claim asylum, and hadn’t committed any crime, and hadn’t done anything illegal. But how come I still ended up getting the treatment of a criminal, how come I still ended up locked up in a high security prison.
It was like I was thrown into a dark and deep alley where I could not think of any hope but was waiting for a death flight with my fellow countrymen. But into that dark and despairing place came a united voice from both the communities once I thought were severely separated – MPs from all parties in Belfast south/ East/North and West. They all worked very hard to help me to get released from the horrors of the detention. Throughout my entire life, I will be grateful for the help I have received from Northern Ireland. ”
Eiri Ohtani, Coordinator, Detention Forum spoke about the impact of detention and the campaigns of her organisation. She said, “It is very clear, detention damages people.”
John McDonnell MP added that there are two detention centres in his constituency locking up people who have committed no crime. He went on to say that the “scale of detention is scandalous”. He was glad that Sanctuary in Parliament was there to help to raise the level of consciousness.
Our event was rounded off by Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council. Firstly he reminded the meeting of the astounding victory in September, when the government changed their stance, from settling no refugees to agreeing to resettle 20,000 Syrians. The government came up against a huge swathe of public opinion, eventually forcing their hand into accepting greater numbers. Maurice stated that, as has been seen with the Syrian resettlement victory, we can achieve things in this house (Parliament). Change can be made. He stressed the importance of the need to work together as an alliance against the worst aspects of the hostile environment set out by government.
“We need to end asylum poverty and demand the right to work for asylum seekers in the UK. We need safe and legal routes”. He added, “We need to oppose the two tier asylum system in the UK. And fundamentally oppose any dilution of the Refugee Convention.”
He told the gathering that the challenge we have to work on is to connect the plight of people at the sharp end of immigration system with people who are at the sharp end of everything else that is wrong with this country, “Let us draw strength from our dynamism and phenomenal diversity. Refugee rights are our right.”
We ended the day with a viewing of ‘Tasting My Future’, a documentary about how asylum seekers and refugees from all over the world in Brighton have found a common love of cooking and share their experiences, cultures and beliefs together by creating a new experience of creating food together.
After a fully packed day we all went back to our different cities, buzzing with the positivity of having so many like-minded people in one room together, in the very heart of where decisions are made. We hope we made our voices heard, and thank you so much to all the MPs and other notables who attended to hear all of us appeal to you to help us make the UK a more welcoming and humane place for those fleeing persecution and violence.
QUOTES FROM THE DAY
“I thank God that at least I can stand up in this place and tell you about my experiences. I would not be able to do that in my own country.” – Geerthanshan Manoharan
“I am ashamed. Future generations will judge us… The way people are treated once detained is reprehensible. Shame on us!” – John McDonnell MP
“People often ask: ‘Why are they all coming here? ‘ They aren’t…. We should demand of Turkey that they give refugees and asylum seekers similar rights to European countries, especially as they are about to renew their application to join the EU.” – Professor Heaven Crawley
“It’s an outrage that people should have to depend on volunteers for the basics in life.” – Baroness Janke
“We need to put compassion over punishment… They have huge amounts to give. We need to wake this government up. Say it loud: Refugees are welcome in Britain!” – Caroline Lucas MP Brighton Pavillion
“I am proud of our city’s role in this movement.” – Stephen, Bishop of Sheffield
“We have seen the growth of a movement united by a common desire to welcome.” – Jonathan Featonby
“We are better, stronger, richer than in the 1960s, when our city was largely monocultural.” – Paul Blomfield MP Sheffield
“Refugee rights are our right,” Maurice Wren, Chief Executive, Refugee Council.
“Sanctuary in parliament is a plea for justice,” Inderjit Bhogal, Founder of City of Sanctuary
“I found it very moving to hear several refugees’ stories, and helpful to get an insight into city of sanctuary as a movement.” – An attendee
A list of MPs that attended the event can be found here
Thanks to Simon, Michael and Amber for their contributions to this report.