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Sanctuary in Parliament III – Report

This report has been written by our trustee, Joseph Chivayo, British Red Cross Voices Ambassador and member of Derby City of Sanctuary. Further reports, photos etc. can be found here

p1780236The event started with Thangam Debbonnaire Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, welcoming all the delegates to this our third summit in Parliament. Mr Debbonnaire spoke about ‘safe and legal routes’ and how important it is that the UK government continues to offer sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution around the globe.  He explained that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees brings together MPs with an interest in refugees from all political parties. The group’s mission is to provide a forum to discuss issues relating to refugees, both in the UK and abroad, and to promote the welfare of refugees.

Emad Raad who came to the UK through the Syrian Resettlement Programme  then gave his testimony, speaking about the need to help asylum seekers to study while their cases are being decided. This would give people seeking asylum the opportunity to integrate, learn new skills and also to contribute to the wider community through volunteering and community engagement. Emad expressed his gratitude to the UK Government and to all those people and organisations campaigning on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers.

Mazen Mansour, a lawyer from Syria, spoke about family reunion and talked about the journey he took after his country got involved in the atrocious ongoing war. He fled for his life, leaving his wife and two children. Mazen spoke about the help he received from a local charity after he failed to access Legal Aid. The charity (Asylum Justice) supported him with his application for family reunion. The charity helped him to complete his application and to be reunited with his family; he now volunteers with this charity helping other people in similar situations.

Steve Symonds from Amnesty International then spoke. He started by reading the words of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in 2014. She said ‘we are particularly concerned about young people that don’t have family support especially children in care…’ and Steve went on to say that many young refugees also lack family support – but government policy continues to deny refugee children the right to be reunited with their families in the UK. The current system does not work and the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration made this very clear, highlighting the oppressive and sometimes very intrusive measures (such as DNA tests) sometimes used to ascertain the relationship between children and their families left in places of war. Steve went on to say that we need to ensure people seeking sanctuary get the support they need to reach a place of safety. Our government should be giving particular support to vulnerable children who cannot be reunited with their families. Failure to do so is discrimination against children.

George Gabriel and Fardous Bahbouh then took the podium describing some of the harrowing experiences children have to go through due to the failure of governments to provide safe routes for people seeking asylum. They stressed that it is always important to understand that behind every statistic is a boy or girl, man or women who either lives or dies.  Fardous Bahbouh spoke about the joy she saw when the children lucky enough to be rescued reach safety in the UK, and said we need to ensure more kids get this opportunity.

Sabir Zazai chaired the next session. Sabir is Chair of our City of Sanctuary Trustees and p1780202over ten years ago he himself was an asylum seeker. Sabir spoke about resilience, the valuable contribution made by asylum seekers and refugees, and the importance of positive stories and of the relationships that develop when we share and connect with each other. He also spoke about the importance of having a fair and just asylum process. He said ‘We need to encourage these stories and ensure our decision makers and the public realise the humanity and compassion that connects us as human beings.’

Ambrose Musiyiwa recited his poem ‘The Man who ran through the Tunnel’. ‘Everything that can be done will be done to ensure British holiday makers can go on holiday’ said former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. What a sad day when we prioritise our holidays over people fleeing war and persecution! Through his heart-warming poem, Ambrose highlighted the way the borders are being protected and the real impact this has on children and adults seeking sanctuary.

Sahail Ali from Swansea City of Sanctuary then spoke about his experience after seeking sanctuary from Pakistani. Back home he used to be a banker but he became destitute after seeking asylum. He highlighted the fact that people seek asylum from all parts of the world when they feel their lives are in danger. He spoke about some of the challenges he faced, including the low standard of his initial accommodation, especially the terrible sanitary provision, poor food and severe overcrowding. 

Stanford, who sought asylum from Zimbabwe more than ten years ago, raised awareness of the real challenges people have to face after seeking asylum. He was a teacher in Zimbabwe but found it impossible to re-qualify after his asylum process. His case took three years but within that time he experienced destitution. Stanford spoke about the many men and women who find themselves destitute; he pointed out that we might see asylum seekers on the streets  or living in our communities and not realise they are at risk of destitution. Such people are often forced to put themselves in harm’s way, they become vulnerable to crime and unethical individuals taking advantage of them, all because otherwise the asylum system would make them destitute.

Jonathan Ellis, Head of Policy and Research and Advocacy in British Red Cross and Vice Chair of City of Sanctuary, then spoke about the Immigration Act and its impact on destitution. Jonathan made us aware that we have a humanitarian crisis here in the UK and that this great country could and should do better for those who seek sanctuary. Jonathan highlighted the importance of reviewing the twenty-eight day period within which people given leave to remain have to move out of their NASS accommodation, and pointed out that because of it, many people are actually finding themselves destitute after being given right to stay in the UK.

He went on to say that it is important how we as a people treat people, especially in these challenging and changing times. History will certainly judge us and that will also show our true identity and character.

He continued by saying that detention continues to be a real stumbling block, with the UK being the only European country that detains people without any time limit. People seeking asylum are treated worse in detention centres than people who have committed crimes; they experience psychological trauma and physical torture. ‘You are a person liable to be detained’, is the first line in letters received by people seeking asylum, and that statement alone is traumatising and shocking for the person seeking sanctuary. It often feels like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Jerome Phelps from Detention Forum spoke about the impact of detention and the fact that over the years, despite continued focus and debates, people are still being locked up. He said that the current system is based on coercion and fear and asked the government to treat people who seek sanctuary with respect, and to allow asylum seekers to settle in communities and live meaningful and fulfilling lives. He also asked them to explore alternatives to isolating people and locking them up.

The final session for the day was chaired by Amber Esther from Swansea City of Sanctuary. Amber spoke about the importance of welcome and integration when people come from different countries. Ahmad then spoke about some of the challenges to integration, including language and cultural differences. He raised the importance of community projects which support integration and help connect communities while tapping into the skills and capabilities brought by asylum seekers. Amjad and Nour then spoke about the importance of learning English and how the language breaks down barriers and connects people.

City of Sanctuary works by gathering supporters from all walks of life and disseminating the message that ‘Refugees are Welcome’. This is put into practice through the three ‘A’s – awareness raising, advocacy and action. Sanctuary in Parliament continues to be a City of Sanctuary flagship event, helping raise awareness amongst our MPs. Over forty of them from all political parties visited the event this year, and there were special visits from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd and the former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Some of the MPs also took this opportunity to have private meetings with their constituents. 

The event came to a resounding conclusion with an address from Maurice Wren CEO of the Refugee Council. Maurice said ‘our strength is in our unity and our strength is in our diversity.’ He went on to say that ‘we continue to make momentous progress in a range of issues affecting asylum seekers and refugees, however our work is not yet done; we continue to challenge the system eloquently and passionately, with facts and real stories of the lives of people. Our co-operation with other charities must go on. Underpinning our success is collaboration and communication, and we need to take the strength, passion and energy we have witnessed in this room and engage with the public, engage with businesses, engage with policy makers so we can make positive change.’