The Fourth Sanctuary in Parliament event

The fourth Sanctuary in Parliament event, organised by City of Sanctuary, Asylum Matters and other partners, focused on the theme “Dignity Not Destitution”.

About 40 MPs and members from House of Lords attended the Sanctuary in Parliament event to listen to voices of people seeking sanctuary, and their supporters advocating for a more humane asylum system at the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday 28 November.

The day-long event was sponsored by Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees (APPG). Ms Debbonaire started the proceedings with a powerful message for people seeking sanctuary and their supporters “You are entitled to be here, This is your Parliament”. She then went on to set the scene by saying “This country should be a place for sanctuary not destitution” and encouraged other MP’s to join and listen to the powerful testimonies.

The first session was led by Sabir Zazai, Chair of City of Sanctuary UK, who alongside partners from Refugee Action, NACCOM, British Red Cross, and sanctuary seekers called for an end to poverty and homelessness within the asylum system. The powerful testimonies from sanctuary seekers advocated for three specific and simple changes to the asylum system:-

  1. Permission to work be granted to any person seeking asylum that has been waiting for longer than six months

 One sanctuary seeker explained that he had been waiting over a year for a decision on his claim, and called for permission to work for asylum seekers; he said “We are eager to support our families on our own and not become an extra burden to the UK economy. We would like to contribute economically and socially to the society”.

The speaker also highlighted the fact that “Most of my friends in my situation have become volunteers in community groups and charities in order to contribute to and integrate with the people and cultures around us”.

  1. The rate of asylum support to be raised from its current level of 50% mainstream income support to at least 70%

Jonathan Featonby from the British Red Cross introduced the session and invited the audience to think about how they would manage to live on £5 a week. Both the sanctuary speakers reflected how difficult life is for families trying to survive on asylum support. One sanactuary speaker, spoke about how her children were unable to go on school trips or do anything other children could, like going to the cinema with their friends, as they were living on section 4 – cashless support – for a very long period. The other sanctuary seeker drew attention to the difficulties faced by disabled asylum seekers, for example paying for taxi’s to attend medical appointments. She also spoke movingly about the particular difficulties for asylum seeking women who live on £5 a week – which was then highlighted during the following day during the debate on period poverty by Layla Moran MP.

  1. An extension of the ‘move on’ period for new refugees to 50 days

The final speakers highlighted that even when refugees have received their status, having proved their legal right to stay in the country, many face homelessness. The message and stories from both the sanctuary speakers was a clear one – it is simply impossible to apply for benefits and find housing within the current 28 window.

The overarching message that “No-one seeking sanctuary should be forced into destitution” came across loud and clear in the first session – and at one point #DignityNotDestitution was trending on twitter. Further information can be located in the Policy Briefing.

to all our groups, partners, attendees and especially the speakers for making the event such a massive success.

The second session provided an opportunity for some wonderful performances. The first performance was of thoughtful poetry readings by Greystone Primary school children. The poetry demonstrated that the children had learnt about the experiences of being a refugee and showed that they deserve the Schools of Sanctuary Award which is currently pending. The next performance was by Swansea City of Sanctuary who read poems from the book “My Heart Loves In My Language”. The final performance was by the talented Children’s singing group from the Syrian Community of Sussex who sang wonderfully and enabled the audience to end the day by celebrating the contribution that refugees make across the UK.

Sanctuary in Parliament provides a rare  opportunity for MPs to meet with those who have fled persecution and sought safety here in the UK. Often people who seek protection here have fled faced reprisals because they had spoken out against their own leaders, and this event has offered many sanctuary seekers the chance to speak openly with MPs. One of sanctuary seekers reflected that they felt that they had been shown there is a place for them within the UK’s democratic process to raise their voices and be heard, and says he now has a  sense of belonging, confidence and hope. Another sanctuary seeker said “This is the best day of my life, I could not do this in my own country.” 

We thank all the MP’s and Peers who listened so carefully to the personal experiences of people seeking sanctuary and the concerns of their constituents.

The support across all parties was fantastic and we had positive responses to the three ‘asks’ with one MP stating that permission to works “… is a simple and sound request – seems a no brainer”.

Several MPs followed up their support in tweets after attending the event. Among them, Preet Kaur Gill MP who tweeted, “Thank you to @CityofSanctuary for bringing refugee voices to Parliament. Wonderful to meet my constituents and hear about their concerns.” Caroline Lucas MP tweeted, “So brilliant to catch up in Parliament with some of the wonderful people involved with @BrightonSanct - makes me very proud.”

City of Sanctuary’s Chief Officer, Sian Summers-Rees, Chief Officer, CoS said:

This years Sanctuary in Parliament was once again full of enthusiasm, energy and passion. We brought the powerful voices of people seeking sanctuary to Parliament.  Our City of Sanctuary groups and other supporters, have shown that despite the overwhelming challenges they face in supporting sanctuary seekers they have the grit and determination to continue to call for changes to the system which will improve the lives of sanctuary seekers across the UK. We hope they felt part of a much bigger movement which is calling for change and uplifted by the cross-party support we recieved in Parliament“.

The story does not end here and neither does the activity – this is just the beginning and our groups, and other supporters are encouraged to make contact with MPs who attended, and those who were unable to attend. There are a number of Parliamentary Questions that have been outlined in the draft follow up letter that can be sent to MP‘s. See also the Policy Briefing and the Quick Guide for more information.

Finally, a thank you to all our groups, partners, attendees and especially the speakers for making the event such a massive success.

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