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Wales – Nation of Sanctuary Annual Sanctuary in the Senedd

The Annual Sanctuary in the Senedd event took place on the 3rd April, and was this year sponsored by Julie James.

The event aimed to explore how together we can make Wales a Nation of Sanctuary, and in that spirit, for the first time Sanctuary in the Senedd was a partnership event between the Welsh Refugee Coalition, Public Health Wales, Welsh Government and the Welsh Local Government Association.

The day commenced with the Chair of the Welsh Refugee Coalition, Rocio Cifuentes welcoming everyone to the event. Rocio applauded the efforts of all the partners so far but also challenged us all to do more and outlined the four specific asks put forward by the Welsh Refugee Coalition:-

  1. a) The Welsh Government to secure budget decisions to back the Nation of Sanctuary delivery plan
  2. b) Urgent action to be taken to tackle destitution
  3. c) Ensure that the most vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees are identified and supported
  4. d) Promote integration from the outset

The Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, Jane Hutt, then made the opening address outlining the Welsh Government’s commitment and leadership to the concept of Wales becoming a Nation of Sanctuary. She said

“Becoming a Nation of Sanctuary is the responsibility of everyone in Wales but we, as a Welsh Government, are committed to showing leadership on this issue, with the willing and crucial support of many partners in this room”.

The Deputy Minister went on to announce that Wales has recently achieved a significant milestone in welcoming over 1,000 refugees under the Syrian Resettlement Programme and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme. She said that Wales is indeed a welcoming Nation and  “…that the spirit of the Welsh people is defined by empathy and friendship, not indifference or exclusion”. The Deputy Minister was resolute in her statement that Wales needs migration and that we need and value the contributions that people seeking sanctuary make to our society.

Most significantly the Deputy Minister made one thing very clear, “… there is absolutely no place in Wales for hate speech or racism” and acknowledged that whilst the Welsh Government had committed to a  number of actions in the Nation of Sanctuary Plan they would look to do more to welcome people seeking sanctuary living in Wales.

The Deputy Minister then read out a message from Bishop Dr Roman Williams:

“The news that Wales is to declare itself a Nation of Sanctuary is something that should make every Welsh person deeply proud.  At a time when so many countries and their governments are putting up fresh barriers and – at worst – stirring up panic and prejudice, Wales has been true to the very best of its political heritage and recognised that it is part of an interlocking human family in which anyone’s need or suffering or exile is everyone’s business.  None of us can flourish if any part of the family is ignored or allowed to face its challenges alone. Waldo Williams famously wrote that ‘recognition’ was ‘finding we have one root beneath all the branches’ – Cael un wraidd dan y canghennau.  Wales is showing the world what it means to recognise the stranger as growing from the same root of human solidarity”.

The Deputy Minister finished by reminding us of the recent terror attack in Christchurch and the horrific loss of life, and quoted the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has set a standard for leaders worldwide – She has said “The answer lies in our humanity. We each hold the power – in our words, in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of the 15 of March”.

An example of such leadership was then illustrated as the First Minister, Mark Drakeford accepted the Nation of Sanctuary map, created during the Eisteddfod last year and contains words of welcome from people all across Wales. His message to people seeking sanctuary in Wales was symbolic of the Welsh Government’s commitment “The privilege is ours to have you here… we recognise your contributions, you add to the richness of life here in Wales”.

Next we heard from Dr Gill Richardson, Public Health Wales and Dr Ashra Khanom, Swansea University, about the HEAR study  on the health experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in Wales. Their main findings were that health professionals lacked the resources or training to tailor services to the needs of people seeking sanctuary. Additionally, whilst their research discovered that many people seeking sanctuary were aware of NHS primary care services within daytime hours, they found that there was a significant lack of awareness about services out of hours, particularly pharmacy and primary care (which was then exacerbated by variable awareness of the entitlements provided by the HC2 certificate). Significantly the adverse impact of seeking sanctuary in a new country subject to Home Office policies and procedures was clear throughout this study, as were concerns raised about mental health.

Dr Ashra finished off the presentation by thanking the eight peer researchers.

We then heard from Councillor Susan Elsemore who reminded the audience that there was a distinctive Welsh approach to supporting people seeking sanctuary and said that the Welsh Local Government Association felt privileged to be part of the work. Importantly Cllr Elsemore thanked the local authorities for their response to resettlement and said she was tremendously proud that they had gone one step further and “…warmly wrapped their arms around individuals”. She said Council Leaders, Chief Executives, lead officers and those working directly with people have gone above and beyond and also thanked the partners who have worked with, and supported the local authorities. Cllr Elsemore reiterated the point, which was also made by both the Deputy and First Minister, that people seeking sanctuary are having a positive impact in Wales. She went on to tell us that one school in Cardiff had said the Syrian children they have welcomed have raised the standards of the whole class. Cllr Elsemore finished by saying she acknowledged that there were challenges but that we can work together to address those challenges, and that we need, and can, do more.

The audience then heard from Ahmed, a Syrian refugee resettled in Carmarthen, and for the first time the translation service normally used for translating Welsh into English was used to translate Arabic into English. Ahmed thanked the Welsh Government for the welcome and support that he and his family had received, he went on to make a heartfelt and emotional thank you to the people of Wales. He said “I feel like I am among my family, … I am privileged to live in Wales and happy that my children will grow up in this Nation”. Bringing many to tears, and all to smile, he said “I love your warm smile, you are my family”.

A break for tea and coffee then followed, during which time many people were able to talk to the many Assembly Members in attendance (16 at the last count!).

Following the break we heard from Rosie Wallbank, Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who spoke about the human rights and health care for people seeking sanctuary. Rosie highlighted that often people seeking sanctuary can be too afraid to access healthcare and that staff are often ensure about eligibility. Overall the EHRC conclusions were that people felt that their Human Rights should be put first, secondary to their immigration status as an asylum seeker. Most importantly Rosie highlighted that NHS Wales does not share data with the Home Office which is to be applauded. However, they recognised the need to ensure that there is more accessible information about health and more access to professional interpreters.

Jo Hopkins, from Public Health Wales, spoke next about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on individuals and communities in Wales and the Public Health Wales plans to engage diverse communities in their public awareness campaign. Jo called for us all to work together for people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, particularly those who are working with people seeking sanctuary.

It was then time for a ‘reality check’ as Holly Taylor, Manager of the Asylum Rights Programme, which provides advocacy, information and advice, explained the flaws in the asylum support system and the challenges faced by people seeking sanctuary. Holly reminded the audience that there is very much a two tier system – and that those people who arrive on their own to seek sanctuary faced a very different reality from those who arrived through resettlement routes. Holly was followed by the City of Sanctuary, Chief Officer, Siân Summers-Rees (to her surprise), to talk in her capacity as a trustee of Asylum Justice about the asylum journey. Siân highlighted some of the challenges faced in claiming asylum and reminded the audience that the system is complex and that it is hard to make a successful claim for asylum – the majority of claims are refused (40% acceptance rate). She mentioned the difficulties people find in disclosing information and the negative impact non-disclosure can have on an asylum decision. Most importantly she explained that the application of the Legal Aid ‘merits test’ can often leave people unrepresented at tribunal stage. Siân explained that for people living in Wales who find themselves without legal representation the only option is Asylum Justice. She explained that Asylum Justice is a very small charity in desperate need of further funding; Asylum Justice has a 71% success rate at tribunal (the national average is 38%). Siân reminded the audience that people who became appeal rights exhausted face a life of destitution and called for urgent action to tackle destitution. She finished by paying tribute to all front line staff, especially the Asylum Justice Legal Director, Ruth Brown, who are under a considerable amount of pressure and stress. She said it is the front line staff that make a huge difference to the lives of people seeking sanctuary in Wales.

Next came the testimonies from people seeking sanctuary who had been supported by the Red Cross Voices programme; As Rocio, the Chair, had envisaged at the beginning of the day, these were the most important, powerful and moving presentations.

George Mlanga started the session by highlighting the need for better support for asylum seekers to access education in order for them to reach their full potential. He went on to state that the meagre allowance of £37.75 is simply not enough for people to access education and is a barrier to integration as people are unable to access other meaningful activity.

Next Yasmin Sofi, talked about her experiences of being resettled in Wrexham, some of which was very positive, for example she talked about her new home which was full of all the essentials and the support they had with registering with the job centre and the GP. However Yasmin explained that when she started to go to college she realised that her English was very weak. She said her and her family have found that as they live in a very quiet area they do not have the opportunities to practice and improve their language; she said “We don’t have any friends to improve our language. This problem is faced by all Syrian people who arrived in the UK. We don’t have the opportunity to speak English with native speakers”. She acknowledged that for many the lack of English language skills was a huge barrier to employment and suggested that Wales learns from Germany who enable refugees to undertake apprenticeships for six months, which gives them the chance to learn the language as well as the rules of their job. Yasmin ended her speech by explaining to the audience that a great source of continuing concern and anguish to her is that her parents are still in Iraq, she explained that Syrian refugees get very little support in Iraq and that affects her parents who are suffering from ill-health.

The final words were from Larysa, she said “…this could be any of you, no matter what country you are from. There is a no door open for me to go back”. Larysa explained that whilst she faces extreme challenges, for example by being prevented from working in the UK and has been in limbo for five years waiting for a decision, she is still grateful that she came here as she was “Looking for sanctuary, looking for safety”. Larysa explained she did not want to be a burden and that she is thankful to the country, finally with hardly a dry eye in the audience she said “You only have one childhood, and sometimes you need darkness to see the stars”.