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Waterfront Festival

Shelter From the Storm

1 August 07 words: Charlotte Kingsbury

What do fish and chips, Marks & Spencer, the Mini and the Bank of England have in common? Refugees...

What do the Mini, fish and chips, Marks & Spencer and the Bank of England have in common? Cornerstones of British culture? Well, yes. And like many other truly British things, we have refugees fleeing persecution in their homelands to thank for them.

From what you hear in Parliament and the press, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were overrun with bogus asylum seekers, taking our taxes and lolling on free furniture in des-res council homes. In actual fact, the number of asylum seekers in this country is now at its lowest for almost twenty years, the process by which asylum seekers need to prove their legitimacy has never been as strict (and dehumanising) as it is now; claimants can expect to be finger-printed, questioned, medically examined, imprisoned and otherwise treated like a criminal suspect. All this after a life-threatening journey, perhaps in the hands of money-grabbing smugglers, to escape terrible persecution whilst grieving the loss of loved ones who have been left behind or who have already died. Serves them right for not asking whatever dictatorship they were running away from for their passport, birth certificate and life savings before coming here, eh?

As for the suggestion that they come here to live off our generous benefits system, asylum seekers aren’t actually allowed to work (although many are trained in skills we could do with), so are given basic financial support. This is 30% less than the entitlement of a UK adult and is sometimes given in food vouchers which means they can’t be spent on ‘luxuries’ like sanitary protection, medicine, babies’ nappies, phone calls or legal support. Oh, or bus fares to the reporting centre in Loughborough which all Nottingham-based asylum seekers have to regularly attend, even if they’re disabled, speak no English or have small children. Many even make the twenty mile journey on foot, so keen are they to remain within the strict rules.

‘It takes about seven hours each way, but they’ll do it because they have to’, says Charlotte Robinson of the Refugee Forum. ‘They used to be able to report to the Police Station on Shakespeare Street but then the rules were changed. We did an organised march to the Loughborough reporting centre earlier this year to highlight the problems faced by people making their way there regularly. I’m currently trying to negotiate with the authorities for a blind man to be able to report elsewhere, or at least less often, but I’m not getting very far at the moment.’

Other than prejudice and bureaucratic hoop-jumping, destitution is the major issue facing Nottingham’s asylum seeking and refugee community. Those who have been refused asylum are at the worst risk, as they cease to receive support unless they agree to be deported. Many are still terrified of going back, fearing imprisonment, torture and death on their return. Alma Repesa at Refugee Action Nottingham points out that, ‘whilst they may not have been able to satisfy the high threshold of the law in terms of evidencing individualised persecution, their fear needs to be acknowledged and they need to be supported until it is safe for them to return’. Instead of voluntarily returning, refused asylum seekers often go underground, being exploited for cheap labour in very unsavoury work and, if lucky, being supported by others in the asylum seeking/refugee communities who are already living on a very low income themselves. Even those refugees who have been granted leave to remain are sometimes left homeless; there aren’t enough temporary spaces in night shelters or homeless hostels. The homes which are provided to refugees and asylum seekers are almost always excouncil housing in the nastiest parts of town.

Asylum seekers from around 65 different countries have been sent (or ‘dispersed’) to Nottingham by the government since 2000. As in the rest of the UK they only form around 0.5% of the local population. Almost none of them get to choose which country they’re sent to – being at the whim of people smugglers – and similarly they don’t decide to come to Nottingham. Yet it seems that here at least, they are treated with more warmth than in some other parts of the country. Speaking with women at Nottingham’s Refugee Forum, who come from countries such as Cameroon, the Congo, Eritrea and Zimbabwe, they told me how friendly and kind Nottingham people have been to them, especially contrasted with their experiences in other cities.

There are still problems, though. Sadly, some support groups have been forced to go ex-directory, relying on directed marketing and word of mouth to alert asylum seekers, refugees and genuine supporters to their existence. ‘When our address was in the public domain, we’d sometimes get a load of abuse at our doorstep, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when people were coming home drunk and aggravated,’ said one agency.

One way in which local support groups are working to tackle this kind of ignorant, hateful behaviour is through Refugee Action’s Refugee Awareness Project, which Nottingham is part of along with Derby, Liverpool and Bristol. The project trains teams of refugee and British volunteers to go out to local groups, listen to their concerns and explain what life is like as a refugee. The three-year project holds sessions with a wide variety of recipients, ranging from schools and business groups to sports clubs and tenants’ associations. It gives people the opportunity to meet and chat with a real refugee, learn about their history and reasons for being here and opens people’s eyes to the contribution that refugees can and do make to local communities.

Celebrating these contributions was a key element of June’s Refugee Week. This UK wide festival started in 1998, but this was the first time that Nottingham took part. Plays, music and art workshops, parties and public debates were held all over Nottingham, from Sneinton Allotments to the Market Square. The performance of the Asylum Monologues at the Vine Centre was not only very moving, it was packed out.

There are other events taking place regularly in Nottingham, put on by those who want to show solidarity and are appalled by the ill treatment of those in need. No Borders Nottingham regularly demonstrate on behalf of the asylum seeking community, most recently protesting the return of refused asylum seekers, including young children, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where there is great unrest and generalised violence due to the ‘African World War’ – the bloodiest conflict since the second World War.

There’s still much work to do improving the lot of Nottingham’s asylum seekers, but they, the agencies dedicated to working with them and the local community are together trying to show that Nottingham can be a welcoming, supportive and all round brilliant place to be, whether you were born here or just fortunate enough to find a new, safe home in Hoodtown.

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