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Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum

7 April 13 words: Mike Scott
At present there are around 60 nationalities receiving help at the centre


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It may be  a cliché that you can judge how civilised a country is by the way it treats its prisoners, but the same can be said for its refugees, too.

Most people don’t realise that there are about 9,000 refugees and maybe 500 asylum-seekers in Nottingham right now, many having escaped death by a whisker and suffered almost unimaginable hardships on their way to the city. If that seems a lot, refugees actually only account for a bit over 1% of the local population, if you include Mansfield and Newark as well.

In fact, having arrived largely by accident – being “dispersed” here by the Government – a lot have now put down roots and made the transition from newcomers to locals.

It’s really difficult to imagine what it’s like being an asylum-seeker: driven out of your home with nothing, to a country far away, where you don’t know anyone or understand how anything works – truly frightening. But who are these refugees and asylum-seekers, and why are they here?

“Asylum-Seekers” are people who have applied for recognition as refugees, under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which Britain is signed up to. They are escaping persecution in their home country and seeking sanctuary here. In most current cases, the persecution is for reasons of either politics or sexual orientation.

When “dispersal” started in 2000, a group of local people came together to try to help and support the new arrivals and, over time, this informal group turned into the Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum (NNRF). The NNRF is now based at The Square Centre, off Huntingdon St. and provides a wide range of services, including advice (housing, bills, how to access English lessons, how the various bureaucratic processes work, schools, training, employment), a Health Project (access to the NHS, mental health issues, maternity) and Legal Support (citizenship, travel documents, appeals against refusal of refugee status). There is also free access to the Internet, social activities, families’ and women’s groups and an anti-destitution group. There have been nearly 9,000 new contacts in the last year alone. People hear about the forum in various ways, often by word of mouth, but also via a welcome pack (provided by their housing contractor), GP surgeries, libraries and schools.

The places they come from directly reflect the wars and persecution happening in the world at the time. At present there are around 60 nationalities receiving help at the centre; the main countries of origin are Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Afghanistan and around 25 different languages can be found amongst those. Most asylum-seekers are male, but there are a growing number of women and children.

One of the most vital services run by the NNRF is the anti-destitution group. If someone’s application for refugee status is refused, all public support is withdrawn, even if they can’t be deported to their home country because it’s too dangerous to do so. NNRF supporters and individual donors ensure that refugees receive the basics, however lack of funding often means it is quite literally just the basics. The group also tries to help people with unofficial accommodation, referrals to local soup kitchens and general information.

Most people are grateful for the help they receive and some are still in contact 12 years on. Many become volunteers at the NNRF themselves once they have permission to stay, anxious to give something back.

Funding is a massive problem for all charities and the NNRF is continuously in the process of applying for grants and contracts for particular pieces of work or projects. The largest proportion of funds comes from the Lottery, followed by City Council and NHS contracts, Children in Need, the Lloyds TSB charity and from individual supporters with regular standing orders. There is never enough money to go round and it’s always a struggle to cover  destitution payments and “core costs”, such as rent and the small number of paid staff.

Given the current financial crisis, the future is even more unclear than usual. Not only is there a squeeze on funding from all major funders, other organisations with an overlap in responsibilities are struggling to find cash, too meaning that the onus to help is falling more and more on the NNRF.

If lack of funding doesn't seem enough, there is also likely to be a devastating effect from the pending changes to council tax (everyone now having to pay something) and the infamous “bedroom tax” (having benefit reduced if you’ve been put into a house with an extra bedroom). These will affect many poorer people, but will have a disproportionate effect on recent arrivals.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are a largely invisible but massively disadvantaged group of people. Far from coming here to exploit us or our benefit system, they would ideally have wished to remain in their own homes.

Bea Tobolewska, the Centre Manager: “We need to get over that these are human beings needing help, not problems”, she says. “We’re always short of money and volunteers. If there’s anyone who has a couple of hours available on a regular basis, we want to hear from them – we provide full training and support and it could be during the day, in the evening or at the weekend”.

Roles needed include advice work, admin/reception duties, helping with English classes, the Women’s Group and accompanying people to appointments. There is even a initative called Host, where lovely people with a spare room are invited to house a refugee for a few days. weeks or months until they can get back on their feet. 

The NNRF is doing a vital job in helping newcomers integrate into our community. If you feel that you can help in anyway, then please contact the team through the website below. 

NNRF website

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