There are three narratives that dominate the discussion of refugees in the UK. On the right there are the self-contradicting narratives of the ‘scrounging layabout’ and the ‘job stealer’, while the left often succumbs to the liberal view of the ‘victim’ in need of charity.
One project helping to challenge these stereotypes is City of Sanctuary. It is facilitating conversations between people who may hold those right-wing views and the migrants themselves while at the same time ensuring that refugees become active participants in creating a better life for themselves and their peers.
The project started in Sheffield six years ago. Since then it has grown into a network of 15 towns and cities, with the core aim of ‘welcoming asylum seekers and refugees’. But it is now also doing much more.
Structure and dynamics
Each city project shares three main characteristics: to highlight the contribution of asylum seekers to host communities; to form relationships with people in the host community; and to develop a culture of hospitality and welcoming. But key to the movement’s success is the fact that each area has its own ‘structure and dynamics’.
As Penny Walker, co-ordinator of Coventry City of Sanctuary, explains: ‘Each city is set up differently: some as charities, some as loose networks. In Coventry we are a network of organisations… We look at what needs doing and where and each organisation applies for different bits of funding.’
‘It is truly a people-led movement,’ she adds. Local people play a key role – it is their existing projects, clubs and societies that offer a welcoming arm to those who need it.
Sarah Eldridge, Sheffield co-ordinator, says: ‘It taps into feelings that are already there. Sheffield has a long history of welcoming refugees. For instance, in the 1970s many people came from Pinochet’s Chile.’ It’s the simple things like inviting people to local chess clubs or cultural events that make the difference, she explains.
Over 100 groups are now part of the network. They have worked alongside the Children’s Society, who go with refugees into local schools to share their experiences with pupils. They have also worked with Ice and Fire drama group and the Co-op to put on events with asylum seekers so that local people can learn about the experience of refugees.
It’s the refugees themselves who are taking the lead – and beginning to mould City of Sanctuary into a movement that mixes a DIY ethos with a broad base.
A good example is in Coventry, where a group of migrants and refugees, with the help of City of Sanctuary, set up and now run a hate crime helpline. As well as answering calls from people who have suffered racist abuse, they also help people who have suffered due to disability or other hate crimes, reaching out far beyond their comfort zone. Those involved also visit vulnerable groups and individuals, such as those taking English classes, letting people know they don’t have to suffer alone or in silence.
This trend is typified by Forward, a Zimbabwean refugee. He arrived in the UK in 2002 and is now heading up Bristol’s project. As an English-speaking journalist, he found it relatively easy to make the move the UK, but understands that for others the move is not so simple. He recently helped to organise a human rights day where people talked about ‘their experiences in Bristol and their journeys’. This he felt was important both for local people who could gain a better understanding, and also for the refugees who were able to tell their own stories.
The process has not been without its challenges, but these are beginning to take new forms. In past the model sometimes hasn’t translated for cultural or political reasons, while in other cases it has been difficult to instil what has been described as an ‘intangible’ idea.
Now things are different. ‘All the good work done over many years is now under threat due to government cuts and at a really bad time,’ says Penny Walker. ‘It comes on the back of what seems like an increase in the amount of hatred, and the recession has had an impact on this, especially to do with jobs. Good projects are under threat as well as council services.’
Sarah Eldridge agrees. ‘The economic climate is a challenge. People feel insecure and unsettled, losing jobs and money.’ She believes that under such circumstances people find it ‘harder to extend the hand of welcome to people different from themselves’.
But this has only stiffened their resolve. As Penny Walker puts it, ‘the recession means we have to carry on and do even more.’ She believes that City of Sanctuary is and must be one part of something much wider.
‘We need to give individuals practical help, but we also need to be campaigning,’ she says. ‘It’s about more than just the person in front of you. It’s about the global situation, the arms trade, the draconian asylum system and the UK’s role in the world. We need to change people’s hearts and minds – but also the systems that make people destitute.’