Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.’
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny