This year marks five years since we set up The Refugee Buddy Project (RBP) in Hastings, East Sussex. It is also the ten year anniversary of the formal introduction of the Hostile Environment, a set of policies designed to make life intolerable for immigrants in the UK.
As former Prime Minister and then-Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2012, her government explicitly ‘aim[ed] to create a really hostile environment’ for people by, for example, limiting and policing immigrants’ access to work, housing, health care, bank accounts and more.
These ‘disastrous’ policies have led to increased racial profiling and harassment across society, forced countless people into destitution and exploitative and abusive situations, and are linked to the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans and the Windrush scandal. As a small charity on the South-East coast, the support of national organising networks has been invaluable as we have navigated this increasingly aggressive, painful context.
Long-term grassroots activist Rossana Leal set up RBP in 2017, just two years after moving to Hastings from London. After learning that Hastings was part the Syrian Resettlement Scheme, Rossana felt compelled to support people with experiences similar to her own.
She had escaped Pinochet-era Chile as a child, being resettled with her family and by the UN in the Scottish village Cowdenbeath. She remembered arriving to a house furnished by locals, who also provided the family a warm meal and a sense of safety.
In Hastings, Rossana put out a call for volunteers, hoping that they could provide new migrants with a similar experience. The local community responded in huge numbers, which have consistently outpaced even the number of resettled refugees arriving in Hastings.
RBP quickly grew, from aiding a handful of Syrian families locally to supporting all the families in the Resettlement Programmes across Hastings and neighbouring districts of Rother and Wealden, in addition to many people living locally under the Home Office Dispersal Scheme – a Labour-era policy designed to ‘disperse’ people with pending asylum claims across the country in an effort distance them from supportive diaspora communities.
Especially during the past year, as small boat arrivals have dominated headlines, Hastings has been painted as a community divided. That isn’t the picture we see. Despite electing a succession of Conservative MPs – including Amber Rudd, a Home Secretary responsible for implementing many Hostile Environment policies – it feels locally like the majority of people in Hastings are united in support for refugees, as evidenced by our sold out film screening, art, and discussion panel events.
Our work was strengthened in 2019, when Rossana won the Women on the Move Woman of the Year Award, a prize established by Migrants Organise and the UN office for refugees to recognise and celebrate the inspirational leadership and contributions to society made by migrant and refugee women.
The award established vital links between RBP, Migrants Organise and a whole network of organisations working in the refugee and migrant rights sector nationwide. These connections have had huge impact on our work.
Being geographically isolated, it has been easy in Hastings to feel detached from the fight for refugee and migrant rights. The Solidarity Knows No Borders (SKNB) network however puts us in contact with groups across the UK, sharing insights and experiences and reminding us we are not navigating this hostility alone.
Over time, we have also become increasingly aware of the everyday obstacles faced by people we support and have stepped up to campaign alongside them. People within our own RBP network have used whatever tools they have to amplify each other’s voices.
For example, we published the report ‘Lost in Translation: The need for interpreting services and access to the NHS for refugee women’ to highlight hostile practices within the NHS, drawing on families’ reports and volunteer witnesses. We presented the report to local doctors so that Hastings NHS might take seriously its responsibilities to the refugee community.
We linked this local campaign to the national Patients Not Passports (PNP) movement, which challenges fee charges and immigration checks within NHS settings, and created a local PNP branch to help dismantle the Hostile Environment across the NHS more broadly.
Initially, we faced pushback from medical professionals. We were told it was too inconvenient and expensive to provide access to interpreters. By raising the voices of those being failed by the system, however, we were able to make a lasting impact: the introduction of interpreting services across all departments.
Our connection with the central PNP team, the availability of shared resources and access to funding has significantly increased what we as a small organisation are able to do. That practical ethos is crucial to the way the SKNB network functions. When COVID hit, the financial impact almost saw us having to close our doors. Instead, through our connection to the network, we are now expanding our services to assist and advocate for even more people.
The generosity of the network extends further still, to the way it organises events, messaging and campaigns. Far from the top-down approach often seen in our sector – where large organisations often expect us to follow their instructions, often leaving us blindsided by press releases and without an opportunity to feed into research – the SKNB network understands the need for a fully collaborative approach. It knows the successes of it as a result.
Throughout the Solidarity Knows No Borders 2022 Week of Action, tag-lined ‘10 Years Too Long’, groups all over the country have organised local actions, from film screenings to concerts, from pickets to parties, from marches to our very own action, a beach picnic.
Being by the sea here in Hastings is an important reminder of the small boats arriving from Calais, and an essential public display of solidarity in our town. We are saying: the Hostile Environment might be government policy, but it doesn’t represent our community.
In five year’s time, when the Refugee Buddy Project celebrates its tenth anniversary, we must not find ourselves also marking 15 years of the Hostile Environment. We must instead ensure that we’re celebrating an end to that policy’s insidious impact on our public services and daily life.
Under this brutal government, migrants’ rights work is becoming increasingly difficult. National networks of solidarity are more crucial than ever. They give us hope, and much more: they remind us that we must organise, together, for real change.
Alex Kempton is the director of operations and campaigns at The Refugee Buddy Project: Hastings, Rother & Wealden
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