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Report from the 20 May CoS Conference

CITY OF SANCTUARY – Wider Midlands and Eastern Regional Conference 20 May 2016, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre

1.Current overview of refugee issues – Jonathan Featonby, CoS Trustee and Parliamentary Manager, Refugee Council
Jonathan gave us an overview of the current situation with regard to refugees. He told us that the Government wants to review the cases of those who have already been granted refugee status after 3 years (formerly 5yrs) and that they want to ‘choose’ refugees from Syria, instead of taking those who have traveled to Europe. Those who come by this route are regarded as ‘second class.’ They seem determined to push the idea of ‘good’ v. ‘bad’ refugees with the public. He informed us that the highest number of applications for asylum are not, as people imagine, from the Middle East, but from Eritrea.
He sees the role of Cities of Sanctuary as supporting people through the asylum and resettlement processes. With regard to the dispersal and resettlement programme, resettlement is well funded, but dispersal is not, which is leading to many difficulties with the costs falling on Local Authorities, whose funding has already been cut. There are particular difficulties around the provision of foster care for unaccompanied children, (3000 last year) with a large burden falling on Kent and Croydon. Family reunion, to which children are entitled, is only available to children under 18 years of age. Reunion for older children or elderly relatives is not funded at all. Citizens UK is trying to help children in Calais who have family members in Britain.
Jonathan outlined the current legal situation and impact of the 2016 Immigration Act. New primary legislation is not necessarily needed for a new asylum seeker strategy. But CoS will continue to lobby Parliament on immigration issues.
Problem of refusal of right to work for asylum seekers (limited rights after 12 months). Backlog of applications for refugee status means decision can take years. Initial interviews are not always recorded, but can influence decision. Note issues surrounding implementation, rather than just the law itself. CoS groups can sometimes assist with legal support (needs expansion).
Contrast between funding and conditions for Syrian resettlement programme and general dispersal of asylum seekers/ refugees (less well-funded). Two-tier system!
Children are assisted by Refugee Council scheme and CoS groups. 2015 – over 3000 unaccompanied children (1000 with Kent County Council, some dispersed but Kent retains some responsibility). Immigration Act can enforce dispersal. Dubs amendment (to permit entry for children from Europe) defeated, but another version passed with no fixed numbers (Local Authorities are currently being consulted over numbers). Children have no right to family reunion (only spouse and children included, and families are split when some children are over 18). CoS is lobbying for a wider definition of family. UK is alone in the EU in refusing family reunion to child refugees. There is no evidence that child migration would increase if this right were granted in UK.
Dublin regulation (registration at point of first entry) benefits UK government: legalises right to return migrants to point of entry in southern Europe.
2. Updates from CoS groups
Coventry: City Council is supporting both reception of asylum seekers under general government refugee dispersal scheme and also Syrian resettlement under Vulnerable Persons scheme (20,000 over 5 years). Coventry Refugee Centre was set up 15 years ago to provide a welcome to refugees. Current manager (Sabir Zazai) is an Afghan refugee. Projects include Carriers of Hope (local collections of sanitary products, now extended to other necessities); Law Centre partnership; Peace House partnership; provision of networking facilities to other local groups/ avoidance of duplication; provision of ESOL, through volunteer teachers; partnership with two local universities, e.g. research and conferencing related to refugees; befriending for new arrivals, including some with special needs; organisation of volunteer work by asylum seekers (as well as FOR them). There is some local opposition, e.g. EDL demonstrations.
Sabir Zazai spoke of the help he received from the Centre, which aims to create a culture of welcome. Coventry is proud of the welcome it offers. Refugees need help which maintains their dignity, rather than just food and shelter. Their motive for emigrating is for the safety of their children: the only motive for family migration.
Birmingham: Birmingham is new to CoS but has many other refugee support groups. CoS is useful to prevent duplication and encourage networking. Birmingham CoS recently held a big launch event, with City Council and Councillors’ support. Schools are a top concern for families and CoS is promoting Schools of Sanctuary. Newman University is supportive (including Vice Chancellor) and Aston University is at the start of support.
CoS includes links to Restore, established volunteer befriending service (188 new referrals in 2015). City Council is participating in refugee dispersal programme and Syrian resettlement.
Cambridge: New CoS group, led by City Councillor. Cambridge has Calais Direct Aid group and some refugee settlement BUT big problem of high house prices (not a designated dispersal area for this reason). Cambridge CoS had a big local launch in 2015, with support of City Council, bringing together all local refugee organisations and raising £11k. Faith networks are important in obtaining some housing, and sponsorship offers have been made.
(Colleen: sponsored refugee numbers will be part of the government’s 20,000, NOT additional – problematic? CoS is campaigning for sponsored refugees to be an addition to the government scheme.)
Cambridge has many ESOL teachers – could offer teaching in areas with more refugees?
Cambridge is offering IT support to refugees: using technology to provide internet access in refugee camps, organising online conferencing, assisting refugees into business start-up schemes, via links with NGSs in refugee camps. ‘Techfugees’ – Cambridge chapter.
Derby: New CoS group, aiming to promote networking and avoid duplication of support services. Derby University may seek University of Sanctuary status, but Vice Chancellor not supportive. CoS campaign for five funded places for refugees at the university (fee waiver). NB Helena Kennedy Foundation provides some funding to help with student accommodation costs etc. Derby Cathedral was the first Cathedral of Sanctuary. Some Councillors supportive.
East Lindsey (Lincolnshire): No local welcome from politicians or public – but individual action has made progress. One volunteer is hosting therapeutic ‘breaks’ for refugees, and ‘sanctuary breaks’ could be expanded (similar scheme in Oxford and Leicester). Detention centre visits by Lincolnshire CoS volunteers.
Leicester: Currently 1,500 lone asylum seekers in city of 300,000. CoS group helps networking of support services and organises its own weekly drop-in (around 100 visitors per week, in church hall – lunch and welcome). Around 170 asylum seekers are receiving volunteer ESOL teaching, linked to university support (rooms, facilities). CoS assists IT access for refugees. Other projects include bicycle renovation and loan scheme; ‘shopping buddies’ for new arrivals; ‘Appealing4’ network to recycle domestic equipment etc; NEST voluntary advice service to help with refugee paperwork, link up with solicitors where necessary. £50k Big Lottery funding obtained for Stepping Stones project, led by asylum seekers themselves (‘dignity’).
Loughborough: Limited local refugee population, but assistance given with project for young asylum seekers. Loughborough has the main Reporting Centre for East Midlands asylum seekers, visited by c 200 per day. CoS volunteers meet and greet at the Centre, providing information on available help, refreshments, toys for children (link to supportive local café).
Northampton: Introduction to current and planned activities of new CoS group (including networking and campaign to offer sanctuary for Syrian families) – Julia. Information on support for refugee families from Pearls of Peace (Muslim women’s group) – Khadra. Information on Calais visits from Refugees Welcome and Helpful Humans volunteers – Nina.
Nottingham: Main CoS organisers unable to attend. Speakers from Arimathea Trust (social housing and housing advice) and from Nottingham Playhouse (film screening and workshops, studio theatre play on refugees theme, aiming to become recognised Theatre of Sanctuary like West Yorkshire Playhouse). Nottingham Citizens (Citizens UK) is developing a CoS plan, linking together different activities and planning improved support for refugees.
Oxford: CoS since 2008, more active since 2014. Links together community groups, eg for Refugee Week activities in 2014, 2015. Local demonstration against refugee drownings. Local hosting scheme under development: 26 asylum seekers and 35 approved hosts so far (may seek charitable status for this work). Important refugee conference planned for 18/19 June, linking University’s Refugee Studies centre with CoS activities.
CoS organised a petition to Oxford Council which contributed to their decision to accept Syrian refugee families.
CoS market stall as signpost and for ‘myth-busting’ publicity.
CoS appeal network for equipment, baby buggies etc.
Reading: CoS group working on gatherinh pledges og support for varied local organisations, including Thames valley Police, Shed Café (coffee bank scheme), Muslim community groups. Political problems with Reading Council.
Wolverhampton: CoS since 2009, but lacks City Council and university support so far. Projects include twice-yearly ‘meet and greet’ gathering, evening for refugees and others with food, dancing etc: befriending opportunity. Maternity support is provided for individual refugees. CoS has an office with Ashley Housing, which produced a welcome booklet for refugees/ asylum seekers. CoS organises a weekly drop-in centre, 2 hours in the city centre (some funding obtained for this), run by 15 volunteers trained by Restore. CoS committee meets every 6 weeks.
3. Afternoon workshops
The group shared stories and agreed these points:
– possibility of finding common ground through sharing stories
– need to support story tellers
– important to know your audience
– need to decide: what are your main messages? (don’t be dominated by media bias)
– importance of using local press (messages may spread to national media)
– potential of different media, e.g radio/TV/press/love audiences: need to be choose a format you are comfortable with.
SCHOOLS OF SANCTUARY (Rosemary attended)
Barbara Forbes of Birmingham told us about some very positive and inspiring work that is being done to encourage individual schools to become ‘schools of sanctuary.’ Apparently this is not a difficult process and most of the evidence required will be part of what the school is almost certainly doing anyway as part of the curriculum. It is not necessary for the town or city where the school to be already declared a City of Sanctuary. Schools can act quite independently if they wish. It need not be a culturally diverse school. In order to receive their accreditation, it might be necessary for them to receive a visit from someone who is involved in the sanctuary movement in another town. A school in Northampton could therefore become a school of sanctuary before the town attains this status.
The way forward:
1. Find a school which is interested. (usually the head or the teacher of English as a supplementary language would be the person to approach) Primary schools are much more open to the idea than secondaries.
2. Meet with them to explain what is required to produce a portfolio showing what they are doing (they’ll be doing it anyway, e.g. Photos of visit to mosque, special assembly for Martin Luther day, Polish dance display etc – all part of the N. Curriculum and demonstrating that their school is a caring, welcoming environment) The idea is to learn, embed, and share welcoming and caring attitudes.
3. The Sanctuary ‘group’ can visit and assess whether the portfolio shows enough evidence, or invite someone from another town who is familiar with the process to come along. They then receive their award.
4. Encourage other schools to get involved, and possibly visit schools in another town who have already achieved sanctuary status.
5. Parents are also an important part of the process.

Three general conclusions:
– importance of partnerships (eg Coventry Refugee Centre/ Council/ Law Centre)
– need to manage the expectations of refugees and local citizens
– need work with local communities as well as with refugees, to counter racism as well as sort out logistical problems linked to resettlement and integration
Detailed information was provided on the new Immigration Act and on the government’s Syrian refugee scheme. Regulations are very complex and much depends on their implementation, at national and local levels. Detailed description of implementation process in Coventry: one of first three cities to volunteer for refugee dispersal programme (July 2014), Afghan interpreters’ settlement and also Syrian families (2015). There is all-party support on the City Council, including Tory Deputy Leader of Council. Housing is difficult, and is mainly via private rentals (government funding – then refugees self-fund from wages). Sponsorship housing requires full safeguarding process: not an easy option, though sometimes possible. Some refugees have long-term and complex health needs and their well-being may be affected by post-conflict trauma.

Three issues to lobby MPs about: detention time limits; destitution of failed asylum seekers; need to expand definitions of family reunion. CoS is continuing with active political lobbying, and trying to develop long-term relationships with sympathetic MPs.
4. Conclusion
Discussion of feedback from workshops.

Colleen Molloy (CoS development officer) spoke about referral systems for refugees. Some referrals are being received by CoS from G4S (contractors for refugee resettlement scheme). Does CoS need its own referral scheme? Note the importance of the national CoS website, which gives entry to the sites of all the different groups (so referrals can be made from this local information, if accurate and up-to-date). Migrant Help is the key national helpline for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants.

Sabir Zazai (Coventry Refugee Centre) spoke of his hopes for a more united welcome for refugees in the future, and the importance of CoS groups keeping in touch with each other’s work. Public pressure on the government has led to the 20,000 Syrian refugees scheme, and must be continued. We need to talk about refugees as human beings, not statistics. One way to do this is to involve refugee’s own voices in every stage of campaigning and in the provision of services.