19 June 2010

Refugee Week in Oxford: Different Pasts, Shared Futures

Imagine my surprise when one jolly revision afternoon at Blackwell's, I found a stack of colourful flyers advertising a public meeting on refugees with very interesting speakers in - the Oxford Town Hall, which at first I found a quite unusually high profile venue. That was before I learned that in addition to some other long-standing traditions and institutions, Oxford has been home to an established refugee community as well. There are also a handful of local organisations attempting to offer all kinds of services to new arrivals (befriending, signposting, English language teaching, art...), some of which also campaign on a national level for the improvement of the asylum system. In fact, Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty (the NGO campaigning for civil liberties and human rights in the UK) said that she received far more speech invitations from Oxford than anywhere else in the country. Intrigued by the unexpected apparent existence of a local refugee community, I later set about to find out more. I pasted a short introduction below:

"Those born and brought up in the UK are privileged not to have had reason to flee their home country, and the stability that exists in the UK can sometimes make it difficult to understand the desperate circumstances that have led refugees to abandon their homes, jobs, families, friends and all that is familiar to them. But it is to Oxfordshire’s advantage to welcome them and the skills and abilities they bring. Some have previously worked as entrepreneurs, or farmers. Some are doctors, nurses, teachers or journalists. Others bring construction and engineering skills. Many are now contributing to Oxfordshire’s community and economy, in education, the NHS, in manufacturing, distribution, catering and many other jobs on which we all depend.

In 1914 Belgian refugees fleeing the First World War were welcomed in Bicester and Finmere. In the 1930s refugee academics from Nazi Germany found sanctuary at the University of Oxford. More recently, when Campsfield House in Kidlington became an immigration detention centre, some of those whose asylum claims were successfully settled in the county on their release.

There is great diversity amongst the individuals who are often lumped together as ‘refugees and asylum seekers’. The estimated 2,500 refugees living in Oxfordshire have fled from persecution or war in over 50 countries and speak over 50 languages."

- Taken from Refugee Resource.

Even more fascinating considering my recent re-discovery of poetry and my intention to research some refugee-related poetry to blog, I nearly jumped a metre in the air when I learned that somebody else already has had this ingenious idea:

"Oxford Poets and Refugees project is an initiative of the Poetry Centre and Oxford-based charity Asylum Welcome. It has brought 14 established poets together with 14 refugees and asylum seekers to work collaboratively on some new poetry.

It has been funded by the Arts Council, with support from Asylum Welcome, Refugee Resource, and Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre.

A collection of work arising from these collaborations has now been published.

The collection - See How I Land: Oxford Poets and Exiled Writers (Heaventree Press, 2009) - features a Foreword by Shami Chakrabarti, and includes a new sonnet sequence by John Fuller and the opening of a novel-in-progress by David Dabydeen."

- From the project's website where you can also buy a copy for £10 + £2 P&P.

The Meeting:
Around 300 people turned up for the event: Some refugees, some second or third generation refugees, some involved with refugees in one or the other way. There apparently also was an elderly British guy who was escorted out for causing some kind of commotion by shouting that refugees come to the UK to take away people's jobs and to live on government money (I was a bit late as I had had something to do in London and so I missed that part). One of the topics discussed were the right of asylum-seekers to work: Currently, they are not allowed to and must live on food vouchers (for selected supermarkets and selected items) which are I believe, set at 70% of the amount a British person supposedly spends on average. Another topic was the new administration's pledge to end child detention (read more about it HERE). For those of you not familiar with the UK asylum system: In the UK, asylum seekers are generally held in one of about ten detention centres which are basically run like prisons. People have to stay there while they wait for a determination on their status which as you can imagine, can take months. Those with children are detained with them. Although of course the end of child detention is to be welcomed, this raises the question whether children are going to be separated from their parents and used as bargaining chip in the application process. The panel discussed what the (workable) alternatives were.

Another important topic to discuss was the access to and standard of legal aid. It seems that there have been some changes to the management of legal aid so that lawyers now get paid at the end of a case rather than in regular periods and the largest specialist not-for-profit organisation involved in providing legal aid to asylum seekers and other migrants, Refugee and Migrant Justice, had to go into administration recently as a result of this change in policy, resulting in a lot of criticism and an urgent motion in the Houses of Parliament. Outside of dedicated legal networks, there reportedly are some cowboy legal aid lawyers in the UK who visit you once in detention to collect your signature to get paid - never to be seen again. Also, if your case has been completely destroyed by the Home Office (officers are frequently reported to try to catch you out on inconsistencies and gaps in your interview and from my own experience in working with asylum seekers in the UK, I know that often, the application as summarised by the Home Office after the interview and the personal account of the person in question differ quite a bit in the most crucial points. There are several reasons why this can occur: Availability of translators during the interview, different ways of communicating and organising information even if English language skills are given, lack of evidence or identification (difficult to obtain for obvious reasons) but also - and this is no exaggeration or propaganda but the sad truth - the Home Office trying to substantially reduce the number of asylum applications by misconstructing your story. In order to go for appeal, your case needs to have at least 50% chance of winning which is hard to argue (but not impossible) if your case has just been completely destroyed. If your country is on a list of so-called "safe countries", your case won't even be looked at and you get deported straight on arrival. Controversially, Iraq is one of the countries on this list (read HERE for example about the deportation of about 40 Iraqis earlier this week).

At the event, there also was a ton of leaflets, newspapers and annual reports available - and a discount on the poetry book as well as on the following publication available on Amazon (£8.99):

This is a collection of photographs and interviews with refugees, who have made their home in Oxford after leaving their countries due to persecution. Some have been here for a few weeks, some for more than 50 years. Many have made huge contributions to our society as doctors and philosophers, students, businesspeople, artists and teachers. These are extraordinary stories of courage, endurance and humour. "This is not a book about how refugees are human beings just like the rest of us. Most of them have experiences the rest of cannot even begin to comprehend. It is a book about how some extraordinary people become an important part of who we all are." - Mark Heddon, the co-editor.

Hmmm! I can only hope that they have the two books in the local library! I am currently job-hunting in two countries and actively unwinding in my home town Vienna but I would like to try to get reprint licenses for not more than a handful of poems to post on my blog when I find the time eventually. I have also been speaking an awful lot of German lately, so please forgive me if my style on this post is not up to standard.

Hope to see you on next year's town hall meeting!

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