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Celebrating the UN Refugee Convention in the North East

Case Study of Public Meeting in North East 

This was hosted online by City of Sanctuary and Asylum Matters to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention and brought together nearly 60 people with local dignitaries, decision makers, NGOs and community organisations.  These included Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, MPs Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) , a rep from Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) and Councillors Alison Barnes (Cabinet Member Redcar & Cleveland) and Sajna Ali (Darlington ) amongst others.

There was powerful testimony from people with lived experience of sanctuary who were “sad” and “frightened” by the new legislation which would prevent them from finding protection here.

CoS UK staff member, Sara Trewhitt shared examples of community institutions like Newcastle University, schools, libraries, the Newcastle United Football Club and the Curious Monkey Theatre Company are all building welcoming spaces and exchanging  learning on creating safety and unity.  See these lovely slides Celebrating welcome in the NE July 2021.

Asmaa from Syria shared a painful story from the refugee camp where she gave birth and all newborns were evacuated in an emergency after flooding. She was excited, scared and sad to rebuild her life in the UK.

“No one likes to be a refugee. No-one likes to leave their home. No-one likes to lose their friends and family.”

Rama shared her experiences of arriving in Middlesbrough and noticing that other women who were seeking sanctuary could be quite isolated. With the support of the Regional Refugee Forum, she set up the community organisation Creative Minds, which organises activities like healthy cooking classes and women-only exercises, and providing a space where women could feel welcomed and understood:
“We would discuss the issues we were going through, which helped build our confidence”.

Bini said that we may be celebrating the 70th Anniversary UN Refugee Convention, but on its 71st anniversary, we would “mourn the UN Refugee Convention”. He also reminded us that many authoritarian regimes like Eritrea did not provide passports for their citizens. This meant that oppressed people  simply cannot leave their countries “legally”.  The Borders Bill will mean that no one could ever seek sanctuary in the UK – a “massive change”.  

Asma talked about the hardships she had experienced and the lack of choices in life if your life was in danger. The government was going to make it harder for people who simply sought to save their lives.

Sara explained how the ‘normal’ asylum system already damaged peoples’ mental health. “This bill will only worsen it!”

Cllr Sajna Ali said that no-one, from a newborn to an old person, no sons or daughters would choose to be labelled as a refugee and called for continued awareness raising.   

Ian said the new law made him “ashamed to be British”.

Fran called for solutions to the problems of trafficking and said we needed to state the cold hard facts of the costs of inefficiency , delays and detention.

Suzanne called for  mutual support. “Our hearts go out to people like Md and others who are exhausted” from campaigning for basic rights and human dignity.

Two participants said:

“Amazing and poignant stories of lived experiences – they are compelling, in their own right, as to why we, as a country, should approach the subject of Sanctuary so much more positively, and highlight all the positives, rather than dwell on the negatives, and end up with a dangerously distorted picture of the underlying situation. All who were invited to speak were just excellent, and reinforced the need for us to fight the Bill, together.”
“It was so inspirational, informative and humbling all at the same time. The panellists were excellent and their messages came through loud and clear, chaired by the excellent Shams! ”