As part of Human Rights Day, Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) ran various events: on the day, they did a sponsored walk in the afternoon in the centre of town which I couldn’t make. Instead, I attended another event they put on the day before, on Saturday 9 December, in the St Werburghs Community Centre on Horley Road. Having only been to Bristol a few times, the first challenge of the day was finding the venue! After a handful of wrong turns, I found the building, tucked away in an unlikely corner of the city.
The cosy atmosphere in the main hall was a welcome contrast to the gloomier, overcast weather outside. The event started at 14:30 with a brief welcoming speech from BRR staff to allow the first speaker to get in a few words before she had to jet off to talk politics in Brussels: Molly Scott-Cato, Green MEP for the South West of England and Gibraltar. Molly voiced her support for the work of BRR and went on to discuss her solidarity with the EU and the idea that Brexit and immigration are creating divisions between people because they are being used as scapegoats for societal problems that are in fact the result of government policy. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Next up was Imogen McIntosh who had a different story to tell: in 2015, she felt compelled to do something about the refugee crisis and so decided to start a humanitarian organisation called the Aid Box Community. She sent out a call for friends/family/neighbours to donate clothes and toiletries so they could prepare parcels containing some basic essentials for new arrivals at refugee camps in France, such as tents, torches, waterproofs, blankets and sleeping bags. Very quickly, first Imogen’s house and then her neighbour’s were filled to the brim with donated goods. Success! The initiative has since been extended to include a ‘free shop’, an idea driven by Imogen’s conviction that refugees shouldn’t have access only to the bare necessities but nice things like everyone else. The shop ‘sells’ items such as toiletries, warm clothes, nappies, foodstuffs, hoovers, lamps, pictures, and assorted kitchen utensils to refugees now living in Bristol, who are given only £35 a week by the government, meant to cover all their needs.
After this, we moved into the main part of the session: there were four workshops, each lasting around an hour. I went to one called ‘Let Us Contribute’. The other three were ‘Listen to our Stories’, ‘Dignity Not Destitution’ and ‘Patients Not Passports’. The idea generally was to give some of the refugees and asylum seekers BRR is working with a chance to share their experiences. The workshop I attended was about the government policy that means that those with asylum seeker status are unable to work legally. A handful of speakers told their story, from a young Pakistani mother suffering from severe depression who is considering putting her toddler up for adoption because she cannot afford to look after him, to a scientist who cannot continue to do what he loves here because this country’s government will not allow him to work. The most extreme case was an asylum seeker from Kurdistan who has lived in the UK since 2007 and is still waiting for his application to be processed, leaving him in a permanent state of limbo. BRR staff members stressed that these are not isolated cases, unfortunately, but the reality for asylum seekers/refugees in the UK generally.
Finally, we all came together in a plenary session to discuss what we had taken out of our respective workshops and to end with some ways to get involved. One thing we discussed was a new piece of policy proposed by the government that would require people to produce a passport to access free healthcare, e.g. when picking up a prescription from a pharmacy. BRR urged everyone present to boycott this policy, under the slogan “good people break bad laws”, as it directly discriminates against people living in the country without a passport such as refugees or those too poor to travel abroad. Everyone left the event fired up and ready to do their bit for refugees’ rights.
If you are interested in volunteering for BRR, you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.