Wednesday, December 16, 2015

STAR Conference - Fortress Europe: Refugees Welcome Here?

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On the 7th of November 2015 STAR hosted its annual conference in London. University students came from all over the UK to hear leading academics, human rights practitioners and refugee agencies talk about and discuss the refugee crisis and the current situation for refugees in the UK and Europe.

STAR’s Chief Executive, Emma Williams, opened the conference by talking about STAR’s achievements so far and giving a brief background to what makes someone a refugee.

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Dawn Chatty, a professor at Oxford University and part of the university’s Refugee Studies Centre, then gave an insightful talk about the global refugee crisis. She shared several key statistics and talked about the top countries that are ‘producing’ refugees: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Eritrea; and the top six hosting countries: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan. She also gave positive examples of European countries’ policies in integrating refugees. She ended her speech by saying: “Let’s hope that the UK will see a similar kind of programme with the social support that refugees need when they arrive and for the first six and 12 months (of their stay).”

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The third speaker was Alhussein Ahmed, a refugee activist who gave a first-hand account of his personal struggles in being recognised as a refugee. Alhussein, who has now been accepted as refugee in the UK, talked about the pain he went through in fleeing his birth country Sudan to escape social and religious persecution.

Alhussein told the students at the conference: “I am happy to be with you here… I appreciate being accepted as a refugee, but there are many people that haven’t been accepted”.

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After Alhussein’s moving speech, a student attending the conference said: “I am Syrian myself, yet I had some worries that it is only Syrian refugees who are getting most of the attention and it is not fair to the others. Bringing Alhussein was a brilliant thing to do. Thank you for making me aware of his sufferings so I broaden my understanding of the whole refugee/asylum seeking topic and be sure to help all in need.”

To finish the morning session, Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, spoke about the UK’s response to the refugee crisis and the challenges the UK faces as part of a constantly changing world. “What we can see is a world changing in front of our eyes […] People are on the move in numbers that we have not seen since the end of the Second World War and there is no sign that is going to end any time soon”.

Talking about the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, Wren said “The Syrian programme is substantial […] but it is not enough. It is an important programme, but it is only the first step”.

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After lunch, there were a number of workshops for students to get involved in. Elhum Shakerifar, producer of ‘A Syrian Love Story’, and Dr Tahir Zaman, SOAS University, delivered a workshop on the Syrian refugee crisis; Katie Hall, STAR’s Student Network Coordinator, ran a workshop on the campaign for Equal Access to higher education; and, Lorna Gledhill, from STAR’s Regional Asylum Activism Project (http://regionalasylumactivism.org/), spoke about the procedures and policies affecting life for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

Laura Padoan, UNHCR’s External Relations Associate, opened the afternoon session speaking about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and how the UK government could do more to help refugees making dangerous journeys to Europe. She also gave a more personal aspect to the crisis by talking about her own experiences working with refugees seeking safety in Europe.

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Zoe Gardner, Communications Officer at Asylum Aid, gave an insightful and very passionate talk about the perceptions of refugees in the UK.

She spoke about the recent demonstration in London in September, the biggest “Refugees Welcome” demonstration ever held in the UK, and how the good will this demonstrated can be used to change harsh UK asylum policies. She finished her speech by challenging the idea that there is a refugee crisis at all for Europe, saying “700,000 people, which is the high end estimate of the number of people that have arrived across the Mediterranean this year, sounds like a really huge number, and it is, but for Europe – a continent of 507 million people – that is not a serious number, that is not a number that should cause a crisis, it is our governments that have made it a crisis. We can manage this number; it is completely an affordable number.”

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One student said: “Zoe is very inspiring. Her speech motivated me as refugee and as member of STAR to do more.”

Emma Williams, STAR’s Chief Executive, returned to close the conference, talking about what we can all do to make the UK more welcoming for refugees: campaigning, fundraising, telling people the truth about asylum, and volunteering with refugees. She also reminded us that to make a real and durable change we need to get others involved: the more people there are working to make refugees welcome here the better!

STAR would like to say a big Thank You to everyone who attended and to all of our guest speakers!

Help us welcome refugees to the UK by supporting us and joining STAR.

Posted by STAR team on 16/12/2015 at 12:04 PM