Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
by Ruth McKenna, GRAMNet intern for Refugee Week 2014
It has been around eight weeks since Refugee Week 2014 drew to a close, offering much needed time for reflection after the excitement, joy and sorrow of the weeklong celebrations. Under the Refugee Week 2014 theme of ‘welcome’, GRAMNet organised, or collaborated in, eleven events; from research symposia to film screenings, art exhibitions to language taster sessions. Members from across the Network were involved, as well as a variety of guest speakers from the Universities of St Andrews, Oxford and Plymouth, to name but a few.
Preparations for Refugee Week began in the spring, against an ever wearying backdrop. A few weeks before our first planning meeting, news broke of the death of Reza Barati, a 23 year old asylum seeker killed in an Australian offshore detention centre on Manus Island. Closer to home, it seemed that every week another boat would sink in the Mediterranean, killing hundreds of migrants and, indeed, this Tuesday, the UNHCR indicated that 1900 people have died this year in such incidents. Just a month before the beginning of Refugee Week, and right on our doorstep, the Immigration Bill received Royal Assent, becoming the Immigration Act 2014 which, amongst other equally unpleasant provisions, places further limitations upon the immigrations appeals process and ‘[makes clear that] the right to a family life is not to be regarded as absolute and unqualified’. Juxtaposed against such disheartening conditions was the theme of ‘welcome’, selected by the Scottish Refugee Council to ‘send a strong message that refugees and those seeking asylum are welcome in our communities.’ Our task was therefore to compile a positive and celebratory calendar of events that would both extol the value and importance of refuge, whilst recognising the brutality and inhumanity faced by many refugees and asylum seekers.
Our event calendar began with a focus on the latter of these goals, with two seminars delivered by Professor Michelle Foster from the University of Melbourne. In the first of her seminars, Professor Foster discussed the difficulties associated with interpreting the term ‘membership of a particular social group’, within the context of determining whether someone should be treated as a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. In the second of her presentations, Professor Foster focused on Australian Refugee Law, specifically with reference to the treatment of people who arrive in boats, as well as the use of offshore detention. A point that stuck with me from this presentation was the cruel irony of the fact that, whilst Australia accepts female refugees from Papua New Guinea upon the basis of gender based violence, it simultaneously maintains detention facilities on Papua New Guinean territory.
Whilst certainly embracing the academic elements of GRAMNet engagement with migration and asylum concerns, our Refugee Week calendar also reflected the community-focused aspects of the GRAMNet agenda. We continued the celebration with ‘Welcoming Languages’, a fantastically fun session that invited multilingual members of the local community to share their skills in langauge taster sessions. That evening, some GRAMNet members were also lucky enough to attend the Refugee Week Scotland launch event, which, by all accounts, was a burst of creative brilliance to formally launch the week of festivities.
Our Refugee Week calendar continued with a ‘Social Media and Activism’ seminar, bringing together the social media coordinators from a variety of migrant support organisations, as well as interested members of the public, to discuss strategies for spreading information and encouraging action. We concluded our fourth day of events with a screening of the comical, but informative, short films produced by the Ethical Interpreting in Healthcare Settings project, to assist healthcare providers in effectively engaging with patients and their interpreters. These clips can be viewed here.
In a fusion of academic research and personal experience, the midpoint in our busy schedule was marked with a daylong session exploring ‘Migration and Initiate Lives’. Francesca Stella has spoken in more depth about this event in an earlier blog post, and I would reiterate her sentiment that the panel session involving Beverley Kandjii and Angeline Mwafulirwa, from the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, and Tanjeel Maleque, a solicitor from SILPA, was one of the most distressing, as the panelists reflected upon the various ways in which they have experienced, or witnessed, the intrusion upon, and destruction of, the private lives of asylum seekers and refugees.
Whilst hosting a variety of presentation and discussion based events, we also utilised a range of visual mediums to celebrate Refugee Week, including a film screening of Hamedullah: the Road Home and Future Memory in Red Road at the CCA. Hamedullah tells the story of Hamedullah Hassany, an Afghan teenager who sought refuge in the UK and who, shortly after his eighteenth birthday, was detained and deported back to Afghanistan. Future Memory told a different story of sanctuary, documenting a public event at the Red Road Flats in May 2013, which celebrated the various inhabitants of the flat, both historical and current. This screening perhaps best encompassed the dualistic ethos of Refugee Week; showcasing both the trauma and the positivity that can result from seeking refuge.
Our penultimate day of events was the busiest on the GRAMNet Refugee Week schedule, kicking off with a symposium on ‘Interculturalism and Translating Cultures’, organised by the Higher Education Academy. This fascinating event explored the benefits and challenges of multilingual teaching and learning, and had the added benefit of being held in the same building as the wonderful Narratives of Change exhibition, featuring the artwork of children on a range of themes related to asylum, refugee and migration issues.
GRAMNet’s research open day began later in the afternoon and showcased a selection of research engaging with migration, asylum and refugee issues, including papers on the history of refugee camps, ethnic diversity in the UK and English language teaching in the Middle East. From this rather upbeat start, we progressed into a more solemn and thoughtful evening, as Mary Bosworth and Sarah Turnbull from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford presented some of the findings of their work with former detainees. With minimal exception, the stories they shared reflected the wholly destructive effect that detention can have on all facets of life, from personal relationships to mental and physical health.
Our final event of the week was a Syria Briefings session, which developed from the work of the Syria Briefings group at the University of Glasgow. We were delighted to welcome Rana Khalaf, a researcher from the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews to present the keynote paper at this event. GRAMNet also established connections with Uniting Nations in Scotland (UNIS), a community group set up by members of the Syrian community in Glasgow, as we were keen to include a diverse spectrum of voices and perspectives. Despite the sweltering heat of the decidedly un-Scottish evening, the audience was crowded with University staff, students, and people from the local community, including a large number of UNIS members who had recently arrived in Glasgow from Syria. Rana talked at length about the role of civil society in Syria, and the way in which forms of such society have thrived, even during conflict.
Despite the traditionally academic format of the session – a PowerPoint presentation followed by a panel discussion – upon the completion of Rana’s paper, the room exploded into a vibrant cacophony of questions and comments in both English and Arabic. All of our panelists were bi-lingual and skillfully negotiated the discussion in both languages. Alongside the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group presentation at the Migration and Intimate Lives event, I found this session to be one of the most gut-wrenching, as audience members shared their experiences of the conflict in Syria. One teenage participant talked about seeing some of his school friends shot dead. Another interrupted Rana’s largely critical discussion of rebel group al-Nusra to explain that, despite their negative associations, al-Nusra had paid for his family to escape from Syria and he therefore regarded them with gratitude. For me, this event best represented the ethos of GRAMNet, in the bringing together of academic and non-academic communities, for the purpose of translating, in every sense of the word, research into an accessible, meaningful and person-centered format.
In that vein, the questions that were asked with most frequency at our events were ‘what I can do to help?’ or ‘what can I do to change things?’ Therefore, I have concluded this post with a few answers to these questions, suggesting different ways in which we can maintain the momentum of Refugee Week 2014 and work to improve the position of asylum seekers and refugees within Scotland and the UK.
The Scottish Refugee Council is currently recruiting for a variety of voluntary posts, including a Refugee Integration Volunteer (Holistic Integration Service) and a Third Country Nationals Project Casework Volunteer.
Scottish Detainee Visitors are currently recruiting volunteer visitors to provide emotional and practical support to people currently detained in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre.
The Unity Centre is currently recruiting voluntary caseworkers, shop managers and café staff. If you are unable to volunteer, the Centre also collects donations of clothes, toys and other items for their charity shops. They also welcome donations of food to distribute to destitute asylum seekers.
In July 2014 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees launched an inquiry into the use of immigration detention. If you are an individual or group with experience of immigration detention, you can find out more about submitting evidence to inquiry here.