On Wednesday 22ndFebruary,Leeds University Union saw the second annual STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and Amnesty International sleep-out in aid of Asylum Seekers in the UK.
A lot of people may ask what good sleeping out on cardboard and being cold for a night will really do to help the cause of homeless asylum seekers – or to put it in technical terms, asylum seekers in destitution – but doing just that – being cold and experiencing it for yourself – is part of their mission. The sleep- outs raise awareness of what the asylum seekers in destitution have to go through every night, and even if we experience just one millionth of what they have to go through, the more people that know about the situation means more mouths to shout out and help change the way Britain treats its asylum seekers.
Jennifer Allsopp, a representative from the national board for STAR, attended the sleep-out to give support from headquarters, and helped to raise awareness about the work that STAR does, and some of the pre-conceptions that STAR has to battle against. Both Allsopp and the local Headingly MP both agreed that the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK is an issue that has a huge amount of student backing. At the University of Leeds, both Amnesty and STAR are currently two very popular volunteer organisations. For the issue of Asylum Seekers in destitution, STAR takes care of the more practical side of things like campaigning, running projects for local refugees and people who need support, whilst as Mark Whittaker, the president of the LUU Amnesty International society said, Amnesty run the advocacy side of things, using their easily recognised name of Amnesty International to help promote these kinds of projects.
Jennifer spoke to me about some of the battles they have to face regarding prejudice surrounding asylum seekers. According to a recent study of the public by the Independent Asylum Commission, the word ‘asylum’ tended to invoke lots of negative connotations, with people associating it with words such as mental illness, institutions, scroungers, benefit stealers. This is worrying because these negative associations have seeped over to tarnish the word ‘refugee’ now as well, something which Jennifer has found from running STAR awareness stalls. These misjudgements could have come around for any number of reasons – representations in the press, word of mouth – which can have an almost ‘Chinese whispers’ effect for negative opinions, but the most interesting is the factually incorrect information that emerges about asylum seekers. The Refugee Council recently did a survey and found that most people thought that there were about half a million asylum seekers coming to the UK every year, which is where those negative associations like ‘benefit stealers’ come from. In reality, only about 17,900 asylum seekers come to Britain each year, which, as Jennifer so eloquently puts it – is not enough to fill a quarter of Highbury football stadium. So these are just a few of the huge misconceptions STAR and Amnesty International have to deal with when promoting campaigns like ‘Still Human Still Here.’
The aims of ‘Still Human Still Here’, which Wednesday’s sleep-out was in aid of, is a coalition of more than 50 different organisations which are working for a higher standard of living for those asylum seekers who are in destitution. Destitution means that they have gone through the British system seeking refugee status, and have been denied, but for whatever reasons are not allowed to return back to their home countries. For those who find themselves in this position, there is little support available. Some can access ‘Section 4 support’, which is about £5 a day on a pre-paid card that can only be used in certain shops. Now just think about only living on £5, and not only that but being restricted as to which shops you can spend that in! The accommodation given to the lucky few who do get the support is usually out of the town centres and away from amenities that accept the cards, so even just travelling to get to retailers where you can buy food is an impractical hassle. This is of course not forgetting that it is extremely difficult to survive on £5 a day, especially in inflation-frenzy Britain when the support money does not rise accordingly.
Even once an asylum seeker has been approved, they get a measly £1 extra per day, but the majority are still unable to work, and those that are can only work in jobs where there are skill shortages. You know, the ones that everybody is trained in like, ballerinas, circus performers and Michelin starred chefs. STAR have managed to get 129 MP’s to back their campaign asking for the support money to be put up to the bare minimum of £45 a week to live on, and are hoping for more to hop on board very soon.
STAR in Leeds continues to help all the time with the local refugees and asylum seekers, holding conversation classes every Saturday where people can come to learn or improve their English, get help with paying bills, have their CV’s checked to apply for jobs and additionally simply make friends and socialise. I spoke to Kim Stein and Abba Althawr, two members of STAR, about their other projects. The conversation classes are for people from all different stages of the asylum seeking process, but Kim told me about one of the saddest stories she has seen, of an asylum seeker who has been left destitute for 7 years. He now survives by crashing on his friends’ floors, and STAR is literally a lifeline for him. They also have a fantastic bike project, to which bikes are donated which STAR then fixes and hands out to help the refugees with travelling around the city, as travel can be quite expensive. The refugees can then bring these bikes back to fix them and work on them, so they learn how to maintain their bikes themselves, again whilst meeting new people and keeping the sense of community that is so important, especially when you feel like the system is working against you.
Amnesty and STAR managed to raise £200 yesterday, which will be put towards the Still Human Still Here campaign. The work they do for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK is invaluable to those it helps, and every penny they get, or every extra person to support their cause makes a world of difference. If you would like to get involved, check their Facebook groups and LUU websites.
Leeds Uni Star: https://www.facebook.com/groups/93186726653/
Star National: http://www.star-network.org.uk/
Leeds Uni Amnesty: https://www.facebook.com/luuamnestyinternational
Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/