Category: refugee week

ECDN addresses Newham Refugee Week Festival

Shpresa celebrate Alabanian Summer Day during Newham Refugee Week Festival

I’d firstly like to thank the Shpresa Programme for inviting me to address you all today. My name is Tom Sanderson and I’m here to represent the campaign group End Child Detention Now.

To start with I’d like to tell you a bit about our campaign which began in 2009. Since then we have been working to put pressure on the UK government to stop placing children into immigration detention centres. We do not accept monetary donations from any organisation, although we are very happy to work with others who share our determination to bring an end to the imprisonment of children in the UK.

In this regard we have been very lucky to have been able to collaborate so often with the wonderful people at Shpresa. The insightful and moving video recorded and produced by Manuel has been such a useful campaign tool, and all the young people from the organisation who made the trip up to York to dance, to read poetry and generally made a huge contribution to making our own event during last year’s Refugee Week so engaging and vibrant.

And of course Lulji, Evis, Flutra and the entire Shpresa team have worked so tirelessly to support us in our campaign. Our deepest thanks go out to you all, you really have been invaluable to our cause.

So why are we so passionate about this issue?

Well, there have been many studies and reports which have confirmed the immense mental and often physical damage that children are subjected to when they are held in these detention centres, and there is actually quite a wide consensus that the practice breaches a raft of child rights.

We are by no means the only group that have been campaigning to end this, and there have been many statements denouncing the detention of children from high-profile figures, including doctors, lawyers and even members of parliament. Given the widespread opposition to the practice, it does seem surprising that nearly two years have passed, and in that time great effort has been expended by us and several other groups including Shpresa, and yet we still live in a country where a child can be effectively imprisoned not because of their actions, but simply because of the arbitrary lottery of nationality.

This is not to say there has been no progress. The family section of Yarl’s Wood detention centre has been closed, and the numbers of children detained have been significantly reduced. We have even had a promise from the current coalition government that they would bring an absolute end to what they themselves have referred to as a ‘scandal’ and a ‘moral outrage’.

So why, then, are we still campaigning?

Sadly, this promise has so far been largely empty. It seems especially empty in light of the new pre-departure accommodation facility currently being built not far away near the Sussex village of Pease Pottage. The site is scheduled to begin detaining families from the end of September, and as noted by Professor Heaven Crawley it can potentially accommodate nearly four and a half thousand children each year.

Although the new facility has been described by the UK Border Agency as family friendly, the site will still include a wire security fence over two metres high and CCTV cameras within apartments. Detainees will not be allowed to leave the site unless they make an application to do so and there is no obligation for the security staff to approve these.

In our view, this is still detention regardless of what they call it, and therefore children held there will be damaged in the same way as those that were detained in Yarl’s Wood and other removal centres.

The fact that the UK Border Agency has persuaded the charity Barnado’s to help them run the facilities there appears to have satisfied some groups that child detainees will not be harmed, and seems to have convinced them that the campaign has been won and that they – and we – should be satisfied with the compromise.

But we believe there can be no compromise when innocent children are still being victimised and mentally damaged by our own government. We are not ready to accept that this is the best that can be done, and go quietly back to our day jobs.

It is the detention itself which causes such damage to the children placed in it, and we doubt that it will make any difference to these frightened, confused, but blameless children whether some of the staff wear the uniform of a charity or that of a private security firm like G4S.

This company, are facing possible charges of corporate manslaughter after the death of deportee Jimmy Mubenga while being restrained by their staff during deportation. This company have now been chosen to play the role of ‘bad cop’ at the new detention centre.

In our view, this is still a scandal. It is still a moral outrage. So we will continue to fight against the ‘state-sponsored cruelty’ that persists despite the pledges made by our leaders in Westminster, for as long as it takes to truly bring it to an end, and we know that the Shpresa Programme will stand with us too. Thank you all.


In celebration of ordinary lives

Shining a light on refugee children’s experience

By Anthony Robinson

Say the word ‘refugee’ to yourself. Without thinking, what images and notions enter your mind?

Now, think about it.

The last Saturday of Refugee Week 2010 was an important day in the lives of four refugee children and their families – a celebration of childhood regained.

We have told their stories in a series of books for children, the Refugee Diaries. At the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, these children’s lives were celebrated. This was a marker for them and all those who have supported and cheered them on – a day to celebrate the longed-for ordinariness of their lives.

My wife, Annemarie Young, and I took this proposal to the publishers Frances Lincoln for two reasons. We wanted to present these children as just that, children. Admittedly, children who through force of circumstance had been caught up in whatever horrors led them to flee their own countries. And make no mistake, all these children fled the threat of brutality and possible death at home, and hardship on the road to hoped-for freedom, on a scale we can only imagine.

And we were driven by our belief in the need to counter the negative stereotypes, misinformation and all too often hysterical and cheap politicisation, so prevalent in parts of the media.

Refugees turn up on our doorstep because they are desperate. They come for a life without persecution. And for the lives and futures of their children. They do what we would do. Can you imagine, even for one moment, what it is like for a mother to grab her only child and head out into the night with nothing except the clothes on her back? And what it feels like to have, ‘We’ll be back for you’ ringing in her ears, delivered by the men who were dragging her husband off? I can’t, but this was the reality for Mohammed’s mother. They come with the thinnest hope. They come begging for refuge. They come because there is nowhere else to go.

Refugees throw themselves on our mercy and we all too often find ourselves lacking. We share a humanity and this needs to be manifest in our response to them. Locking them up, along with their children all too often, denying them basic rights, vilifying them and frequently sending them back to god knows what, is not our humanity manifest. This is not a political problem, it is a human one. It is attendant on us, who so often chide and lecture other governments on human rights, to put our marker down. If we do not do this, how seriously are those ‘other’ regimes round the world likely to take our humanist finger wagging?

Preserving and presenting their stories has been our way of shining a light on the dignity and worth of these children, a dignity that their histories might have denied them.

People ask me how I ‘did’ the children’s voices so well. And how I presented the horrors visited on them in such a ‘low key’ way. The truth of the matter is that the children did it. How this happened was my journey. Hand in hand with the children, we told their stories. All I had to do was become invisible, to be a conduit for them. It is sometimes a writer’s job to take the ‘I’ out of the process.

It was their voices I wanted to transcribe onto the page. The recordings and notes – phrases marked, the unsaids, the listening and re-listening – all informed the process. But it was their voices that moved the hand that wrote the words that told the story. This was the aim of the Refugee Diaries. Read these stories and if you are moved, if you have a different notion of what it is to be a refugee, or even of what it is to be a child, then they have been successful.

Hats off to the four children, Gervelie, Mohammed, Hamzat and Meltem (in absentia) who had a wonderful day in the spotlight, but spare a thought for the ones who did not, or will not make it to celebrate the glorious ordinariness of life.

Anthony Robinson, Cambridge, 21 July 2010

Author of the Refugee Diaries series for children, published by Frances Lincoln: Gervelie’s Journey, Mohammed’s Journey, Hamzat’s Journey. Meltem’s Journey is published on 10 August.

Highlights of York Refugee Week

This year York Refugee Week focussed on the campaign to end child detention and the plight of children forced to leave their homes and to seek sanctuary in other countries.

Events included a picnic, photography exhibitions, an exhibition opened by Margaret Sentamu (wife of the Archbishop of York) at York Minster, a film night. BBC Radio York covered the week’s events in a series of radio interviews, and a spectacular cultural festival with the participation of local families from York’s Kurdish community rounded off a memorable week.

Here are some photos from the various events that took place during the week. Particular thanks are due to Luli and Flora and all the young dancers from Shpresa for their amazing performances and workshops, and to the student volunteers from the Centre for Applied Human Rights and York St John University.

Shpresa dancers performing at York St John's chapel theatre
A group of drummers and performers from Zimbabwe perform at York St John's University during Refugee Week 2010.
Shpresa dancers at a workshop for Refugee Action York
Shpresa dancers at the Refugee Action York workshop during Refugee Week

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