On Saturday October 10, members of Unite Community South Yorkshire branch, charities and local activist groups took to the streets to send a clear message to the government: refugees are welcome here.
Despite there being more than 11m innocent people displaced from Syria, home secretary Theresa May announced last week that the UK would take in just 20,000 refugees over the next five years. This weekend Sheffield welcomed 50 of those refugees into the city, but the activists say more must be done to help.
“It’s a matter of humanity and a matter of solidarity,” said Unite community member Stuart Crosthwaite.
“They are people like us – trade unionists like us, people who fight for human rights like us. There should be no alternative but to help.”
More than 100 people joined the march through the bustling Saturday crowds in Sheffield City Centre and gathered outside the town hall.
The activists felt that the government’s offer is not sufficient for what is described as the worst humanitarian disaster of our time, and criticised the home secretary’s warnings of threats to social cohesion as an atrocious attempt to ‘divide and rule’.
In her speech at the demonstration, Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, condemned politicians for the dehumanisation of refugees.
“They’ve treated [migrants] as numbers, sometimes even as sub-human. Even our prime minister uses language that does not belong in a democracy.”
Sheffield Labour councillor Nasima Atker also criticised the PM’s reluctance to offer meaningful aid.
“David Cameron needs to open his arms as well as his brain; the world is suffering and refugee lives are just as important as his life,” Cllr Atker said.
The demonstration hoped to put pressure on the government to do more to ease the crisis, in both granting asylum and also in the process of resettling refugees into the community.
In July the government completely cut funding English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes as part of a wider attack on further education and adult skills programs.
Scrapping this provision significantly undermines a refugee’s ability to participate in civil society when resettling into British life. It reinforces divisions and makes it impossible for migrants to find employment and contribute to the economy.
To help refugees who could sink into destitution, Unite community in Yorkshire are now organising ESOL classes for refugees and migrants who are resettling in the area.
“I am very proud of what we’re doing on a practical level; the nuts and bolts that enable real social integration to come to fruition,” said John Coan, Unite community coordinator for Yorkshire & Humberside.
“We would argue it’s not migration that undermines the cohesion of communities – as the Tory home secretary would have you believe – but the cutting of provision that directly enables refugees and migrants integrate into society,” John said.
Unite Community’s work with refugees can also help them to fight back against migrant exploitation in the workplace.
“Quite often employers will exploit refugees because they may not know their rights, or they don’t know about unions, so our job is building solidarity with refugees, and giving them the best chance they can to get on in this country,” said Stuart Crosthwaite.
“But more needs to be done. We don’t want to end up an alternative state, propping up the country where the government falls short,” he said.
Action groups and charities in Sheffield have worked tirelessly to support asylum seekers who have left their homes in fear for their lives but are being failed by the system here in Britain.
Victor Mujakachi is a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has been refused refugee status by home office three times. He came to England to study in 2003 but his criticisms of elections in Zimbabwe resulted in a warrant for his arrest and threats to his life should he return.
He has not seen his wife or son in five years and, without refugee status, has no right to study or work, to accommodation, benefits or any support from the state.
“My circumstances changed dramatically and I now have very little control over my life. When the home office refused to grant me refugee status, all support was withdrawn and I became destitute and homeless. I live really by the day and depend on charities to survive.”
Victor is trained in business and finance and has won charitable awards in the community for his volunteering work, but is still unrecognised by the state as a citizen in this country.
“I can’t do anything with my life, I feel like I’m wasting away. I volunteer with Assist Sheffield, to help other asylum seekers who face similar struggles. It keeps me sane but I do feel depressed. A lot of people in my situation deteriorate physically and mentally, it frightens me.”
Unite’s Sheffield Community offers an inspiring message of community spirit to the desperate families who risk everything to flee to our borders.
“Unite Community is committed to helping refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers integrate into communities,” John said.
“We’re proud to extend help and solidarity to people who have very little choice but to abandon their lives, and we will continue to fill in the gaps where the government fail to help them start new ones.”
View a short clip of the event in the video below: