I was first inspired to learn more about refugees when I read the book Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja, a harrowing personal account of one woman who fled from the injustices in her home village only to find herself facing more injustice when she escaped to United States.
Student Action for Refugees (STAR) UK is a national student society with a mission to raise awareness of the issues faced by refugees, and to provide students with the means to make a difference in the lives of refugees in the UK. Getting involved with national campaigns is a big part of this, and the campaign we are focusing on this term is Equal Opportunities: Access to Higher Education. But STAR is also concerned to make an impact at a local level, and in York, we’re running English language classes for refugees – which we’re always recruiting for.
Our work ties with the national campaign, which fights for the right of refugees to develop skills while they’re in the UK, either to contribute in the workplace here or to develop in their country of origin, as we believe no one’s potential should be wasted as a result of their ethnic background or refugee status.
For me, STAR is a wonderful way to meet people with similar concerns who are really committed to making this kind of change happen – change that I think really is important, because, as students we often take for granted how privileged we are.
Despite popular fears and alarming newspaper headlines about refugees, they made up a tiny proportion of net immigration to the UK in 2011 (about three per cent). According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2011, there were an estimated 195,500 refugees in the UK last year – only about 0.26 per cent of the population.
But these are people who have legally and successfully applied for asylum in the UK because they are in danger in their countries of origin. Refugees are one of the most disadvantaged groups living in the UK. Their lives are often full of uncertainty, alongside the worry of deportation.
Alongside this harsh reality, a single adult asylum seeker receives £36.62 a week from the state in comparison with the absolute mini- mum £67.50 per week provided for single unemployed UK citizens. Asylum seekers do not have permission to work in the UK – they are therefore barred from earning taxable income which would contribute to the UK economy and from taking on work whether they are willing or not.
Good organisations are making a difference however. Refugee Action York, RAY, works closely with STAR. On Sundays, RAY hosts a drop-in centre for local refugees who are mainly of Turkish descent.
As a result of being a part of the society, I’ve had the chance to meet fascinating people and learn an incredible amount. After the English teaching lessons for adults, one-to-one support, and children’s activities, everybody joins together for a shared meal, easily the best part of the day as it provides a chance to mingle and mix around in a chilled setting.
What’s more, it is so satisfying to see that the work RAY does actually makes a genuine difference to the people who attend. Moving to new country where you don’t speak the language and have few relatives is extremely difficult, but RAY helps these people hugely by being extremely welcoming and providing the means for the refugees to improve their English skills, and find their feet as a result.
Many displaced people never make it to safety and a large portion of those that do are held in detention while decisions are made about their fate. There are 11 immigration removal centres across the UK. At the end of 2011, according to the Refugee Council, 2,419 people had been detained and 99 children had entered detention, of which 64 were asylum detainees.
The STAR National Fundraising Week is running from December 1st to the 9th. Here in York, we will kick-start the week with a screening of the film Dirty Pretty Things, Monday 3rd December in P/T/005 at 6.30pm.