A play was performed in Oxford this evening by a refugee about his experience, aged 4, of escaping Uganda under Idi Amin in 1979.
I was invited to be on a platform afterwards with the playwright and two actors to talk about the work of the refugee organisation I work for and to answer questions. I spent most of the day thinking about questions I might be asked and researching the up-to-date answers for them.
I made my five-minute presentation and the floor was opened. Every question was for the playwright and the actors. As mine would have been, had I been in the audience.
This is (approximately) what I said:
What a thought-provoking insight into an asylum journey we’ve all just seen! What’s really striking is that although that journey took place 40 years ago, it rings very true to the stories we hear from refugees and asylum seekers today.
The fear, the uncertainty, the confusion, the determination to survive, the hope that there will be safety - ideally not too far away or too far into the future - these are the characteristics of fleeing danger and persecution 40 years ago, and now.
The world at the moment has more displaced people than ever previously recorded. Worldwide we have 68.5m forcibly displaced people – that’s a lot of suffering.
I work for Asylum Welcome – a small local charity which offers practical support to any asylum seeker or refugee who finds themselves in Oxfordshire.
Lots of good things happen there and I’d like to share a few of them with you, but first I want to share one of the saddest things.
What we often hear from the refugees and asylum seekers who find their way to our door is the shock that they experienced when they got to the UK, whether that was Dover, Heathrow – just as in the play, a motorway service station or a cold beach. They thought they’d reached a place of safety. Then they realised that they hadn’t.
Once refugees get here, they face disbelief and hostility. They face a difficult and confusing bureaucracy. They face a barrage of questions in a foreign language about what has happened to them – questions that some people are too traumatised to answer.
Everything depends on the answers to those questions. Within six months of answering them, those who are seeking asylum in the UK will find out whether they belong to the 70% or the 30%. 70% rejected. 30% offered refugee status in the UK for the next five years. Or sometimes three years.
So the first thing Asylum Welcome tries to do is to live up to our name. When you come through our door you walk into our Welcome Centre. There are people who smile, say hello and welcome you, sometimes in your own language. There is tea, coffee and some food out on the table. There are sofas to sit on or sometimes to fall asleep on. There are toys and books for children. There are computers you can use to connect to friends and family in other parts of the world. Our Welcome Centre is a safe place where we can share that we are all human.
• Last year we had 6,731 visits to our office from 659 individuals
In our Welcome Centre you can ask for an appointment with one of our trained and experienced volunteer advisers - to help with your asylum claim, or with appealing if you’re one of the 70% who’ve been refused, or with getting benefits, or finding housing, or registering with a doctor, or getting your children into school. Or probably all of those things at once. Oh, and getting the bus fare to go to London for an appointment with the Home Office about your asylum claim.
Imagine having to do all that in a system you don’t know in a language you are only just beginning to learn…
• Last year we ran 3,245 advice sessions for 367 individuals
If you’re a young person who has arrived without any family, you’ll meet our Youth Worker who offers specialist help with all of the things I’ve just mentioned, and who runs our weekly youth club.
• Last year we supported 107 unaccompanied young people
Everyone is invited to our weekly Lunch Club for a free, hot, nutritious meal. If you’re living on the £37 a week that Asylum Seekers can claim from the government, or if you’re getting nothing at all from the state, you’ll also be able to get a bag of food from our food bank once a week.
• Last year we gave out 2,339 bags of food to 131 people
• We served 543 hot meals and gave away 477 meal boxes
Probably the next appointment you make will be with our volunteer education advisers for help with getting into an English class. Or if you can’t get into an English class, because it’s too expensive or because you are caring for small children, then to be linked up with one of our volunteer English teachers for 1:1 help with learning the language.
Once your English is good enough you may go back to the education team for advice on further study and student loans. Or perhaps to the employment team for help with finding a job that uses your skills and experience, and that enables you to start to become financially independent.
You may then stop needing Asylum Welcome so much and we’re delighted about that. But we - our 150 volunteers and our 9 staff, most of us part time - remain available to every refugee and asylum seeker in Oxfordshire.
And here are some of the answers to the questions I wasn't asked:
• 85% of the world's displaced people are living in developing countries.
• 68% of refugees worldwide come from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.
• 16.5% of the world's refugees are in Turkey. That's more than in any other country in the world.
• There is a wall the entire 828km (515-mile) length of the border between Turkey and Syria, mostly paid for by the EU. (Eat your heart out, Trump.)
• Germany, Pakistan and Uganda each host over 6% of the world's refugees.
• Bangladesh, Iran and Sudan each host over 4%.
• 16.7% of Lebanon's population are refugees.
• The UK hosts 0.7% of the world's refugees and they make up 0.25% of our population. That's 1 in 400. Generous souls that we are.