Sarah's blog

Asylum opponents hide behind texts

The threatened deportation of a Sierra Leonian man prompted an hour long programme about asylum on BBC Radio Sheffield. Including interviews with City of Sanctuary, ASSIST and other groups and individuals that support people seeking sanctuary, the only opposition came in the form of texts that presenter Toby Foster described as just ‘racist’. Despite the producers’ efforts, none of those sending negative messages were prepared to come on air to explain their views.
As another caller pointed out, opponents of asylum usually speak from a position of ignorance. Well, refusing to engage in debate suggests they may also realise they’re on dodgy ground. Let’s not forget though that those people may be feeling insecure for other reasons such as poverty and unemployment and those of us trying to raise the level of the asylum debate need to take that into account as well.
In an encouraging post script to the broadcast, news came through that the planned deportation had been cancelled – that’ll be another bit of public money wasted on all the preparation, security, detention, paperwork etc.

People in high places

People in positions of power and influence are such targets for pressure groups and individuals pleading their case, they must give careful thought to which issues they are going to home in on.

So the Easter message the Archbishop of York (pictured here skydiving from 13,000 feet up) chose to put before readers of The Independent will not have been delivered lightly – and is therefore all the more powerful for that.

Not only does Dr Sentamu – himself a refugee from Uganda – speak strongly in support of the UK extending the hand of welcome to anyone who needs it. He goes further, highlighting the “increasingly unpalatable evidence” from countries like Congo and Cameroon, that refused asylum seekers sent back there “are subjected to imprisonment, torture, abuse and starvation”.

Let’s hope UKBA and their enforcers read this article before carrying out their threat to send Djoly, currently faced with deportation from Sheffield, and others in a similar situation, back to the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo.

Poem from a young detainee threatened with deportation to a place he's never known

Letter from Colnbrook

I am going to nowhere land
They deporting me from England
I was looking for my home land
What a destiny that I am banned
I wanna go back to my home town
Sheffield is my home land
They say Afghanistan is your land
UKBA took me to Colnbrook
They sending me to nowhere land.

Reza
06/03/11

Careless talk costs understanding

A new report by the counter terrorism think tank Quilliam warns how the careless use of language can exacerbate misunderstanding and community tension. It shows how using the “wrong” words can “inadvertently strengthen the narratives and arguments of Islamism” – that the world is divided into two opposing camps, one of Muslims and another of non-Muslims.

Quilliam is a London-based organisation that aims to “generate creative thought paradigms through informed and inclusive discussion to counter the Islamist ideology behind terrorism “. Its report Islamism and Language shows for example how using the term ‘Muslim World’ suggests that this is a homogenuous bloc that is united by a single political and religious outlook.

In their conclusion the authors offer alternatives to that and other expressions under the microscope – ‘Muslim countries’, The Muslim Community, ‘Islamic law’ and ‘Islamophobia’.

The discussion reminds me of author/journalist Steven Poole’s book Unspeak, which illustrates the way such words can be used as weapons to ‘frame’ and manipulate political debate. And recent conversations about the use of words such as ‘multiculturalism’ make me think it’d be a good idea to have a public discussion about such things – possibly at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf literary festival this autumn. Watch this space…

Common interests identified as key to social interaction

The recent 'community social' we organised in the Gleadless area of Sheffield was really heartwarming for the number of different organisations and individuals who came together to make it happen.
One of the groups at the centre of it was Mediation Sheffield (MESH), who have produced a report giving their reflections on the event. They highlight the importance of a common language in breaking down cultural and other differences, and noted how food played a big part in achieving this - with local residents bringing Yorkshire puddings complete with various fillings, to complement the tasty offerings from the Karen, Kurdish and Iranian communities.
MESH also discovered that it's not just people arriving here as refugees who have difficulty sometimes making social contact, but longer term residents who have experienced bereavement or other difficuties in their lives. As they talked with these people they found other areas of common ground, such as shared professional interests.
We're hoping to build on the contacts made at the Gleadless event and roll the lessons out to other parts of the city.

Television gets it right..

Channel 4 Dispatches programme painted a disturbing portrait last night (Nov 29) of the way Britain treats the youngest and most vulnerable people who come here seeking asylum. The hour-long programme focused on three cases, a 10-year-old Iranian boy (pictured), a 16-year-old Afghan and a 22-year-old Ugandan woman, showing how they have been brutalised by the UK asylum system.

In one clip, the young Iranian boy tells how he and his family were taken away in a Border Agency van, caged like animals. His headmistress says when he was released from detention he was so traumatised he could no longer write his own name. At one point the family return from hiding to find UK Border Agency (UKBA) officials have been to their home and wripped open the boy’s teddy in their search for identity documents in preparation for deporting them.

The examples present a graphic illustration of the culture of disbelief at UKBA and an asylum system that in some cases causes them profound psychological and physical harm.
You can see more details and watch the prpogramme again here.

Building a bank of speakers

We ran a training session on public speaking at the weekend, delivered by Jen Skapeti from 'Speakers Bank' in London. The results were amazing and I'm planning to show them off at Sheffield City of Sanctuary's new year party. There were 14 participants, from places as far apart as Chechnya, Yemen and Uganda. None of them had English as their first language and all started the day a little bit nervous about just standing up and introducing themselves. Six hours later I watched in awe as each participant delivered a 3-minute speech on a subject they felt passionate about. These ranged from the value of education and family, to the evils of fast food. Stay tuned for news of their repeat performance in the new year.

Churchill - champion of asylum?

There was a fascinating insight on Radio 4 this week (Thursday September 16th) into how Prime Minister Winston Churchill was prepared to use the Royal Navy to get a political refugee into Britain – yes, INTO Britain!

The incident took place in 1954 – just three years after the signing of the Refugee Convention, when London dockers unloading cargo from a Polish ship noticed an emaciated stowaway. He was put onto a cargo platform which the operator started to lift. When he realised there was just the man on it he stopped and the ship’s crew whisked the stowaway out of sight.

The incident came to the attention of Polish emigres who contacted the Prime Minister. Notes in Churchill’s own handwriting demonstrate what lengths he was prepared to go to to apply habeas corpus, arguing that if the man had been lifted “one inch, or for one second” off the ship he was on British Soil. He ordered a British Admiral to demand that the ship’s Master hand the man over. If he refused Churchill authorised HMS Obdurate(!) to “sheer the ship off onto the mud”, shooting her propeller if necessary…

You can hear the whole story (until Thursday 23rd only) with a commentary by the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti in “Preposterous Files” here.

EDMs as windows on MPs' interests

As Parliament 'washes up' outstanding business before the general election campaign gets under way on Monday, MPs have just a few days left to add their names to Early Day Motions. These are a vehicle for members to express an opinion and draw attention to issues such as EDM 1224 which highlights the effects of incarcerating children at Yarlswood Detention Centre. That motion was posted a week ago and has attracted just four signatures. An earlier one, EDM 890 expressing "concern at the low level of support for asylum seekers" has been signed by 43 MPs in its six weeks of life.
Anyone wanting to check up on their MP's record can do so here

Through the eyes of an Arab child

A new series starts on BBC4 on Wednesday (February 10th, 9pm) chronicling the lives of youngsters in an Arab school. Directed by Sarah Hamilton, who recently made a DVD about City of Sanctuary, it focuses on four schools in the Syrian city of Damascus.

Sarah says she was given unique access to film the youngsters over the course of a year to explore what it’s like to grow up in the heart of the Arab world. “Using the prism of school life,” she says, “the series takes us beyond politics and media cliches to the stories of ordinary people.”

These include boys who dream of playing for Manchester United, girls who write poetry, and refugees who tell their stories through rap.

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