Helping Refugees Past and Present

The Translating Asylum project team was invited to take part in a discussion-based event hosted by Journeys Festival International and organised by Ria Sunga, PhD Candidate, at the University of Manchester’s History department, on Friday 11 October 2019. This blog post provides a brief overview of key themes and discussion points.

The Helping Refugees Past and Present event brought together academic researchers and practitioners from humanitarian organisations working on refugee-related activities in Manchester. It aimed to trace a broad history of refugee communities in Manchester and the history of refugee assistance and activism in the city, linking this with current practices and campaigns from Manchester-based organisations working with refugees.

On the panel were Annabelle Wilkins (Translating Asylum, University of Manchester), Julia Savage (Asylum Matters), Amir Raki (Caritas Salford), Liz Hibberd (Manchester City of Sanctuary), Dana Sharkas, (Rethink Rebuild Society), Moaz El Sayed (Rethink Rebuild Society), Rubina Jasani (HCRI, University of Manchester), Ruth Wiggans (Medact Manchester) and Piyush Pushkar (Medact Manchester).

The panel discussion highlighted the importance of having public-facing opportunities to reflect on the work that individuals do with refugees in relation to addressing the needs and priorities of people seeking refuge, but also involving refugees as co-producers of knowledge, and making sure organisations work with, rather than for/on behalf of refugees. A video created by researchers at the Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute about participatory ethnographic research with refugees showcases recent work by the Institute with the organisation Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) in Manchester and is an example of such an engaged approach:

Several contributions helped to place current initiatives into the local historical context, for example, Manchester’s history of receiving refugees and how support for refugees has changed over time. Acknowledgement was given to grassroots organisations such as the Manchester Refugee Support Network and to several aspirational initiatives that have emerged in the city such as the Refugee Charter for Manchester which was launched in 2006 to promote support in areas such as housing and education.

The discussion also focused on ways in which academic research can be used to support practical work and campaigns, that is, the use of research as an evidence base for lobbying politicians and giving legitimacy to the practical work already being done by organisations. In many cases, initiatives in the city, including Manchester City of Sanctuary, are run with minimal staffing which threatens their reach and sustainability in the longer term. This prompted an audience member to comment that despite all of the good work undertaken, the efforts described are but a drop in the ocean and what is needed is greater political change at the higher levels.

Questions around the scale and impact of support initiatives led to reflection on the politics of refugee solidarity in Manchester. The panellists articulated in very concrete ways how different practices of solidarity have emerged in the city and how such practices are sustained in the face of sizable organisational funding obstacles. Representatives from Rethink Rebuild Society, for example, talked about their efforts to support the newly arrived Syrian community and also to leverage their networks in the wider city by encouraging positive cultural engagement across communities through a festival of arts and culture. Amir Raki (Caritas Salford) talked of the Cornerstones initiative, which provides support in English language learning to refugees and asylum seekers as part of services to the wider city community as part of a growing network of grassroots and volunteer-led services to support language learning.

Audience members highlighted various events they had initiated around different cultural and food-related activities, drawing attention to examples in which interpersonal contact between communities in the city can be realised through low-investment initiatives.

Fostering relationships between refugee-related organisations and academics/Universities was another key topic, in particular for representatives of Medact Manchester. Co-chair of the organisation, Ruth Wiggans, spoke of the efforts made to develop networks with organisations that share similar values such as Docs not Cops to support initiatives in refugee and migrant health. Ruth spoke about the impact of a piece of research that Medact Manchester had undertaken with Freedom from Torture, which aimed to identify gaps in knowledge of refugee and migrant health among doctors regardless of their level of training or experience, and of a campaign to raise awareness of the ethical issues facing doctors as a result of new legal requirements to refuse non-urgent care in the NHS to overseas patients unless they can prove they have paid for it.

The Translating Asylum project, represented by Annabelle Wilkins, drew attention to the potential impact of language barriers on refugee and asylum seeker access to services, providing a historical context for evaluating approaches to language support in the city today. Uncertainties over the availability of provisions and how to access them, particularly in the healthcare sector, were raised in the audience Q & A, suggesting more work is needed to make vulnerable residents aware of professional language support services in primary care.

The powerful personal stories recounted by panellists about their motivations for working in refugee and asylum-seeker support initiatives clearly resonated with many members of the audience, many of whom were involved in other support initiatives in the city. The challenges of disseminating information about initiatives were brought home by a current asylum seeker who spoke about the difficulties in finding out what support was available and where. The event therefore provided a timely point for reflection on the University of Manchester’s recently awarded status as a university of sanctuary  and its vision of the socially responsible university.  How such a status can be used to facilitate connections between initiatives and develop understanding of what a politics of refugee solidarity means for the city of Manchester and its residents are questions that a future event might usefully address.

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