The Peace and Justice Centre’ panel discussion on Welcoming Refugees held at University of Edinburgh on 8 October had to be moved at the last moment to a larger lecture theater to accomodate the audience of two hundred, an indication of concern for this issue in Scotland. The talk, which was part of the Edinburgh World Justice Festival, gathered voices from different civil society organisations, refugees and campaigners, who spoke about the needs and experiences of Syrian and other refugees in Scotland, Calais and Thesalonikka in Greece. Speakers included Syrian refugee Amer Scott Masri, Amadu Khan from the Welcoming Association, Gary Christie from Scottish Refugee Council, Janet Barnes from East Lothian Aid to Refugees, Matthew Naumann co-author of the EP&JC briefing on the needs of Unaccompanied Refugee children, Julia Albert – Recht who headed the British Red Cross response to the Syrian refugee crisis and Sabine Gundel from Citizens UK.
Brian Larkin, chair of the event and coordinator of the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre, opened the talk presenting the speakers, their role and the activity of the centre in promoting non-violence and human rights. He also described the dramatic condition of Syrian refugee children and the need to cease hostility and prioritise the humanitarian needs of the people of Syria.
The first speaker was Amer Scott Masri. Amer is a Syrian refugee himself, he has now made Scotland his forever home, although he campaigns to raise awareness on the situation in his home country. Amer was abducted when he returned from Scotland to Syria, guilt, according to the Assad regime, of having experienced democracy and liberal rights. He was then imprisoned and suffered torture and violence for two months. Amer talked harshly about the situation in his country, defining it as a “genocide against Syrian people”, he also illustrated the merciless conduct of the Assad regime, which, while claiming of defending itself from imaginary enemies, uses violence against its own people. Amer also remarked that the war in Syria, especially the actions of the Assad regime, is the root cause of two phenomena so widely treated by media all over the world: radicalisation and the refugee crisis. Syrian people have never been extremist; however, radicalisation is the result of desperation and anger for the inaction of the international community. In addition, he warned against the bias of the media, which is scaremongering the public opinion, connecting extremism and terrorism with the refugee crisis. All this going on with the inaction of “men in suits” (international leaders), who are bringing neither peace nor justice to the Syrian people.
Amer concluded his speech showing its gratitude for the kindness of Scottish people, who welcomed him and his family and are still doing much for many other refugees.
The second speaker was Janet Barnes, chair of East Lothian Aid for Refugees (ELAR). Through her work, she visited many refugee camps in Europe, where she could assess the dramatic living condition. With the aid of heartbreaking photos, she showed the life in the camps in Calais, Dunkirk, Idomeni and Thessalonikka
In particular, she talked about the camp in Calais, labelled “The Jungle” by refugees. Life in the camps goes on between police brutality, poor living conditions in shacks exposed to bad weather and a sort of normality recreated by refugees themselves with schools, restaurants, churches and theatres. The French government decided to demolish “The Jungle” in February 2016; however, this process resulted in burning of people’s belongings, disappearing of many refugees and the confinement of the rest in a very restricted area. Both UK and French government have implemented strict securitisation policies in the camps, through the construction of walls and fences (£200 million spent by the UK government in 2015).
Janet also talked about the work of ELAR in the camps. Along with the sending of packages and distribution of useful items, such as winter waterproof clothes and first necessity items, they supported refugees by providing 30 camping stoves in the camps, giving refugees the possibility to experience a moment of normality and familiarity, cooking around a stove that respect safety standards. Janet called for help and donation, for more information on how to help ELAR, visit the website or ELAR Facebook page.
The third speaker was Sabine Gundel, from Citizens UK. She talked about the importance of advocacy and about what ordinary people could do to pressure their politicians towards effective solutions. Refugees do not represent a problem, the problem, instead, is represented by politicians, who with strict law and regulations enhance the crisis. Advocating to change these laws is really important.
Sabine illustrated the context: according to Amnesty International’s new report, 10 countries alone, which account for less than 2.5% of world GDP, host half of the world’s refugees, while in Europe Germany took around 1 million Syrian refugees, the UK took only 20.000. Whilst governments build up walls and shut down camps, civil society is willing to help, organising in groups and associations to promote effective solutions to the crisis. Especially in regards to unaccompanied minors, the British society demands clear answers and actions. The situation of unaccompanied children refugees is dreadful: they disappear in the slowness of the process of recognition of their status and the indifference of the authority. Many unaccompanied children are 17-18 years old male, and depicted as difficult elements, they struggle to find foster homes and accommodations. However, civil organisations and ordinary people are mobilising to solve this issue: communities can organise themselves, creating foster homes, getting trained to deal with children’s needs, “pestering” local authorities and MPs with letters and mails to trigger action at local level. Sabine concluded her speech reminding that it is our duty to help refugees, it is not possible to close our eye and pretend we do not see. For further information on how to get involved with Citizens UK, visit the website.
The fourth speaker was Gary Christie, from the Scottish Refugee Council. Gary talked about the legal situation of refugees in the UK and in Scotland.From a legal perspective, the situation of Syrian refugees is delicate: they are not considered refugees under international law. The necessity to overcome this legislative hole is somehow as important as providing safety and accommodation. Gary made a comparison between what is being done by the Scottish and the UK government. At the moment, the UK government is developing policies that make a difference between “good” Syrian refugees (those who are resettled from the camps, monitored and identified) and “bad” Syrian refugees (those who reach the UK spontaneously); in addition, the new government is aiming to stratify refugee’s rights, reducing the remain leave from 5 to 3 years. The Scottish government, on the other hand, increased the refugee status and gives greater protection compared to other parts of the UK. However, it is vital, said Gary, for authorities at any level to assure rights for refugees once they get in the UK and especially grant legal representation for unaccompanied minors.
The Scottish government should keep on pressuring the UK government, and at the same time focus on integration in communities and develop national standards. As Sabine before him, Gary underlined the importance of advocacy and lobbying MPs and SPs.
For more information on the Scottish Refugee Council, visit the website.
The fifth speaker was Julia Albert-Brecht, who talked about her experience with International Medical Corps and British Red Cross in visiting refugee camps. As Sabine Gundel before her, she set the context of the refugee crisis: 13.5 million people are in need to humanitarian assistance within Syria, 4.8 refugees have been taken by neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Lebanon. Through the visual help of photos, she illustrated the situation of refugee camps in the Middle East, highlighting the contrast between the comfort and the “normality” lived in the camp in Jordan, preferred by refugees for the possibility to move in and out of the camp, and the desolation and discomfort of the UNHCR camp, made really unpopular by its isolated position. Julia then talked about the Vulnerable Syrian Resettlement Programme, enacted by David Cameron in 2015.
The Programme aimed to take 20,000 refugees in the UK, target already achieved. Nevertheless, the Programme raised several issue about its implementation. In fact, the Programme produced isolation among refugees, allocated in different local authorities; there has been a lack of clarity on funding for support and housing and a lack of focus on community integration and involvement. In addition, in spite of some good practice shown in the UK and in Europe, councils still struggle to learn from experience and that resulted in a lack of coordinated approach. On the other hand, although refugees state a positive experience overall, a lack of clarity about their rights to travel and reach relatives is still to be addressed. Lastly, Julia talked about the Community Sponsorship Programme, an initiative for communities who wants to organise themselves in giving aid to refugees. The Programme, however, is not financed by the government, but it should be self-funded by communities themselves, it also involves a limited number of refugees.
The sixth speaker was Matthew Newman, researcher of the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre, who illustrated the findings of its report on Meeting the Needs of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, which is available on the Centre’s website here.
The last speaker was Amadu Khan, from the Welcoming Association. Amadu is a refugee from Sierra Leone and he spoke about the Syrian Resettlement Programme, about its activities and goals and about what it still needs to be done for refugees. The Programme is a partnership between the Edinburgh Council, Saheliya and the Welcoming Association. The key features of the Programme are the integration and the support of refugees through the development of different activities, from English lessons and cultural integration to workshops on sustainability, volunteering and employability advice. Though the great work realised, Amadu highlighted some of the needs of the Programme: from financial resources to ESOL material and from a greater social interaction to possibility of employability for refugees. Amadu also called people to help by volunteering, advocating and lobbying, researching and donating.
For more information on the Welcoming Association and the Resettlement Programme, visit the association’s website.