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The framing of a ‘refugee crisis’ has led to new expressions of solidarity across Bristol, including organised demonstrations, the organisation of convoys to Calais, and widespread enthusiasm for the organisation of homestay accommodation for displaced refugees. However, this form of organising is not new.

Words: Naomi Millner

As a port city historically entrenched in the slave trade, Bristol has long been shaped by the labour and lives of communities both forcibly displaced and caught up in Britain’s imperial pursuits. Meanwhile, since the 1950s, the UK has been receiving refugees from all over the world, reflecting shifting geopolitics and wars – from Eastern Europe, Uganda and Chile in the 1960s and 1970s to countries such as Somalia, Syria and Eritrea today.

The category of ‘refugee’ refers to those seeking asylum due to threats of persecution and violence, as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention, set up as a response to the vast displacements of the Second World War. However, there is a danger of reducing the question to one of defining who counts as the most vulnerable victims, as people have always had complex reasons for moving, and must act to secure their survival. As Bristol moves itself to act in response to the latest significant displacement of people, it is important to reflect on the lessons learned through longer histories of organising.

While the history of refuge-seeking is a long one, the scale and organisation of asylum-seeking shifted significantly in the UK during the 1990s. Violence in Kosovo in 1999 led to the largest exodus of refugees of the decade, with some 900,000 people forcibly expelled from Kosovo. At this time, the UK Refugee Council, in partnership with Refugee Action and the Red Cross, began organising programmes to receive and settle asylum-seekers. Such programmes were eventually part-funded by the UK government, although these budgets are currently being axed.

After the government decided to disperse asylum claimants throughout the UK during the period of their application, Bristol became a key receiving location. Destitute asylum-seekers waiting to hear the outcome of their case were housed in the city, and many remained there after receiving refugee status. Refugee Action in Bristol has, since this time, been supporting asylum-seekers and new refugees in Bristol through the legal process of claiming asylum, which can be lengthy.

“Destitute asylum-seekers waiting to hear the outcome of their case were housed in the city, and many remained there after receiving refugee status.”

In the early 2000s, growing awareness of this new population and of the many difficulties they faced also led to an upsurge in ground-level organising. Thus the vibrant charity Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) was set up by volunteers in 2006, originally under the name Holding Refugees and Human Rights in Mind. The project operated from the beginning as a drop-in centre, serving regular hot meals, providing advocacy and sign-posting services, and forming a hub of supportive community in the city. BRR has since worked closely with the Bristol Red Cross as well as local law centres to support destitute asylum-seekers and provide access to services. They have also been central in the campaign to make Bristol a City of Sanctuary, which was officially recognised in 2011. Today BRR is open three days a week, welcoming more than 100 asylum-seekers from 60 different nationalities.

A fourth drop-in day is led by the refugee-led charity Borderlands, whilst the campaigning group Dignity for Asylum-Seekers has organised theatre and campaigning interventions. In collaboration with others, including the anarchist network No Borders and the campaigning group Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers Campaign such groups have been organising in response to police raids, detention and deportation that target asylum-seekers without accountability in the UK.

“As Bristol moves itself to act in response to the latest significant displacement of people, it is important to reflect on the lessons learned through longer histories of organising.”

In 2009 around half a million asylum-seekers were living in the UK without access to accommodation, income or support for such reasons, and, as shown in an Amnesty International report, 40% of advice requests received by Refugee Action were from destitute asylum-seekers.

What can you do?

  • Join the Calais Refugee Solidarity Bristol group (on facebook) to help organise and send supplies to support asylum-seekers waiting in makeshift camps in the port city.
  • Sign up to the Bristol Hospitality Network mailing list and other organisations mentioned above via their websites, or like them on facebook, to receive regular updates on what help is needed here in Bristol.
  • Offer a spare room in your house to a destitute asylum seeker in Bristol (most are single men aged between 25 and 50). We do not encourage families with children to host because there is no way of ‘vetting’ our members to safeguard your children.
  • Consider renting out your spare room and donating the proceeds to a charity like BHN to enable them to go on supporting destitute asylum-seekers in existing hostel accommodation. Ask to visit and get to understand the experience of people seeking asylum from all around the world.
  • Engage with the longer histories and broader geographies of migration today, and resist the temptation offered by the media to think in terms of ‘good victims’ and ‘bad actors.’ The Syrian children are not the only ones affected in today’s world and this is as much a political issue with a long history as it is a humanitarian crisis.

The Bristol Hospitality Network (BHN) was set up in 2009 in response to this need. A group of friends came up with the idea of connecting a network of spare rooms in peoples’ houses, aware that this had been happening informally for some years. Each receiving home was to have a ‘link person’ to organise the length of stay and provide support and follow-up, while the network itself ensured that the legal side of the cases was being followed up. Then, the initiative scaled up. Within two months of starting conversations, an anonymous donor had offered to buy a large house for the group to manage.

Over the next 18 months an appropriate eleven bedroom property was sought out and developed, while the working group formalised as a charity and set up social enterprise mechanisms and an allotment project to support itself. The large house opened at the beginning of 2011 and has since housed 35 men seeking asylum, whilst other members were hosted in spare rooms in the broader network. The network itself has today hosted more than 92 people from 28 different countries and currently houses 25 people. They operate from a principle of solidarity rather than charity, regarding people seeking asylum as equals and vocally rejecting the current system that pursues deliberate destitution as part of its policy strategies.

Naomi Millner is a member of BHN

Read more about BHN here:

Find here the wider network of agencies providing accommodation to asylum-seekers in the UK:

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