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The Bristol Cable

‘People are still here, and they are thriving’: how a local network has stepped up for asylum seekers

Since 2008, Bristol Hospitality Network has hosted nearly 250 asylum seekers at risk of destitution. As co-founder Rachael Bee steps down, we look back at her legacy and what has changed for people seeking refuge in the city.

Photo: David Griffith

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“I didn’t know where to go… I was stuck,” says Abu*, an asylum seeker from Sudan who was living in Bristol and in dire need of support. “I was just living in the street, and I wanted to do something but I couldn’t find anything to do.”

When a friend told him about local charity Bristol Hospitality Network (BHN), which works alongside people seeking asylum and facing destitution in the city, it sounded too good to be true. “When he told me, I didn’t believe him. When I came and I saw these things with my eyes, this time, I believed it,” he says. “They respect [you]… They will stand with you until you get what you need. And thank God.”

Director and co-founder Rachael Bee won’t blow her own trumpet, but as she prepares to step down from BHN to focus on her family, it’s worth noting she’s hosted over 40 asylum seekers in her own home. Her work has meant the difference between dignity and destitution for hundreds more.

Maybe this is why, when I meet up with, Laura Chester, BHN hosting manager, she calls Bee “the hospitable part of Bristol Hospitality Network”.

“She’s super warm and friendly, and very open and non-judgemental to anybody that walks in the door. She has time for them,” Chester says.

BHN’s host network grew from Bee and a few friends recognising a local need in 2008, and arranging to match up asylum seekers with hosts willing to share a spare room. At first there were three host households, including Bee’s; by this year 34 asylum seekers were hosted in homes and BHN’s men’s house – an 11-bed home in Fishponds privately donated for use by the charity. Over the years, nearly 250 asylum seekers have been hosted by BHN.

I feel like there’s these people that otherwise may well not be here. And they are here. And they’re in many cases thriving as a result of what BHN has done

Rachel Bee, Bristol Hospitality Network director

This work is an uphill battle against the government’s hostile environment policies. BHN now works exclusively with destitute asylum seekers – whose claim was refused and so have ‘no recourse to public funds’ or right to work.

“BHN is a practical response of solidarity to a policy of forced destitution of asylum seekers,” Bee reflects. “Although we are actually an established charity in the refugee sector now, our roots are very much in community grassroots activism.” 

That feeling of welcome that is sorely missing elsewhere in the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ – where making life hard for asylum seekers is policy.

Here in Bristol, asylum seekers are bundled together in hotels on the outskirts of town. The Cable reported recently on allegations that refugees living in a hotel near Bristol Airport were repeatedly refused entry to buses into town, prompting Stagecoach to launch an investigation.

Suella Braverman, who was reappointed as home secretary on Tuesday – just a week after being forced to resign by then-PM Liz Truss – recently said it was ‘her obsession’ to ship asylum seekers from the UK to ‘safe country’ Rwanda, a plan that has outraged human rights groups. Bristol’s refugee organisations, such as BHN, Bristol Refugee Rights and Borderlands, who daily mop up the mess left by the hostile environment, have spoken of fears of what comes next. 

The Nationality and Borders Act, which has already received royal assent, suggests the government could continue to lurch towards the right and persevere with increasingly xenophobic policies. The Act creates a two-tier system, in which only those who come to the UK through so-called ‘safe and legal pathways’ will have access to the full benefits of the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Bee describes the safe and legal routes as “mythical” and says the government’s “trampling on” the Refugee Convention has “shadows” of 1930s Germany. “I don’t say that lightly,” she says. “I know what that means.”

Bee is pleased Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed this year, although there are growing fears some are facing a homelessness crisis as six-month hosting placements end. “Bristolians are opening their homes in bigger numbers than we’ve ever had offer to host destitute asylum seekers,” she says. “We would love for that group of people to engage with the wider refugee community.”

Asylum seekers not just ‘statistics in the news’

On Mondays, BHN holds a welcome centre where 60 to 70 members – the term used for people accessing services – meet for lunch. There are English classes, advice appointments, a bike workshop led by the Bristol Bike Project, IT and other courses, table tennis, pool, and a range of activities that might include sewing, gardening, art, archery, herbalism… and a barber.

The advice team helps members progress their asylum claims, bridging the gap with solicitors and legal aid. They could also help filling in forms, or understanding bills.

Then there’s Moveable Feast, where members cater for events: “The people at the event then get to meet and learn a little bit about asylum seekers in a positive light rather than statistics in the newspaper,” Chester says.

The men’s house hosts a mixture of people including currently four Kurdish Iraqis, a Syrian, an Egyptian, an Ethiopian and a Sudanese man. 

On Tuesdays, Chester goes round for dinner. “The guys that live in the house cook on a rota and then we do a bit of house chores together and then we play cards and watch TV,” she says. “There’s a lot of laughing and a lot of eating.”

Everyone hosted with BHN is given a small weekly amount of money from a ‘solidarity fund’ put on an ‘equals card’, which members can use in shops and in cashpoints. “Because you can’t get a bank account as an asylum seeker, people have fed back [that] that’s really important for them,” Chester explains.

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“The young men I talk to, they want to go to college, they want to work and they want to get on with their lives,” she says. “It’s a prolonged limbo for them when they get a refusal. BHN is a place to stop safely and reflect… and then make really difficult decisions.”

BHN is not meant to offer a permanent solution. Ideally, with support, members will submit a fresh appeal for their case, giving them the right to Home Office accommodation. If their case has no hope of progressing, they might choose ‘voluntary return’ to their home country, or to go ‘under the radar’ and try to survive without the authorities knowing about them. “I think everyone in Britain would be quite surprised to know how many people work in hotels, restaurants, car washes and as cleaners that are living like that,” says Chester.

“We’ve always estimated around 100 to 150 people in Bristol are [destitute],” says Bee, “And not a lot has made us change that estimate over the years.”

Mike Jempson, a semi-retired journalist and co-founder of the Exiled Journalists Network, has been hosting refugees and asylum seekers in his home for about 20 years. He hosts for BHN and independently.

“I’ve had people from the Congo, from Algeria, from Somalia, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, Sierra Leone.”

Jempson sees firsthand the nightmare faced by those trying to gain refugee status. “We have a cruel and inept asylum system in this country,” he says. “There are many thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods are at risk because the system is broken.

“It’s deliberately broken as part of the hostile environment,” Jempson adds. “And [now there’s] this obscene idea of, just because somebody can’t use a safe route, when there are none, that they should then be flown to Rwanda.”

A lasting legacy

I ask Bee what her legacy is. The welcome centre is top of her list. Then there’s BHN’s recent work on EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). “We realised that most of our trustees, most of our staff were white and that we were working with a predominantly non-white population of asylum seekers,” she says. “And we weren’t representative of them.”

A training program was launched, and members interviewed other members in their own languages about what people felt BHN should be doing. “Those priorities that they have set for us, we’re working with.”

“The situation looks a lot less unrepresentative now than it did,” she says. “We want to see the organisation led by people with lived experience.”

Perhaps Bee’s legacy is this: “I feel like there’s these people that otherwise may well not be here. And they are here. And they’re in many cases thriving as a result of what BHN has done.”

Just ask Abu. “Rachael, she wants to leave,” he says. “But if you ask me, I don’t want her to leave. But you know, I’m just a guy who needs some help.”

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