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The Embassy for Refugees


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It was Refugee Week a few weeks ago. You may have missed it. Seven days of events around the country that aim to turn the debate about immigration on its head by celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK. London’s Bernie Spain Gardens, nestled on the South Bank of the Thames between the Oxo Tower and the South Bank Centre, was once again the venue for the one day Celebrating Sanctuary festival that kicks off a week of festivities.

The focal point of this year’s festival was the Embassy for Refugees designed by the architect Natasha Reid. It’s an unconventional wooden pavilion that envisages what an embassy might look like if diplomats concerned themselves with the marginalised and vulnerable as well as the rich and powerful. Reid describes it as a “poetic expression of refuge”.

The temporary structure is shaped like a tent, no doubt a reference to the fact that many asylum seekers arrive in the UK having spent months, and often years, in crowded, tented refugee camps, but its sturdiness also offers a sense of permanence. It has no doors and the open feel means that even when you’re inside it still feels, to some extent, like you’re outside. This must be how asylum seekers feel when they arrive at their eventual destination. They’re displaced from their homeland but not yet an active participant in a new one.

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The openness and welcoming nature of the structure is a contrast to the buildings that asylum seekers and refugees often find themselves in when they first arrive in the UK. Immigration detention centres, for instance, are notoriously hostile environments, the sort of place where you’re more concerned about surviving from day to day rather than planning your future.

During the Celebrating Sanctuary festival the embassy provided the setting for a series of talks on a refugee theme. This included a discussion about “spatial justice”, much of which went over my head, that centred on how the debate about immigration is often narrowly framed in terms of whether the UK has the capacity (housing, public services etc) and physical space to welcome more immigrants. Yet, this seems a rather simplistic Malthusian view. Surely if we apply the same logic, shouldn’t we restrict the number of children that we can all have?

In contrast to the positive image of refugees projected by the Refugee Week festivities, the government has, in recent weeks, stepped up its mean spirited and borderline racist campaign to make immigrants feel as unwelcome as possible. The “hostile environment working group” was the working title given to a group of government ministers charged with the task of making immigrants’ lives more difficult and reducing the number of people coming into the country. Its particular focus is on benefits and access to public services. Sadly there has been little in the way of effective opposition from a Labour party that is as keen to chase the anti-immigrant UKIP vote as the Tories and Lib Dems.

The further cuts to the welfare budget announced by the government in the recent Spending Review included a call for benefits to be withdrawn from immigrants who don’t learn to speak English. “No language, no benefits” was the message with many Tory backbenchers nodding sagely as the announcement was made. Yet, scratch beneath the media-friendly soundbites and you see what a cheap shot this is given how voluntary organisations that assist refugees and asylum seekers with language skills have been decimated in the council funding cuts of recent years. One such casualty is Sheffield’s volunteer-run Refugee Education and Employment Programme that once offered a friendly, welcoming environment for refugees and asylum seekers to learn English and chat with locals but was forced to close due to lack of funding.

Another typically ill-considered proposal has looked at requiring GPs to check the status of immigrant patients before treating them. Ignore for one moment the issue of whether GPs would have the time or indeed the inclination to shoulder this additional administrative burden. The proposal flies in the face of healthcare policy which over the last decade and a half has sought to prevent people who don’t need to be seen by A&E from turning up at A&E. If you stop people from going to see a GP then surely they will simply turn up at A&E where they won’t be charged.

In addition, there has been much media reporting of how “health tourism” is costing the NHS millions of pounds per year. It conjures up images of people all over the globe flicking through NHS brochures, looking for the best hospital and ward at which to get their horribly complex infectious diseases treated for free.

In 2011-12 the NHS wrote off about £12 million pounds in unpaid bills of a total of £33 million charged to overseas patients. This equates to a distinctly non-headline grabbing 0.011% of the total NHS budget of £109 billion. There are various reasons why charges are written off by hospitals, it’s not simply the result of some devious foreign national trying to get a freebie. Often hospital finance departments lack the capacity to pursue claims and poor systems may mean it is difficult to trace all patients.

With news stories like this, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the NHS was built with the considerable help of doctors and nurses from across the globe. Today roughly about 30% of healthcare professionals were born overseas. And this ignores the huge contribution made by immigrants working in low paid support roles in catering, cleaning, portering etc across the NHS. Without the contribution of immigrants the NHS would not function. As Clare Gerada, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners put it “you are more likely to see an immigrant helping you as an NHS worker than in the queue for A&E”.

Go home

In addition to this, comes this week’s news that government funded billboards targeting illegal immigrants with the message “go home or face arrest” have been driven around six London boroughs. Setting aside the issue of illegal immigration, the message these billboards convey to ethnically diverse areas of the capital is toxic. Almost a year to the day since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games celebrated this country’s wonderful diversity, the government is recalling the racist “go home” slogans of the sixties and seventies.

The Embassy for Refugees will travel round the country this summer before maybe finding a permanent home in Elterwater in the Lake District later in the year. If it comes anywhere near you, go and see it and give a metaphorical double digit salute to the coalition government by showing your support for refugees and asylum seekers across the country.


From → Refugees

  1. Adam Doyle permalink

    Great read as always Jonathan. Sadly the issue in Australia is being handled equally poorly, with a focus on which party can be the least humane to win votes the upcoming election. Really, really sad. Had some great public marches to show some support under the ‘welcome2australia’ group.

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