“I initially came here to study. But as life goes on, things tend to change. At times they don’t change for the better. I ended up being caught up in a situation where I could not go back or move forward.”
Red double-deckers, black cabs, the noise of an approaching train at the London Underground mixed with more than 8 million people moving around like ants to get to their desired destination make it easy for one to get lost in the crowd. For the most vulnerable minorities such as refugees and asylum seekers, the numbers of which have been on the rise since 2010 in the UK, these surroundings mean even more social barriers. During the process of granting asylum they are entitled to state support, including accommodation, 36.62 pounds per month, but they have no right to work.
According to the Project Coordinator at Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), Cristel Amiss, refugees and asylum seekers in London and the UK are facing disbelief, racism, sexism, alongside other discrimination. Even though women present expert medical reports in Appeal courts, proving the impact of what they have been through on them, the Home Office still objects these women are lying, she says.
It is present on different levels throughout the process of granting asylum, and reflects the state’s hostility towards fulfilling its obligations under any refugee convention. “They do not want asylum seekers.” 64% of applicants were refused last year. Therefore, people need to take care of themselves in a different manner, one of which can be the assistance received through BWRAP.
This is one of the 16 independent organizations based in the Crossroads Women’s Centre, which is reportedly the oldest women’s centre in London. It is located on Wolsey Mews, Kentish Town in northwest London. The alley where it can be found is empty with dark walls, letting the red letters of the Centre’s entranceway stand out. Walking into the building filled with women, children, ringing phones and the sound of a copy machine makes one’s mind – despite all the buzz – empty, wondering why all these people are here and what they went through. Juliet Nantambi is one of the women who found her safe place here.
Nantambi is a 35-year old Ugandan living in London. The colourful headscarf wrapped around her face contrasts with her intense dark eyes, full of both sadness and strength. Being bisexual prevents her from returning to Uganda, seeing as the anti–homosexuality law, passed there in December 2013, could lead to life imprisonment for her.
After 11 weeks of detention, which broke her down mentally, she is still up until this day waiting to hear the judge’s decision after the appeal hearing in May this year. In the meantime, Nantambi cannot access to her own passport, let alone seek out legal work opportunities.
“Surviving is difficult. How am I supposed to live on 36 pounds a month? If I do not get food, that is bad enough for me,” Nantambi explains.
Community for the support
Advocacy and support for Nantambi and others is accessible at the Women’s Centre. Moreover, a self-help community of asylum seekers from different countries has formed.
According to BWRAP, this social bubble provides “support when they report to the police, seek protection from further attacks, or are preparing for court.” Some situations represent mental torture – the Centre and its people provide much needed social aid when there is no one else there for you, says Nantambi.
Being part of city life requires a high degree of mobility, but asylum seekers do not have the means to choose their home locations. They are usually housed in a low standard shared accommodation, “where especially women are still frequently victims of violence,” says Amiss.
These smaller units of flats or shared houses are placed outside of London’s city centre. Sometimes relying completely on charity, asylum seekers cannot continue living their lives normally.
According to the Home Office Statistical News Release in February 2015, there were 24,914 lives put on hold in the United Kingdom last year, this number equating to asylum applications.
“People almost live in some kind of a medieval city in terms of how their life is structured in a highly urban area,” says Zrinka Bralo disapprovingly.
Bralo used to be a journalist in Sarajevo, but is now the director of the Immigrant and Refugee Communities Forum, since she used to be a refugee herself, fleeing Bosnia and escaping to the UK. In 1993 she sought asylum in the United Kingdom but was at first refused and fought against deportation for three years.
“Sometimes it is just a matter of a random dependence on the good will of good people,” she says.
Bralo goes on to tell the story of a young woman currently in contact with the Forum. She was refused, but the authorities cannot deport her because no country will take her. She is now living in a farm established by the church where people can live and are fed in exchange for manual labour. At the Forum people can find refuge in the form of advice and group support as well as various efforts to include them into already existing communities. Other ways of encouraging inclusiveness exist, notably through art and other creative projects.
Art as a weapon
The small door on Hoxton Street belonging to the Counterpoints Arts is almost invisible. Looking like a normal apartment blocks, the second floor at the end of the corridor of the building is home to an arts organization comprising of creative arts and cultural projects that explore refugee and migrant experiences.
“We help refugees also through enabling them to use arts as a weapon of integration where people get connections, network and form a community,” saysTom Green, one of the organization’s members. They support, construct and encourage the arts about migration, often produced by the refugees themselves. This ensures that their cultural and artistic contributions are recognized and welcomed within British arts, history and culture.
“In collaboration with the Southbank Centre we have organized an exhibition ‘Adopting Britain’ that explores the stories of many different communities that have made Britain their home,” explains Green.
The exhibition is part of the Changing Britain festival. Through various free events such as concerts, workshops and exhibitions, the festival focuses on society’s cultural and political elements. Adopting Britain is until the 6th of September easily accessible to everyone in the hope of eliciting sympathy and compelling people to identify with migrants. It features stories about the lives of the people who migrated to the UK for diverse reasons.
Yet some asylum seekers end up neither deported nor acknowledged by the state. They stay in a kind of limbo where they have no money, are sometimes exploited by their employers, have no secure future and are completely invisible within the society, Green says.
“The London’s Refugee Week in June, which combines migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Londoners to liaise, is therefore essential for all to connect.”
Furthermore, Bralo explains that there is a huge appetite among different types of people to interact with refugees and asylum seekers. “In a couple of days we got 1,100 people willing to volunteer and welcome refugees from Syria.”
In her opinion, Britain should be proud of taking in their fair share of refugees. People fleeing their own countries need to find support for survival somewhere in order to rebuild their lives, but most of the Western countries seem unwilling to provide that.
As Amiss explains, “They went through such things that are almost impossible to speak about unless you give them a protective environment.”
At one point, Nantambi wanted to end her life. She emphasizes how important it was, and still is, for her to have a group to take her on. People there went through similar atrocities and can relate more with what others went through. Different campaigns that they take part in at the Crossroads Women’s Centre, with the aim of bringing about systematic change, enable them to reach the general public. People are responding mainly through email, expressing their sympathy.
“The Centre also gives us a voice that we usually do not have.”