THE REFUGEE CRISIS

  • 1 in 112 people around the world has been forced to leave their home
  • Almost 1% of the global population are refugees
  • Over 60% of all refugees are hosted in the Middle East and Africa

Sources: United Nations and Al Jazeera

The British government officially offers some level of material support to refugees who have reached the UK by their own means to seek asylum. But, there are various circumstances under which this support can be withheld or withdrawn if the state refuses or delays the initial claims for asylum.

In such cases, people seeking asylum can find themselves left destitute and homeless.

Among the many grassroots solidarity initiatives that have emerged within the UK’s “Refugees Welcome” movement, the “Hosting” movement has grown specifically to address this need for housing people who find themselves trapped within the system.

Made up of different charities, NGOs and grassroots initiatives, the “Hosting’ movement seeks out and coordinates people who are willing to offer shelter to destitute asylum seekers within their own homes. People from all walks of life are participating in “Hosting” across the UK and thousands of nights’ shelter are being provided for those in need annually.

People who have opened up their homes to asylum seekers say they took the decision for various reasons but that the shared experience has been mutually enriching.

Al Jazeera met a few of the many “hosts” and their “guests” to document their stories and find out more about this initiative.

Vahe* from Armenia is being hosted by Donna Williams in Epsom, Surrey  
Vahe* spends a lot of time exploring the local area on a bicycle that was given to him by Donna Williams [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

Vahe was a human rights journalist in Armenia with a large social media following. His work challenged governmental corruption which he says made him the target of state authorities who arrested and imprisoned him many times in Armenia. He says that he was finally threatened and told that he had 48 hours to leave the country.

Vahe had visited Britain before and had a valid multi-entry visa on which he came into the country.

“In the airport I claimed asylum and I told them that I could not return to Armenia because I knew that I would be killed if I did. I was put in an immigration reception centre where I was kept for two months before being housed by the Home Office until my case was heard.

“My asylum application was rejected.

“I appealed but also lost that case in November 2013. They do not believe that I cannot go back to Armenia.

“Following the second rejection, I had nowhere to go and came to London where I slept anywhere that I could. I lived for more than two years like that, homeless. I came here to the UK to find freedom but I just found more problems.

“Eventually I went to a London migrant and refugee centre and they found me a new solicitor. They also contacted people about “Hosting” who, through an organisation called “Refugees at Home” found Donna for me who invited me here to stay at her house.

“I felt like I had come to a second home when I met Donna. She has been like a ray of sunshine for me that is helping me to grow again and have some hope back in my life. I had lost more than 16 kilos since I had been in the UK but at last I am eating, sleeping and getting healthy again.

“I spend a lot of my time here on the internet reading and keeping up to date with what’s happening in Armenia. My mind is always there.”

Most of my friends are either in prison or dead now because of our human rights work. I just ask the British government to give me a chance to live in freedom, at last.”


Donna Williams, host

Vahe* was homeless for two years until Donna Williams invited him to stay at her home in Epsom, Surrey [Rich Wiles/Al Jazeera]

“I am recently widowed and my children have all moved away so I had space in my home and it felt wrong not to share it with someone who was in need.

“Before becoming involved in hosting I didn’t quite realise how difficult it was for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I thought that people must be getting looked after within the system, but now I realise that many are surviving with basically no help from the state.

“I am also aware about how important it must be for people who are going through all of this to have a roof over their head and somewhere safe to live. People cannot think about progressing their asylum cases when they have nowhere to sleep at night.

“Watching Vahe flourish and develop has been the best thing about this experience. I can see his confidence growing all the time. He has to keep himself busy because of what he has experienced, to keep himself active and to keep his mind occupied. It has not been easy for him.

“I am also trying to find Vahe some voluntary work locally. He wants to work and he needs some stability in his life and hopefully his new solicitor can help him to move his case forward.”
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Arnold* from Sierra Leone is being hosted by Kajsa Soderlund in Lewisham, London

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Arnold’s* application for asylum in the UK took 26 years until he was finally given ‘Leave to Remain’ in the country [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

Originally from Sierra Leone, Arnold went to Nigeria to study law where he was arrested for writing an article in a student newspaper exposing corruption in the Nigerian government.

In 1989, Arnold managed to escape from prison and fled to Britain where he immediately applied for asylum. Arnold was given a letter by the Home Office stating that while his application was being assessed he had the right to work although he could not practise law in the UK.

He says that every time he contacted the Home Office he was told that his case was ongoing and a final decision was yet to be made.

“I began to learn about IT and got a good job in London, but I still couldn’t get my documents back from the Home Office. This went on for 10 years and then suddenly the Home Office sent me a letter saying that I wasn’t allowed to work, and they contacted my employers and told them that I was working illegally.

“It was a bad time for me and I had a horrible feeling of being ‘wanted’. I stayed with friends for a while but eventually became homeless and for many years I was sleeping in the streets or in hostels when I could find a bed.

“Everywhere I went I was looking over my shoulder and paranoid.

“For a while I was sleeping underneath some stairs near the offices of the Refugee Council in London. One day I was invited inside the offices and I told them my story.

“They introduced me to an MP who agreed to help me. She told me to fill in new application forms and write a personal statement explaining my case.

“After some further complications, and with the MP’s help, the Home Office finally gave me Leave To Remain in the UK for two and a half years, including the right to work. I finally got this official documentation in June last year, 26 years after first arriving in the UK.”


Kajsa Soderlund, host

Kajsa Soderland, herself an immigrant in the UK, became inspired to become a ‘host’ after hearing a Syrian refugee talk in London about his experiences [Rich Wiles/ Al Jazeera]

“I went to a fundraising night and heard a Syrian refugee speak about being hosted and what it had meant to him. He said that ‘what you can do to help refugees is to tell other people that we are not monsters’. This broke my heart.

“After hearing this speech I contacted Refugees at Home, the organisation that had found the speaker a place to live, and I registered to become a host.

“They sent a social worker to interview me to find out more about me and what I could do. For example, I am not in a position to offer professional support to someone who has gone through severe trauma, but what I can do is offer someone who is quite independent a place to live.

“The organisation told me about Arnold and we met for coffee to get to know each other. We got on well straight away and in the last week in February he moved in to my house.

“Arnold is such an inspiring person. I have learned a lot about African culture and history, and about the slave trade which I knew little about previously.

“I am an immigrant myself. I was born in Sweden but as an EU citizen I can move freely. It’s so unfair that I have these rights but Arnold doesn’t.

“It shows how unfair the world is when things are based on where we happened to be born – the ‘accident of nationality’ – over which we have no control. We are all people who are just trying to live a decent and safe life.”


 

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