Wednesday, 28 October 2009

CITIZENS Lay the Ground to Save Sanctuary in Northern Ireland

Today a team of leaders from local faith, refugee and citizen organisations travelled to Stormont to present a number of recommendations for restoring public support for sanctuary to senior civil servants at the Northern Ireland Assembly. The meeting paves the way for a future negotiation with Junior Ministers at the Assembly to discuss implementation of the Independent Asylum Commission’s recommendations.

The team consisted of representatives of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland), Refugee Action Group, Embrace (an interchurch initiative to support migrant communities), staff from CITIZENS for Sanctuary and two people who have first-hand experience of the asylum system in Northern Ireland. They were received at Stormont, the historic home of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, by officials who advise the Ministers with responsibility for community cohesion.

The team had a clear agenda – to raise a series of recommendations from the Independent Asylum Commission that could be discussed at a meeting with Ministers expected in the New Year. Justin, who fled persecution in Ivory Coast, shared his testimony about his experience of living in Belfast and the isolation he has felt in a city with few minority ethnic communities and the highest levels of hate crime in the UK. This was followed by a presentation on the Independent Asylum Commission’s Public Attitudes Research Project, before Boobakar, who escaped to Belfast from Guinea Conakry, explained to the spellbound civil servants about how his experiences in the past year had made him feel unwelcome.

Margaret McNulty, Information Officer at Embrace, then offered her perspective as a local resident and churchgoer who had spent many years working with migrant communities in Northern Ireland. Liz Griffith of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland) then pointed out the importance of access to ESOL classes and higher education for people seeking sanctuary.

The team’s presentation ended with a series of eight proposed recommendations to set before the Minister, ranging from using the language of ‘sanctuary’ rather than ‘asylum’ when communicating with the public, to setting up Sanctuary Welcome Teams to ensure that people like Justin and Boobakar are welcomed into the community.

The meeting ended with a commitment from the civil servants to prepare for a meeting with Junior Minister Gerry Kelly scheduled for the New Year and to explore each of the recommendations in advance of that meeting.

After the meeting Justin said:
“I was happy that I had the opportunity to tell my story and negotiate directly with important people today. It was the first time I had been to Stormont and the first time I had met with people who have the power to change how people seeking sanctuary are treated in Northern Ireland.”

Margaret McNulty said:
“I felt that the meeting today could not have gone better – but the challenge is that we need to convince the Ministers as well as the civil servants.”

Carina Crawford-Rolt, Projects Organiser with CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“This was the first action for our team in Northern Ireland – and the power of our leaders’ testimonies really got a reaction from the civil servants! We are looking forward to our negotiation with the Minister – and I am excited because this could bring about real change.”

Thursday, 15 October 2009

CITIZENS convince UK Border Agency to turn 'cattleshed' into an £800,000 Welcome Centre

In front of a packed Assembly of 300 people in Lambeth Town Hall yesterday, the UK Border Agency's Regional Director, Tony Smith, thanked South London CITIZENS for making possible an £800,000 redevelopment of the 'cattleshed' at the Agency's Croydon HQ, into a Welcome Centre.

Mr Smith made the decision to proceed with the plans following pressure applied by South London Citizens at their Assembly in 2008. Since that time Mr Smith and his team have worked with a team of leaders from South London Citizens as part of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign. The new Welcome Centre will transform the experience of the thousands of people seeking sanctuary who use Lunar House every year. Instead of queueing outdoors the plans provide for a climate-controlled, fully-enclosed reception area, with seats for those unable to stand, and an 'customer experience' more akin to a government building than a cattleshed. Over 80 builders are working on the project to ensure that it is complete by Christmas, when South London Citizens will celebrate the opening by singing carols.

South London CITIZENS' enquiry into Lunar House had previously led to major changes at Lunar House - the main Border Agency building where people fleeing persecution can claim sanctuary. Over the years these changes have included access to fresh drinking water in the Asylum Screening Unit, the provision of baby-changing facilities, and the removal of the 'pig pen' queueing arrangements. Volunteers from South London Citizens have served over 900 cups of tea and coffee to often traumatised and vulnerable people in the Asylum Screening Unit in the past six months.

Barbara Nalumu, a leader from South London Citizens and a key figure in the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign, said:

"The cattleshed was where I had to wait, in the cold and the rain, when I came to the UK from Uganda 20 years ago. I remember thinking: “this is not much of a welcome to Britain.” When I visited it again earlier this year it hadn’t changed much. On Monday a delegation of South London Citizens visited Lunar House - and we were delighted to see that work on the new Welcome Centre was already under way."

Tony Smith, Regional Director of the UK Border Agency for London and the South East, said:

"I am really grateful to South London Citizens and the Friends of Lunar House for giving me the momentum to be able to proceed with the refurbishment. Without your support this would not have happened. I look forward to working with you in South London, and negotiating with you on the recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission."

Cathy Giraud, a leader from South London Citizens and one of the Friends of Lunar House, said:

"The changes at Lunar House look amazing and are a testament to the importance of the relationship between the Border Agency and South London Citizens."

Monday, 5 October 2009

BBC Radio 4 reports Sanctuary Pledge success at Party Conferences

Our work at the Party Conferences to promote the Sanctuary Pledge has been picked up by a number of journalists.

There is a comprehensive story by the religious news agency Ekklesia. Also on the Community Newswire.

But the pick of the bunch is a great six minute piece on BBC Radio 4's main religious programme, Sunday. Scroll through to 9 minutes and 54 seconds in and you'll find it. It should be available until next Sunday - when we have a slot between 08:00 and 09:00 on Premier Christian Radio.

In case you are reading this and the report has been taken off BBC iPlayer, after a three week tour of the party conferences in Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester, meetings with senior politicians and advisers in the three main parties, and the engagement of over 80 faith, citizen and refugee leaders, we have tasted success.

Leaders of London Citizens, the Citizen Organising Foundation, the major church denominations and senior representatives of all three main parties (Sarah Teather MP and Steve Webb MP- Lib Dem, Jon Cruddas MP - Labour, and Elizabeth Berridge - Conservative Christian Fellowship) signed a covenant to work together to save sanctuary at the 2010 General Election. This is a major achievement and represents a significant step forward in CITIZENS for Sanctuary's efforts to stake out a 'centreground for sanctuary'.

Each of the political parties have agreed to meet us again soon to discuss the exact wording of the Sanctuary Pledge.

In the meantime, we are preparing to train citizens across the UK who would like to meet with their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in the run-up to next year's election and ask them to sign the Sanctuary Pledge. If you are interested and would like further information then please send us your name and phone number to