Refugees – welcome here?

Seeking asylum in the UK comes with systemic barriers. Selma Stearns explores Oxford’s efforts to support new refugees.

Therapeutic Service Manager for Refugee Resource, Sushila Dhall. Photo: Rachel Lebus

When I attended a rally last year to support asylum seekers and to fight xenophobia in the UK, I chanted along with everyone else: “Refugees are welcome here.”

Many students can talk the talk about helping refugees, but they are not just a group of people in the Calais Jungle. Indeed, there is a supportive and well-established community people who have been granted asylum right here in Oxford. There are well-established charities who work to help make living in the UK easier, as well as student-driven groups and associations led by former asylum seekers themselves.

Oxford is home to thousands of former asylum seekers. Whilst there are no official statistics on the size of the refugee and asylum seeking community in Oxford, the charity Refugee Resource believes the population to be over 4,000. The community is a diverse one, with Refugee Resource supporting 250 clients of 29 different nationalities in 2016/17.

I spoke to the trustees of the Oxford Kurdish and Syrian Association (Oksa) before their committee meeting last week. One of the three trustees and founding members of the society is Mustafa Barcho, who was given asylum in the UK in 2001.Roushin Bagdash is another trustee of Oksa who did not come to the UK as a refugee, but moved from Syria because of her husband’s employment.

Barcho and Bagdash said that the Oxford refugee community is close, and members support each other frequently. However, the support given by the government is very low, according to Barcho. Oxford is not a dispersal area: accommodation is not provided here by the Home Office as it is in some parts of the UK. Many refugees are assigned to Northern England when they first arrive. Many of the refugees who do come directly to Oxford pass through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme (VPRS). Bagdash, who works with Oxford Connection Support which helps facilitate the VPRS, said that there are around 26 families coming to Oxford as part of the scheme.The people that come through schemes such as this are not necessarily Syrian, but can be Sudanese, Iraqi, or from other countries with conflict, said Bagdash.

Barcho, who is Kurdish, left Syria at 13, and moved between Turkey, Greece, Italy, and other countries in Europe before reaching his final destination in the UK at the age of 21. “I was displaced, I didn’t have an identity for all of those years. I didn’t have anything to carry in my hands to say ‘this is me’,” he said.

When he arrived in the UK, the Home Office sent him to Doncaster to wait for his paperwork to be done, which took five years, before he was granted residency. Barcho was refused refugee status three or four times before being accepted, going through a court case with the Home Office. He said that after many years of running and not having an identity, the Home Office still demanded more information and did not make the process easy.

“If [the Home Office] accepts everyone, then there would be more people coming to England, so the Home Office will always reject applications, even if they know you need to have an identity,” said Barcho.

Barcho said that things have changed for Syrian refugees since he arrived as a result of the Syrian civil war. According to Barcho, as the war rages on it becomes harder for the UK government to refuse to grant asylum. “They don’t really have a choice; it’s not because of the understanding because the UK should take more refugees, but they don’t,” said Barcho.
He noted that Germany has outperformed the UK in terms of refugee support. In 2015, Germany expected to take at least 800,000 asylum seekers, according to the Guardian. Barcho said in reality Germany took far more than that figure. In contrast, the UK Home Office said that between 2011 and 2015, almost 5,000 Syrians were given asylum, but this figure included many Syrians who were already living in the UK, the Guardian reported. “We need to push the government to take more [refugees] because of their involvement in the Syrian war,” said Barcho. “The UK plays a huge role in Syria and the Middle East.”

In 2016, David Cameron said that the UK would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees under the VPRS, according to the BBC. However, John said that very few qualify for the scheme – the information document states that the scheme is intended for people at highest risk, such as those seeking medical treatment or survivors of violence and torture. “We thought the UK would do much much better than they did, but unfortunately the Conservative government… have eliminated some support and aid for people who need it, especially in Syria and Iraq,” said Barcho.

Carolynn Low, Partnership Development Manager of Refugee Resource, said that a lack of political will on the part of European governments represents a huge obstacle to resolving the refugee crisis. For example, Low said, the move towards processing asylum claims offshore, is dangerous and unethical. “Returning people to inhumane, exploitative and abusive conditions, such as in Libya where slavery and extreme abuse is widely documented, is unacceptable,” she said. “As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, we should be upholding our obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement.”
Low urged that there need to be more legal routes into Europe for asylum seekers and refugees, so that people are not forced to make dangerous journeys.

I came to Oxford from the US, and even I found the transition to a new country overwhelming at times. The process would be infinitely more stressful if someone were fleeing violence, and entering a completely different culture. I asked the Oksa trustees what the main barrier facing refugees in Oxford is, and the short answer is that there is no singular response. However, Bagdash and Barcho both said that language is one of the biggest. “It is the first step to integrate and the first step to move on, to be honest,” said Bagdash. “Especially, there are some people who come here illiterate… if they don’t know their own language it is hard to move on.”

In order to address language and cultural barriers, Student Action for Refugees (Star) is trialling a new project with Jacari, so Syrian families who arrive through the UN resettlement scheme are assigned a student to give them some extra language support. Bagdash helps coordinate these home visits and other schemes to help children and families with schoolwork and English. Barcho said that the Oksa seeks to help people integrate in the UK, and assist with education, housing, and navigating the free English courses they are provided as a refugee.

Bagdash said Oksa also have two women volunteers who used to be teachers helping people, especially older individuals, learn English. Bagdash said that she has been amazed with how quickly people progress, and how strong their sense of determination is. It is much easier for young people to integrate, as it is not just language difficulties that older people struggle with, but integrating into a new society. “It is very difficult, after all those years, to go and stay in the classroom to learn English,” said Barcho. “They face a lot of issues, like mental health issues.”

Organisations in Oxford seek to address these issues. For example, Refugee Resource provides counselling and psychotherapy, especially trauma therapy and cross-cultural support.

A new student-run refugee support service is Star. Lizzy Thompson, a Pembroke undergraduate, has recently Started the Oxford branch of this national charity up again to fill the gap between the university and the community.

The organisation helps and supports charities run by locals, including Refugee Resource and Asylum Welcome. Thompson said that being active in communities is key for Star.
But despite the different organisations offering support, Barcho and Bagdash highlight that there are a wide range of obstacles facing refugees, which completely differ based on individual characteristics of the families and people.

As Kate Smart, the director of Asylum Welcome, said the idea of the ‘refugee crisis’ is a bit misleading, as it suggests one single problem to be solved. “Refugee experiences have been a sad feature of societies ever since records began,” she said. “Refugees are created when human rights are threatened within states – so international activity to strengthen respect for human rights is significant.”

The media can sometimes be hostile and there is a lot of misunderstanding about the ‘refugee crisis’, and what terms like ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’, and ‘migrant’ even mean. If there is one thing Thompson said that Oxford students should know, it is that there is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ refugee or asylum seeker.
“Terms like these are invented to project angst,” she said. “We’re all human and everyone has the right to protection and safety, basic human rights…are being neglected and we can very easily do our bit to change that.”

“Personally, I worry about the lack of empathy and humanity in Europe in general currently, and seemingly, a process of ‘othering’ of migrants and refugees,” said Low. “Having said that there are some extremely supportive and active communities and individuals who are doing all they can show to show ‘Refugees are Welcome.’”
University students have historically been drivers of change, but students can sometimes be unaware of issues that are happening right under their nose. “There aren’t self-made camps under train stations in Oxford, with people who have fled one heart wrenching situation to find themselves helpless in a limbo of political, legal, and cultural battles,” said Thompson. “So, it’s understandable for British attitudes to lack the same sense of urgency as elsewhere on the continent”

“I’m hoping that Star makes some steps in the right direction to make the refugee crisis seem less of an awkward taboo,” said Thompson. “We pick all our raising-awareness events carefully – we don’t want to depress people, the idea is just to get them talking and thinking.”

Barcho said that before Thompson began Oxford Star, there were many other student groups and individuals who were involved with refugee support. “We work with many groups and many individual people who like to support refugees…but there is a lack of proper support and funding to put them all under one umbrella,” said Barcho.
Barcho worked with Arabic speaking students at Pembroke and Queens to do online tutoring and teaching for children in Syria. “There should be more of an awareness of the difficulties that refugees are facing here,” said Barcho. “I think students can contribute a lot.”

We as students cannot let ourselves believe that there is nothing we can do to help. Student involvement in organisations such as Asylum Welcome has had a significant impact. Furthermore, Star has led a successful campaign for equal access that means there is no longer a legal three-year wait for refugees to be allowed to attend university.

“The most valuable thing students can do is to make a promise to yourself that wherever life takes you after university you will always be a tolerant, welcoming, empathetic person,” said Smart. “The more people who have that attitude, the safer the world will be.”

But we should remember the root of the problem. Assad is still the President of Syria and he has been implicated by the UN as being involved in war crimes. When Bashar al-Assad came to Downing Street to visit prime minister Tony Blair, Barcho led a protest against the dictatorial regime and was arrested for throwing eggs at Assad and Blair. Barcho was angry that after all of the deaths that Assad has caused, he was welcomed to a democratic country by the Queen and the PM. The UK granted Barcho asylum from a dictatorial country, and then hosted the leader of that very country.

“The jury said ‘did you know it is against the law to hit somebody with eggs?” and I said “it is against the law for you to host a dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of people,’” Barcho said.

Clearly, the refugee crisis in the world today has many components. There is a lot of work that students can get involved with, but it should not be done with the attitude of helping those who are helpless. The refugee community in Oxford is a supportive group who have been through struggles, not least at the hands of the UK government, but many of them are settled and well established in Oxford. There are day-to-day issues we as students can try to help alleviate, but we should also be conscious that we live in a country that makes the process very difficult for refugees to settle here.

“The need for safety from persecution is real, but otherwise [refugees] are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, who come with bags of talent,” said Smart.

For students who want to get more involved, there is information on the Star Facebook page, or email the team directly at star.oxforduni@gmail. com. Information about Refugee Resource ( and Asylum Welcome (asylum-welcome. org) is also available online.


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