I came London 25 years ago to escape the siege of my city, Sarajevo. Almost overnight normal, peaceful life in the city that hosted 1984 Winter Olympics changed: we were under siege, we were bombed, we were starved, and we were sniped at… and this went on for four years.
I was a journalist. I spoke English, I worked for international news organisations, and they helped me escape.
I survived. I found myself in London completely unprepared for my new life as a refugee.
I was heartbroken by the war and the loss, but as difficult as this experience was, for many years I felt lucky. Lucky that I was not raped, wounded or killed. Lucky that I was not detained in immigration detention, which happens to many people when they arrive in the UK. Lucky that I was able to work, study and rebuild my life in the safety of London.
I found purpose in working with migrants and refugees. And so, for the past 18 years, I have been working at Migrants Organise, an organisation of migrants and refugees for migrants and refugees.
Our main aim is to be a platform for integration. We connect people, we build common ground, and we grow our power – the power of migrants and refugees to organise and have a say in the processes that have an impact upon our lives.
At Migrants Organise we have mentored thousands of people who were traumatised, isolated and lonely; provided them with good and free advice; and supported them to get on with their lives. We provide free English classes and other training that people need to start a new life and make a contribution.
Over the years we have supported 3,500 migrant and refugee doctors and dentists from 98 countries to pass their verification exams and they are now working and contributing their much-needed skills. You might have been treated by one of them in our NHS.
This is Thiru, a dancer from Sri Lanka. He fled in fear for his life after he spoke out against oppression. When he arrived in the UK to seek protection, he was detained. Then he got stuck in a very bureaucratic system for several years. When he came to Migrants Organise he was very quiet and still fearful for his future.
Our holistic support, including mentoring and volunteering, activities and advice, enabled Thiru not only to recover, but to thrive. Thiru has been recognised as a refugee and went on to study dance therapy. He is working, studying, volunteering – in other words he is integrated.
Seven years ago, Migrants Organise established the Women on the Move Awards to honour migrant and refugee women who make a difference in their communities, women who overcome their difficult experiences and help other people in need. They are the most inspiring examples of resilience, and of civic participation. Our two award-winners this year, Veeca and Florence, are truly inspirational women. They now live in Halifax and are both still stuck in the asylum system, unable to work, unable to study. Just like Thiru and thousands of other people, while they are waiting for their fates to be determined, they have no choice but to live in accommodation which is in a very bad state of disrepair.
However, Vee and Flo did not just accept this. They spoke out and inspired other people to share their experiences of inadequate accommodation and the impact it has on their safety and dignity.
But it did not end with just talking about problems. Vee and Flo also organised themselves into Sisters United and inspired their community, neighbours, churches and local authority to stand in solidarity with them. We organised and came up with a residents charter – a compact and an invitation to the accommodation provider to work with tenants to deliver better service and to treat people with dignity and respect.
This year Migrants Organise became a Community Sponsor. This is a very new scheme in the UK. The government has agreed that organised communities such as faith groups and charities can pull resources together to sponsor a refugee family to come to the UK and cover their initial costs as they settle into their new lives.
Migrants Organise is working with a group of wonderful volunteers, all work together for Amnesty International. We call them the Welcome Committee. Just a few weeks ago we welcomed our first family of six to London, from a refugee camp in Turkey and we will be supporting them through Community Sponsorship so that they can integrate and start a new life. There are thousands of people around the country who are doing this important work of integration – amazing people who put their time, their skills, and their good will into practical actions of welcome.
And this, I believe, is where the best integration happens – in that two-way street where new arrivals encounter welcome from their new neighbours and friends.
There is so much good will and good work out there.
We do not hear these stories of welcome, civic participation and contribution of both immigrants and those who work hard to welcome them.
Good people tend to do good work quietly
Instead we hear stories that scare us, stories that dehumanise people on the move into floods and waves of immigrants. Even if we resist the fear-mongering, the consequence of this negative narrative is that most of us think of integration as something that immigrants as supposed to do.
We expect immigrants to learn English, to get a job, learn about our customs.
Unless you had to deal with the immigration system, you will have no understanding of obstacles and barriers to integration. Regardless of how integrated we are, as immigrants, we are expected fit in, keep quiet and get on with our lives.
A few years ago, I was about to deliver a speech in front of Yarls Wood immigration detention centre for women. Immigration detention has no time limit. It happens without judicial oversight. I know people who were locked up for several months. I was about to speak, as I did today, about how lucky I was that I was not killed or wounded in the war. How lucky I was to be allowed to work and study. That I was not detained when I came to seek protection in London. A speaker before me held up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and started going through the list of fundamental human rights.
I became angry and sad. I realized how wrong it is to think of myself as being lucky for surviving the war and exile.
Safety, dignity, basic human rights should not be a matter of luck.
I am working, paying my taxes, contributing to my community the best I can. I am integrated, but I don’t feel equal or included.
Our structures and our society are not yet set up for integration as a two-way process. We talk about social, economic and cultural integration. But an important element of meaningful integration is missing.
Philosopher Hanna Arendt, was a refugee and stateless for many years, defined that missing link for integration as “the right to have rights.”
She was talking about citizenship.
Not being a citizen is not just about not being able to travel or not being able to vote. It is not about identity or where we belong.
It is about what belongs to us.
That day in front of Yarls Wood detention centre, I felt how precious and fragile basic human rights are, how easily they can be given and taken away. I felt as vulnerable as I was on the streets of Sarajevo under the siege. Over the past 25 years, the rights that I had as a non-citizen when I first arrived, were gradually taken away from migrants and refugees.
If I came to seek protection in London right now,
I would not be allowed to work.
I would not be allowed to study.
I would not have free legal advice.
I would not have access to free English classes.
I would probably be detained upon arrival and then sent out of London to stay in shared accommodation provided by a government contractor.
I would have to survive on £5 per day.
I would not have money to travel.
I would be stuck in this limbo, warehoused for several years while decision is being made on whether I am allowed to stay or not.
Yet, I would be expected to integrate.
I was going to say that I was lucky to have had a support of friends and organisations such as Migrants Organise, but I hope you will agree with me now that it is not about luck.
In 2014 and official Hostile Environment Immigration Policy was introduced that made life and therefore integration of many migrants and refugees impossible.
In a nutshell, all public services, NHS, schools, employers, landlords and banks have become border guards and have to check the immigration status of their patients, students, employees and customers.
But immigration status is complicated and as a result of these hostile and restrictive policies many people have been denied services, healthcare and have been discriminated and racially profiled in the process.
In the recent example now known as the Windrush Scandal, citizenship has been denied to people who have lived in the UK for decades, in some cases they entered the country as citizens during colonial times, and had no need worry about paperwork. But now the rules have changed, and thousands of people no longer have a right to have rights.
As a result, some people were denied life-saving treatment in the NHS, lost jobs and homes, some were deported and even died.
When we start restricting and taking away rights from people in this way, we are making it impossible for them to do things we want to them to do to demonstrate that they belong or that they are integrating.
It is a lose – lose situation for immigrants and for host communities.
In the 21st century, we need to imagine new ways of belonging and inclusion.
In this fast-moving world, we are connected whether we like it or not – not only through our consumerism, not only through social media, not only through our shared financial and natural disasters, but also through our dignity and humanity, through our shared fears and responsibility for the future of our children, our democracy and our planet.
Migrants bridge countries, cultures and economies.
We belong to different places with ease, because those places also belong to us.
So we need to have a say and be heard.
The way we put it in our work at Migrants Organise is – if we are not around the table – we are probably on the menu.
What we bring to the table is the joy, the learning and creativity of diversity.
Perhaps in the 21stcentury we can imagine citizenship not as privilege, not necessarily as a legal status either, but as way to treat people that is a reflection of our values such as dignity, human rights, justice, inclusion and welcome.
How can we do that? The legendary congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said:
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Perhaps we can build a bigger table to make room for those of us who come with our folding chairs.
After all, as migrants and refugees we were citizens somewhere else.
And we are now just citizens interrupted.
We can rebuild our lives and integrate, but only if we have the right to have rights.
That should not be that difficult, we are human wherever we are.