2016. The year that everyone seems to have been wrong about everything. Nevertheless, we—the organised people of Migrants Organise—had a very busy year, being the best citizens we can be, and we have some good news to share with you. So, brace yourselves! This is going to be a long read.
On New Year’s Day 2016, I found myself on the beach in Lesvos, with thousands of volunteers from around the world, doing our bit to welcome the refugees who were making the dangerous crossing from Turkey. The EU governments’ shameful failure to offer protection to these refugees forced them to risk their lives in the hands of traffickers.
I went to Lesvos out of anger and frustration, out of guilt and shame, but what I found on those cold and windy beaches was life changing. Despite witnessing tragedy and injustice, I found hope. Every man, woman and child who reached the Greek shore was full of hope and resilience. They were survivors. They arrived eager to rebuild their lives. They were grateful to be alive. The volunteers—lifeguards, doctors, teachers, pensioners, firemen, fishermen, business people, nurses, artists, journalist, students, the people of Lesvos —were all larger than life in their humanity, and they were all equally inspiring in their quiet determination to do the right thing. It may sound strange to say it, but despite witnessing so much suffering, it was the best Christmas ever. I came back inspired and determined, not only to do more, but to do better.
And I have the perfect place to do more and to do better – Migrants Organise!
After 23 years, the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum became Migrants Organise Ltd. This was the end of a long period of internal soul-searching, listening to our members and analysing our increasingly hostile external environment. We asked ourselves, how can we make a difference in this new context? How can we bring about positive change? How can refugees and migrants become agents of that change, rather than being seen as passive recipients of help? How can we create a space where citizens can stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants as fellow human beings and not strangers?
We may not have all the answers, but by listening to hundreds of our members, we found a new confidence to embark on this journey of meaningful integration with a new energy and a new vision. To us, migration, whether forced or undertaken by choice, is a fact of life. We believe that instead of resisting it, we have the responsibility to organise it. And so, we started a process of co-creating, with our members, a new way of organising: of creating meaningful connections, of growing our power, of speaking up and building common ground. So that we, too, can make a contribution to a fair, just society in which we can all live with dignity.
In March, with our partners UNHCR and the WoW festival, we organised, for the fifth time, the Women on the Move Awards Ceremony. This year’s celebration was the most powerful yet. On the stage of the Royal Festival Hall we celebrated our amazing winners: Mariam Youssef and Seida Fekadu, two refugee women, community leaders and resilient survivors. Their stories moved and inspired. You can hear them speak here. And do not forget to nominate your leader for 2017. You can do it on the Women On The Move website here.
In April, I got the opportunity to do a TED talk. I had been reluctant to do it before, but as I was invited to TEDx in Thessaloniki and as I was asked to give a talk about the media-manufactured fear of immigration, I couldn’t say ‘No’. You can watch it here and let me know what you think.
In April our new and old websites were deleted by massive blunder by our web hosting company. They also deleted our back up and our database! We are still recovering from the loss, so if you see gaps in our website or have not received any information from us for a long time, please get in touch.
In May, we helped elect the new Mayor of London. When I say ‘we’, I mean, ‘we, migrants and refugees’—more than 3 million of us are Londoners and can vote. And I also mean ‘we, Migrants Organise’, which includes the great effort that our community leaders put into voter registration and turnout. Our Leadership Academy played a key role in mobilising communities to take their civic duty seriously. Working as one of the leading members of Citizens UK, we turned out 150 delegates to the Mayoral Assembly and presented the candidates with an ask – to appoint a Deputy Mayor for integration and social inclusion, in order to ensure a better welcome for migrants and refugees in London. We welcome the appointment of the new Deputy Mayor Matthew Ryder and have very concrete suggestions for action, which you can see here.
This was a bright spark amidst a rather bleak Immigration Bill debate. The new Immigration Act came into force on 12th May and brought in the most illiberal set of measures to curb irregular immigration, all of which will have far more damaging consequences for all migrants and minorities living in the UK, when services are denied to them just because they look different or have a foreign sounding name.
June was tough! The EU referendum campaign was poisonous, and our voices were deliberately ignored. The murder of Jo Cox MP on June 16th shocked and saddened us all. We lost a great supporter and an advocate for refugee rights in the UK and internationally. The grace and courage with which her family appealed for unity inspired many of us to continue our fight for justice and dignity, as this is the best way to honour Jo’s life and work. Then, on June 23rd, Brexit happened. The post-mortem on how and why it happened is still going on, but we did not have time to reflect. On June 24th, our members started reporting verbal abuse and, very soon, physical hate attacks. The tough times became even tougher. What many politicians and journalists who fuel some of this rhetoric refuse to accept is the fact that there is no intellectual version of hate. Words, lies and propaganda have real life consequences, especially for those of us who are visibly different.
Although thedebate rages about what will happen now, for us the future is not uncertain – we at Migrants Organise know with certainty that we will continue to work and take action for justice in an organised way. Yes, it will be harder, as some extreme right elements now feel empowered to act on their hate. But, standing up to hate is what we have been doing for decades. We are ready.
In July, our organised efforts bore fruit. The first thing the new Home Secretary announced was the introduction of Community Sponsorship. The news was overshadowed by the Brexit media coverage, but it is a major positive development. This again is an achievement of the organised people of the National Refugee Welcome Board that I chair with Rabbi Danny Rich and Bishop Paul Butler, which was convened by Citizens UK. Since September of 2015, community leaders have worked with the Home Office to develop the Community Sponsorship scheme. At the same time, we were supporting the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and campaigning for Local Authorities to come forward and accept 50 Syrian refugees each. The vanguard sponsors around the country are already welcoming the first arrivals and opening pathways for many other communities around the country to exercise their right to welcome refugees.
In August we welcomed our first Syrian refugee family in our home Borough – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This was a result of great collaboration between the Local Authority staff, political leadership and volunteers – local residents who organised the RBKC Refugees Welcome Committee. They found a landlord willing to rent their property at the local housing rates, and effectively donate the difference in market rent. We are delighted to report that, with the support of the local community, the family is settling in very well – and that we may have more coming soon!
September was kicking with action. On the 10th we joined 500 good, organised people at the first ever Refugee Welcome Summit in Birmingham. If there ever was a celebration of goodwill and welcome, that was it. On the 17th we marched again through London with tens of thousands of people. More than 30 of our refugee members led the march, carrying the Refugees Welcome banner in solidarity with nearly 60 million displaced people around the world.
Trafalgar Square chanting ‘Refugees Welcome’ could not have been a better send off for me, as I left to attend the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, not only to represent Migrants Organise at the summit of world leaders, but to take part in the first ever unscripted debate between
40 migrant and refugee leaders and UN Secretary General and governments. I was able to raise the issue of indefinite immigration detention and the deteriorating status of domestic workers who have been stripped of basic protections and cannot leave abusive employers. It was powerful to see governments pledge more money and make more offers to resettle more refugees. Of course, in many ways it is ‘too little, too late’, but it is nevertheless an improvement on what was pledged before. Canada and Germany are leading the way and, sadly and embarrassingly, Britain is still not increasing its pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.
In October, Migrants Organise tripled in size. Our new migrant organising model and strategy to build a movement for social justice gained support from a number of trusts and foundations. As a result, we were able to recruit an amazing team of organisers who are now working in the North West, Yorkshire and Humber, the Midlands, the South East and East, and in London. In September last year we were a gang of four, now we are national team of fourteen staff and nearly two hundred volunteers. The energy of our new team comes from our passion for change, our commitment to rights and dignity, and the skills and knowledge that we bring from all over the world. The new team’s energy is, in one word, contagious.
In November, we held our first National Action Planning Day with 80 migrant and refugee leaders – movement builders – from around the country. We focused on action planning because the time for talking is over. Amidst fear and uncertainty, migrants and refugees across the UK are building power and claiming their right to belong and live free from fear in their neighbourhoods. We stand in solidarity with our colleagues and friends in the US, who are trying to make sense of the presidential election. We have read reports of an increase in hate attacks, and the emergence of neo Nazis and white supremacists is scary. The attempt to normalise what is going on is even scarier.
We have the responsibility to be the frontline in the fight not only against hate attacks and against harsher and unjust attempts to criminalize us through the enforcement of everyday borders, but also against attempts to divide us by using rhetoric that is a familiar relic from a fascist past.
We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by the new language. There is no such thing as post-truth, there are only lies. There is no such thing as illiberal democracy, there is only totalitarianism. There is no such thing as alt-right, there is only fascism. Divisions and hate can never be normalized.
In December, our West London Refugee Welcome Committees have stepped up the search for suitable accommodation in order to ensure London can do its bit to welcome Syrian refugees. It was great to see a full house of wonderful supporters and volunteers at the Mosaic Rooms. Even though it has been a very slow process, it is heart warming to see local residents, schools, faith groups and many others, including the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, doing their bit to welcome refugees.
So, at the end of this troubled and challenging year, our Season’s Greeting to you is: Don’t be afraid, be ready! Ready to organise. Ready to take action. Ready to engage in defence of common good. Ready to be the best citizens we can be.
Our shared values of justice, respect for dignity, human rights and the truth must shine through these difficult times. If we want a better world, we need to be prepared to work for it.
So watch this space in 2017! Finally, THANK YOU to all our members, funders, volunteers, supporters and the most incredible, feisty and committed staff team for making it all worth it.
If you share our values and a commitment to justice, democracy, dignity, and welcome, join Migrants Organise in action, get in touch by email email@example.com, follow us on Facebook and Twitter , or visit our website.
Zrinka Bralo, Chief Executive
P.S. Good luck to our colleague Ffion about to deliver the best news of 2016!