“My four year old daughter was traumatised by our poor quality housing. That’s when I thought that the change starts with me. I brought in the council. I anonymously invited a journalist. And I thought that if I can change things for the 17 families that I’m living with, I can change it for the whole town. We formed a women’s group, and we began to see change.”
This was the powerful testimony and call to action that an asylum seeker from Kenya delivered to kick off the Migrants Organise “Committed. United. Prepared.” (CUP!) conference held in Telford at the beginning of December.
The two-day event saw 135 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers come together to celebrate recent victories in advocating for their rights; learn from successful campaigns; and share skills and tools for organising. Experienced activists joined hands with newer and emerging campaigners, working together to plan collective, practical actions that will enable them to build a national movement to address the issues that most affect migrants in the UK.
The participants – who herald from countries ranging from Albania to Syria, and who had travelled from across the UK to be part of the event – attended workshops led by other expert migrant and refugee organisers. Sessions covered three major issues affecting migrants in the UK, namely organising for migrant workers’ rights; building communities of resistance to the hostile environment the government is deliberately creating for refugees and migrants; and challenging the poor quality housing that the Home Office provides for asylum seekers.
Relational in approach, the Migrants Organise CUP! Conference enabled participants to share stories, experiences, and testimonies; foster trust and solidarity; and build strategic connections between themselves and the grassroot organisations they represented. It also supported leaders in developing clear plans for their communities, which they will go on to implement over the coming months.
Brimming with enthusiasm and ideas for addressing the dangerous attitudes, rhetoric, and policies that are creating an increasingly hostile environment for migrants in the UK, one participant said: “We should not be scared to organise; we should not be scared to support each other in becoming more visible and more powerful. It’s our right to come together and fight for our rights.”
Further stressing the importance of inclusive and collective action, another commented, “It’s about knowing your rights. Once you’re knowledgeable, you’re able to take action. You can speak out. You can get others to do the same. Empower yourself, ask for help, and don’t feel that you’re by yourself.”
Particular highlights of the conference included an inspiring talk by members of United Voices of the World on the power of unions in negotiating for equal rights, and a moving poem written and performed by Egyptian asylum-seeker, Salah El Nagar. Between planning sessions, there was also plenty of singing, dancing, and sharing of food and, on the final afternoon, a coordinated unveiling of a giant ‘Migrants Welcome Here’ banner which was previously used in the ‘Bridges Not Walls’ anti-discrimination campaign we implemented earlier this year.
The conference is the culmination of months of initial relationship-building and organising work between individuals and organisations across the country. It will be followed by an additional event in the spring, where emerging leaders will gather together to build further on their local, regional, and national efforts to raise the visibility, voice and power of migrants to organise for their rights.
Migrants Organise works to build a national movement of powerful experienced migrant, refugee, and BME community leaders, who together can make significant, systemic changes in migration-related policies, practices, and attitudes at local, regional, and national levels. Over the next four years, we aim to identify and build the capacity of the next generation of progressive leaders and organisers to build a movement for an inclusive, just, and welcoming Britain. By 2022 we aim to have identified, trained, mentored, and connected 100 migrants, refugee, and BME community leaders across the UK. We also share our working methodology with migrant and refugee groups by delivering training and act as a platform from which they are able to speak out.