On Tuesday 13th March 2018, around a dozen migrants and refugees – members of the Birmingham Asylum and Refugee Association (BARA) – gathered together outside the Birmingham City Council House, full of anticipation. They were about to attend a council meeting for the first time, with the aim of raising awareness about some of the pressing issues affecting people in their community.
Months earlier, the group’s plan to meet with a housing officer from the Council – to share the grievances of one of their members living in G4S-run asylum accommodation – came to nothing when the officer in question lost interest and stopped responding to the group’s plea. Faced with such inaction, the BARA members asked themselves the following question: how could they – and other people like them – secure justice when their position in society is so
Members realised that the first step to getting the results they needed was to become recognised – to become absolutely impossible to ignore. Although this initially appeared a daunting goal, they soon discovered that it didn’t have to be difficult. They found that there are in fact some quite simple, effective ways for any individual, or even better a group, to achieve this.
Asking a question at their local council meeting – effectively forcing local government to listen to their concerns – was one such approach. With support and advice from Migrants Organise, the group learned how the council works, how they could access meetings and submit questions, and how they could follow-up afterwards to ensure that the council would take concrete action to resolve the identified challenges.
And so it was that the group found themselves on the steps of the City Council, and soon, within the public gallery itself. During the proceedings, Faith Ngcobo, one of the leaders of BARA’s Executive Committee, spoke on behalf of the group. Particularly concerned about the challenges that asylum seekers face when attempting to access education, Faith posed the following question to the councillors:
“Asylum-seekers face long challenges while waiting many years for their asylum applications and the future of their children is uncertain when they are classed as international students at universities,” she said. “Parents cannot afford these fees as they are not allowed to work and children brought to the UK at a young age know this country as their only home. Will the Council reach out to assist such people in nurturing future leaders, since education plays an important role in society?”
In response to her question, the councillor in question expressed sympathy with the issue Faith highlighted and agreed to meet with her to discuss access to education in more depth. Faith hopes that this initial victory will enable her to gain the councillor’s support and that of the council leader, who can then advocate upwards on Faith’s behalf to facilitate her son in accessing university.
The experience of Faith and the BARA group shows that through simple actions, anyone can access Council meetings, and in doing so, take an important step towards building recognition, growing power and getting justice. See below for a step-by-step guide about how you can do the same; we’ve focused on Birmingham, but this can be easily replicated by any group anywhere in the UK, or for that matter, elsewhere in the world:
1. Find out when your Council is holding a meeting that’s open to the public
In Birmingham, the Council holds a meeting on the first Tuesday of every month, which any member of the public can attend. You are free to sit in the public gallery and watch.
2. Submit a question to the Council in advance of the meeting, to highlight an issue
In Birmingham, you simply have to submit your question by email to the appropriate person, by 12 noon on the Friday prior to the Tuesday meeting. If the question is approved, you will be invited to ask your question in person at the meeting.
3. Attend the meeting, bring your people, and ask your question to the Council
In Birmingham, the Council prints out your question on a piece of paper for you to read from. When it’s time for your question, you ask it from the front and middle of the public gallery. All the Councillors will have seen your question in advance, the Councillor who responds will have prepared their response in advance, and all the Councillors will listen to what you have to say.
4. After the meeting, keep the pressure up
After the meeting has finished, follow up again with the Councillor to try to ensure that he or she acts on the commitment that they’ve made to support you. Hold them to account, arrange additional meetings, and make sure that they know you’re not going to give up!
Want to see for yourself how it went for Faith and BARA at Birmingham council? Then take look at this video (from minute 36 onwards).
Migrants Organise is currently working with migrant and refugee communities in Birmingham and across the Midlands to support them in building their political power. Activities range from supporting learning about local political processes to identifying potential migrant and refugee candidates who can stand for election. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the challenges facing migrants and refugees in the area become election issues, and that local councillors – both from migrant and non-migrant backgrounds – address these issues during their term in office.