When I was refused asylum in the UK in 1994, having fled besieged Sarajevo, I was in complete shock. I was severely traumatised, having lived under mortar and sniper fire for 535 days, with no food, water or electricity. Instead of finding sanctuary, I encountered hostility. For a period of time I had all my spare cash and a change of clothes with me, in case I was detained by the immigration authorities, or deported.
The kindness of friends and strangers saved me. My fellow journalists, my university, Amnesty International, churches, civil society groups… they all offered their unconditional support, utterly ashamed of their government. They gave me strength and the confidence to fight and win my right to stay.
Over the past 17 years, I have campaigned against deportations and detention, against destitution and dispersal, against draconian immigration legislation, against misrepresentation… In despair, always on defence, I could no longer articulate what I was for. The public perception of migrants and refugees was that we were all criminals, perhaps a natural disaster of sorts. In any case, we were a threat and had to be stopped. In 2003, Article 19 identified 51 derogatory labels used by the British media to depict those seeking sanctuary.
I was running out of words to comfort destitute refugees whose lives were stuck in limbo for years, stripped of all human dignity, not allowed to work and forced to survive on £35 per week in supermarket vouchers. It seemed that only a small group of charities was willing to support these vulnerable people, who were stigmatised and isolated.
Working in networks and coalitions did not produce results. Public opinion—misinformed as it was—stacked up against us. We had no power to make the government listen. We were shouting from the margins. There were occasional small wins for refugee rights, but it seemed that nothing could be done to deliver positive change.
In 2006 I was approached by London Citizens to take part in the Independent Asylum Commission. I had no idea who the Citizens were, but the idea of a people’s commission independently examining the work of the Immigration and Nationality Department appealed to me.
Over the next two years, my fellow Commissioners and I held eight public hearings around the country, which were open to all who had something to say about the asylum system. We heard 26 expert witnesses in private hearings, including three former home secretaries. We considered thousands of pages of submissions from diverse communities and experts. And then we sat down and produced four reports detailing what we heard were the faults in the protection system.
But we did not stop at criticism. The Independent Commissioners made 180 detailed recommendations, not only on how to make the British asylum system function better, but on how to make the system about the protection of vulnerable people in need of sanctuary.
The government listened and responded, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. It was the previous South London Citizens’ Enquiry into the Immigration and Asylum Centre at Lunar House in 2005 that secured us the attention of a government which had previously been so elusive.
To this day, the work of Independent Asylum Commission is the most comprehensive review of the protection system in the UK, and I am proud to have contributed to it. Three years on, now as a member of the Citizens’ negotiating team, I am still working to ensure that the UK Borders Agency is working towards implementing our 180 recommendations.
Citizens choose to negotiate, but mistaken are those who believe that the UK Borders Agency is happily cooperating—negotiations are without exception the result of direct action by the citizens, who made the fair and humane protection of refugees their business. And this willingness to act in order to make our government, our bureaucracy, accountable and responsible, is source of incredible energy and power.
This experience of working on social change with a broad alliance of diverse institutions was a tremendous learning curve for me. It was not easy to engage with people I did not agree with, or with the system that refused me sanctuary. But this is no longer about me, it is about the people who are suffering now, and the only way to improve the system is to engage directly with those who have the power. Change is slow and not always as I imagined it, due to numerous bureaucratic and political complications, but the list of Independent Asylum Commission recommendations that have been implemented, including the end of the detention of children (recommendation 1.28.6) and the introduction of Community Sponsors (recommendation 1.7.3), is growing.
I appreciate that community organising may not appeal to everyone, and I remember my own scepticism in the beginning. But I work on a grassroots level with refugees who need help here and now, and who want to feel part of a real community that cares. Citizens provide that community without sentimentality, willing to face the challenges presented by London’s super diversity. Community Sponsors are an expression of that solidarity towards newcomers, and show citizens’ determination to keep an eye on an often dysfunctional and hostile bureaucracy.
Being involved with Citizens UK opened the doors for migrant and refugee communities to take part in other campaigns such as Living Wage or City Safe, thus opening avenues for us to participate, contribute and be responsible for our society as equal and respected citizens.
The choice for me is clear—we can shout from the margins, or we can acknowledge our differences and join forces and help deliver change for the better.
The Citizens’ door is wide open for all those who are brave enough not to be bystanders, and who are willing to work together for the common good.