Luke Cooper reports on the day of protests in solidarity with refugees from Syria
Protesters demonstrated in London, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and Oxford on the 16th June over the government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The protests coincided with the beginning of Refugee Week – a series of events first initiated back in 1998 to tackle the hostility to asylum seekers that we are still living with to this day – and brought together migrant rights and Syria solidarity campaign groups.
Under pressure to make a commitment to support Syrian refugees by both UN High Commissioner on Refugees, which is seeking to resettle 30,000 in the next year and up to 100,000 in 2015-2016 in richer nations, and signatories to an Early Day Motion on the crisis last autumn, the government announced in January a ‘Vulnerable Persons Relocation’ scheme for Syria. The commitment was extremely low in comparison to other Western nations, with the government promising to take ‘several hundred’ of the ‘most destitute’ over two to three years and refusing to actively participate in the UN programme but set up a smaller scheme in parallel.
Six months later, however, and only 24 refugees have been brought to Britain under the much vaunted assistance programme. As campaigners, we labelled this for what it evidently is: a disgraceful reneging on Britain’s nominal commitment to provide humanitarian support and relief to the Syrian people.
In launching the day of action, we brought together Syrian activists, organised under the auspices of the Syria Solidarity Movement, and refugee rights campaigns, the Movement Against Xenophobia and No One Is Illegal.
As we developed links with Syrian asylum claimants, it became clear that the protest could not remain restricted to simply the issues of resettlement through the government programme, but also had to raise and publicise the terrible treatment of those Syrians who had made it to Britain by their own means, and were now experiencing the imposed poverty and bureaucracy of our asylum process.
Like all asylum claimants, they are not allowed to work with adult asylum living in abject poverty on just £36.62 per week in cash for living expenses, and were facing long delays in the processing of their claims, with some case taking up to six months.
In London, around 50 people joined our protest at the Home Office. Speeches were kicked off by a former Syrian asylum seeker who has now won leave to remain in Britain – a fact naturally greeted with loud cheers from protesters. The Labour MPs John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, and Fabian Hamilton (pictured above) all came down to show their support for the protest, and are committed to keep raising the issue in parliament.
Fabian Hamilton is the MP for Leeds North East, and has spoken out on behalf of asylum seekers facing delays in the processing of their claims at Waterside House, the Home Office’s immigration processing centre in West Yorkshire. Addressing the rally, he also spoke about his visit to refugee camps surrounding Syria, and the terrible hardship those who made it to these camps were experiencing. Indeed, as in nearly all refugee crises, the burden is overwhelmingly carried by the poorest states – a fact that led us to chant, ‘You let in only 24, Lebanon has a million more’.
Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, also addressed the protest, putting the refusal to make a serious commitment to Syrian refugees in the context of wider public attitudes to immigration and refugees we had to challenge unequivocally.
Left Unity was also proud to be represented at the protest. National spokesperson Pete Green supported a comment earlier made by No One Is Illegal activist Dave Landau attacking all immigration controls, and said, ‘our position is very clear that we are for no borders – that all migrants and refugees should be welcome here’. He also added, that if “the British values being touted by the Tories mean taking just 24 Syrian refugees from the current crisis – then they certainly aren’t my values”.
Clara Connolly, an immigration lawyer and activist with the Syria Solidarity Movement, made a powerful speech on behalf of the campaign arguing that we must never forget that it is the Assad’s regimes on-going war on its own people, supported by foreign powers such as Russia and Iran, that has caused the current refugee crisis, which has led to some 6.5 million Syrians being internally displaced.
Movement Against Xenophobia activist Zoe Gardiner, spoke of the capitalist logic of the government’s commitment to Syria, For while it is a significant source of humanitarian aid this ‘effectively amounted to paying other states’ still insufficient sums to deal with a refugee crisis that Britain was refusing to seriously respond to.
All the campaigners present were determined to make this the beginning of a long-term campaign to raise Syrian refugee rights and challenge the public debate on Syria more generally. Please like and keep checking the Syria Solidarity Movement Facebook page for more information about upcoming protests and events.
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