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How does Bristol support refugees and asylum seekers?

Eilidh Rivers-Bell examines the support systems that Bristol offers to asylum seekers and refugees.

By Eilidh Rivers-Bell, Third Year, English and Philosophy 

With 36 million refugees and over 5 million asylum seekers globally, the relocation and supporting of vulnerable and displaced people is paramount.

Whether planning to deport immigrants to Rwanda, or house individuals on the Bibby Stockholm Barge, the UK government’s stance on tackling immigration is clear — but what are we doing both at the university and in Bristol to support refugees and asylum seekers? 

Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership (BRASP) is a collaboration of over 15 local charities who work to support refugees and asylum seekers.

Borderlands, one of the members of the collaborative group, seeks to ‘Enhance social inclusion and wellbeing’ for refugees and asylum seekers, aiming to help vulnerable migrants ‘From exclusion to belonging.’ 

Caitlin Plunket, the interim CEO of Borderlands, describes how their services are there for people to access, regardless of whether or not they are in a time of crisis. Describing their signposting services, Caitlin said ‘It’s not about knowing answers, but knowing routes.’

One of Borderlands’ goals is to make support networks as accessible as possible, whether that be via other specialised charities, or local council and governmental schemes.

Based in Easton, the charity runs a variety of different programs to assist refugees through the resettlement process. For immigrants newly arriving in Bristol, the organisation runs welcome centres where asylum seekers and refugees can be signposted to specific support services to help with their individual challenges. 

Borderlands also runs English classes, provides sleep support and relaxation sessions and mentoring projects — where trained volunteers provide tailored support to their mentees for up to 6 months. 

Caitlin describes how important it is to work towards tangible goals, to prove that regardless of the barriers against working permits or permanent accommodation, small successes can still be made. 

The work Borderlands and the other BRASP charities do to support refugees and asylum seekers is invaluable, especially as the process of resettling yourself in a foreign country can be so tumultuous. 

Individuals can be moved between different accommodations without warning, and it can take up to a year to gain a workers visa, although Caitlin claimed that this process can actually take up to two years. Furthermore, once asylum has been granted, refugees only have 28 days to move from asylum support housing and find permanent accommodation. 

In August 2023, the home office cut this window to just 7 days, leading to a rise in homelessness amongst the refugee population. A November 2023 Sky News investigation revealed that the number of refugees sleeping rough on London’s streets rose by 800 per cent in just two months. 

Refugees and asylum seekers are sent to Initial Accommodation centres when they first arrive in Bristol, which are often hotels in the city centre. 

Caitlin acknowledges that while the idea of staying in a hotel may sound nice, within these accommodation centres there are whole families who are housed in just one room. 

Couple this with the unfamiliarity of a new city and language, and the difficulty of securing a work permit, and a profound sense of dislocation may arise: something that charities like Borderlands are seeking to combat.

Bristol Student Action for Refugees (STAR) seeks to ‘Promote awareness of refugee issues throughout the world both to fellow students and the general public’ and ‘Campaign on relevant refugee issues and to promote the rights of refugees.’

Bristol STAR offers a wealth of initiatives; among other schemes, participants can volunteer at local refugee projects, fundraise for the sanctuary scholar Legal Fund group and campaign to improve the lives of refugees and those seeking asylum.

The first national STAR was set up in 1992 as a network of students from across the UK who volunteered and campaigned for Refugee Rights. 

With branches in each university, groups can tailor their work specifically to their city, while coming together as a national organisation to petition against government policy. Bristol STAR offers a wealth of initiatives; among other schemes, participants can volunteer at local refugee projects, fundraise for the sanctuary scholar Legal Fund group and campaign to improve the lives of refugees and those seeking asylum.

One of the most successful initiatives has been the Conversation Club, which runs at Bristol City Library, and Bristol City College. This is a space where student volunteers meet with asylum seekers and refugees to assist them with learning English. 

In moments of struggle, Nilu, Bristol STAR’s president, offers attendees reassurance; that they can already speak more languages than the person who is struggling to understand their broken English. Describing how refugees ought not to feel any embarrassment, Nilu says that ‘At the end of the day, it is you who are accommodating for them.’

Jacari is a Homework Club where students are trained to work with children between year 1 and year 6 who come from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds. The organisation provides free English language support to refugee and migrant children in Bristol and Oxford. Paired with primary pupils throughout the year, students build and maintain a consistent relationship with the young people, which has proved to be very productive.

Aside from volunteering, STAR are committed to fundraising and supporting Bristol University’s Sanctuary Scholars by raising money for the Sanctuary Scholars Legal aid fund.

Offered at universities throughout the country, The Sanctuary Scholarship offers those from forced migrant backgrounds an opportunity to access higher education. Terms vary at different universities but all Sanctuary Scholarships waive tuition fees and many provide assistance with living costs. 

At the end of January, STAR collaborates with Bristol Beacon to host ‘Be Kind Bristol’, ‘A day of creativity co-curated with members of Bristol’s refugee and asylum seekers communities that weaves dance, art, poetry, music, and crafts into a heartfelt celebration of Bristol’s rich tapestry of refugee and migrant identities.’

The event also featured the premiere of Jonathan Dove’s ‘Odyssey’, an orchestral depiction of a refugee’s journey to find safety. Later in the year, Bristol STAR are working on events with DogSoc, Hiking society and MaiTai, with the combined effort of raising money for the Sanctuary Scholars legal fund. 

Next year the group is hoping to open a position on the STAR committee for a recipient of the Sanctuary Scholarship scheme, in order to receive feedback from the very people STAR help. While the position will be optional, STAR understands the importance of giving everyone a voice. 

‘They can definitely do more’, says Tamryn, STAR’s campaign coordinator, when discussing the support the University offers to refugees. She elaborates: ‘The thing with the University is that they use a lot of nice language without action.’

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As a student body we must continue to be inclusive towards people of all backgrounds and show solidarity with our fellow students who come from refugee or asylum seeking backgrounds. In doing so, we not only uphold the values of empathy and equality but also contribute to creating a more welcoming and supportive environment for all members of our diverse community. 

To get involved with the work STAR does, you can get regular updates on their social media page @starbristol.

Do you feel the university could be doing more to support refugees and asylum seekers?