Over 120 people from refugee community organisations, charities and local groups across the country came together in the Refugee Council day centre for their annual conference yesterday. Entitled Working Together to Protect Refugees, delegates celebrated the positive work still being carried out to support refugees and asylum seekers despite devastating funding cuts to services across the sector.
Lively panel discussions covered topics from the Big Society, unemployment, protection of women, Libya and the UN’s responsibilities, and how gaps left by the cuts to refugee services in the UK can be filled. The overwhelming message from our panellists was that working together to share information and developing our networks was the best way of moving forward in these challenging times.
In a powerful keynote speech, Roland Schilling, UNHCR Representative for London, spoke of the anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention for Refugees, that has saved around 60 million lives over the last 60 years, and that we should use this opportunity to remember what asylum is about. He also spoke about the refugee crisis unfolding in North Africa, and the need to share responsibility for displaced people around the world, as well as remembering the importance of creating borders sensitive to the needs of people seeking safety.
There were a number of inspiring presentations from community leaders about innovative projects they are running to support refugees in their areas:
- Shari Brown from the Restore project in Birmingham and the Churches Together Network, shared the success of their work to support refugees and asylum seekers in need of accommodation, legal advice, mentors, and integration advice.
- David Nidwunyu, from NILE African Development Association based in Bradford, pointed out the importance of working in partnership, and that despite lack of resources, working collaboratively with other organisations they have been able to achieve their goals.
- Mary-Jane Burkett from Brighton Voices in Exile, explained how they set up the organisation for destitute people in the area, and how support from the community has helped them continue their work in recent years.
- Rita Chadha from RAMFEL in East London, strongly emphasised that funding should not be the only issue the refugee sector speaks out about, and spoke about the need to engage actively in policy debate, and to improve public consciousness about refugee and migrant issues. She also shared the success of RAMFEL’s innovative blog for raising awareness of these issues.
- Rachel Hardiman from the Refugee Council in Yorkshire and Humberside, shared her experiences working on the Gateway Protection Programme in Yorkshire and Humberside, and how many of the clients have gone on to flourish as a result of their support.
The Refugee Council wishes to thank everyone who attended to make the event such a success, and in particular all of our speakers, and hopes the optimism of the conference will carry through into our work together over coming months and years.
With thanks to our panelists, Daoud Zaaroura (Conference Chair and Chief Executive of North of England Refugee service), Donna Covey (Chief Executive of the Refugee Council), Mike Kaye (Still Human, Still Here), Yvonne Cass (Vice Chair, Refugee Council and MARCO an RCO based in Barnsley), Arten Llazari (Chief Executive, Refugee and Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton), and (Emmanuel Munyambuga, Slough Refugee Support Groups), Roland Schilling (UNHCR Representative in London).