I am very sorry about the delay to this newsletter. It is actually two weeks late now, although I was aiming to bring it out Friday 1st October. I have my usual excuse of being overwhelmed, this time by the initial accommodation hotel that has been set up in Hove. More on that later.
Meanwhile some very good news. One of the families that we have been supporting was finally granted their leave to remain. Except for the interminable delay, two years and counting, the process was relatively straightforward.
As you all probably know, the asylum process is multistage. You are given a screening interview soon after claiming asylum. I say “soon” but, unless you claim asylum at the border, it is not unknown to have delays of months between claiming asylum and having screening interview. Eventually you will be invited for a substantial interview. In theory this is a detailed and thorough evidence gathering exercise in which the Home Office give you every opportunity to explain why you need asylum. In practice it is a terrifying and adversarial interview. You then have to wait for a decision. Our family had to wait over a year. Six months is not uncommon. Fortunately for our friends, the Home Office accepted that they were in need of refugee protection and they didn’t have to go through the ordeal of lodging, preparing and waiting for an appeal. The really horrible thing about the appeal, of course, is that you’re going to have to go up in front of Judge and argue for your life. Anyway, our family didn’t have to do that. That is unequivocally a good thing. They have already moved on into their own house and, with a bit of luck, will soon be practising their own professions, doctor, dentist and teacher, and making a life for themselves in the UK.
They were not the only people we have been supporting to be recognised as refugees this month. A woman, who had been hosted through Room for Refugees, won her leave to remain. She too had had a very long wait for the Home Office to give her asylum claim the stamp of approval. I was invited round for a fantastically tasty supper and we drank champagne.
It is also about two years since asylum seekers were dispersed to Brighton by the Home Office, so we are beginning to see decisions on their asylum claims. The majority of people have been accepted, but there are of course some refusals too. Those that have had their claims accepted are applying to bring their families over and some of them have even arrived. Welcome to Brighton.
I find it really heartwarming to see my new friends moving on with their lives. It also gives me pause for thought. The contrast between the people we have been able to house, whether by providing them with their own home or through a host family, and the men from the dispersal houses is really stark. I don’t want to pretend that it has been easy for anybody, but it has been much tougher for the men in the asylum “support” system. Thanks to you, the nastiest edges have been taken off being dispersed. You have provided Wi-Fi, blankets, heaters, tablets, clothes and we have provided moral and practical support to the men in Home Office housing. It is still very tough for them. 6 to 9 strangers are thrown together into pretty low quality housing, given £39 a week each to live off and told to get on with it. You also are told that it is a crime to work. It is not easy. You have to live with a bunch of people who have been through traumatic experiences, frozen out of society and given just enough resources to avoid starvation (although not always). You compound that with lockdowns and the subsequent curtailment of face-to-face projects like the Jollof Café and Refugee Radio’s support group and you have a recipe for disaster.
People’s mental health has really suffered. Like everyone else who arrives on the shores looking to claim asylum, the initial cohort moved to the dispersal houses were, when they arrived, keen to get stuck in, help out with projects and begin to build a life for themselves in Brighton. I remember taking a group of men to the Feminist Bookshop on Upper North Street to arrange some language tuition. It was the day of the general election and it was tipping it down with rain. I had decided to go on from there to my polling station. Despite the atrocious weather, it was seen as an exciting enough adventure for the men to come with me. They none of them have that sort of energy now. At least one man is really struggling. It does not make sense.
The Invisible Human
It’s not just the provision of safe and decent housing that keeps people going. It is also being part of a warm and welcoming community. One of the effects of the UK border regime is to keep people hidden from view. In effect, it isolates you. When you put somebody on the breadline, forbid them from seeking employment, and vilify them in the press you remove that person from society. As Ralph Ellison so eloquently showed, once you are in that position you are invisible. People may see your physical shape, but who you are, your value, what matters about you none of that is apparent to the people who are, in fact, your neighbours.
This invisibility, to my shame, was brought home to me through the support that we have been giving to the men who have been placed in a hotel in Hove. They are all newly arrived asylum seekers. They all recently crossed the channel and they have no more than the clothes they stand up in. Along with Care 4 Calais, the Sussex Interpreting Services, the Jollof Café and others, we sprang into action to try to break down that invisible barrier and to provide support for our neighbours. The people of the city responded magnificently. We have raised over £7000. The Green Centre, who helped organise donations, were inundated with clothes, shoes, underwear and so on. The next challenge is distribution, but it shows that we mean it when we say “refugees welcome”.
Among the new arrivals is a very talented artist and sculptor. He shared some photos of his work on the group WhatsApp chat. It shouldn’t have surprised me that among the people crossing the channel there are people with skills beyond the wildest dreams of most of us mere mortals. Nevertheless it did. It made me realise just how far I am from managing to see through the border. Despite my best efforts, people remain, to me, an amorphous mass, a statistic. I’ve yet to build a vision of the world in which no human is illegal, which is to say, in which every human is a human.
I don’t think that is because I need to do more psychological work. I think that it is a function of the border. Of course I am full of prejudice, but prejudice is easy to overcome. You can be aware when it operates and update your beliefs with new evidence. You can even make allowance for its possibility when making judgements. In other words, you don’t need to act on it.
The hard bit is building a transnational community. We are hampered in those efforts by a system that is determined to maintain the social exclusion of the “migrant”. We have to build structures that prevent that. We have to meet, not in the sense of shaking hands and saying hello, although that’s a good first step, but in the sense of bringing you in to my social network. We have to find space in our homes or find homes in our space.
The good news is that we can do it. Around about 30,000 people claimed asylum last year in the whole of the UK. It costs us between £500 and £600 per person per month to provide high quality housing. That would equate to around about £200,000,000/year (or half of what the Home Office spend on punishing people), if we were to house every arrival. That might seem like a lot, but our monthly income, from your subscriptions, is about £36,000 a year. The average subscription is about £5 per person. We wouldn’t have the infrastructure to do it, but, I firmly believe that there are 3.3 million people in the UK prepared to give £5/month to bring refugees in.
Of course, the vast majority of arrivals never come to Brighton, and probably have no desire to do so. But imagine if we were 10 times bigger. That would be just 2% of Brighton’s population. We’d have housing for around about 50 people, even if we just carried on renting things on the open market. That is doable and when it’s done, and replicated elsewhere across the UK, it won’t be necessary any longer. We will not see refugees and migrants. We will see neighbours, friends and colleagues. We will see people in all their multifaceted glory.
A thousand thanks,
Jacob and all of us at T4K