Brighton Pavillion
Image Credit: Creative Commons: Brighton Pavillion

The UK is deeply divided over its place in the world and on how it should treat others. Since 2016, we have had the Brexit referendum and the Windrush scandal. There is also the ongoing sore of “immigration removal centres”, such as the notorious Yarl’s Wood, where people are held pending deportation.

We need to see a different culture at the Home Office. Civil servants must be made aware of the cultural and linguistic differences that lead them to make bad judgements in asylum cases. The toxic remnants of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” must be eliminated.

Asylum seekers need to be allowed to work sooner. In the UK, they have to wait 12 months before they can even apply for a work permit, the longest waiting time anywhere in Europe. In the process, they lose professional skills and self-confidence. And once they are given refugee status, they have a mere 28 days to find accommodation. This places real constraints on their access to the labour market.

Refugees need help obtaining legal advice on family reunion applications. They may have been separated from their families because of conflict in their countries or the chaos of their journey here. The government dismisses legal advice as unnecessary. Yet even Supreme Court judges emphasise how complex the law is.

The local picture

In Brighton & Hove, however, there have been several positive developments. Since the local elections in May, Green Party councillors have agreed to work with the city’s Labour administration in four key areas — the climate emergency, housing and homelessness, combating austerity, and making Brighton & Hove a city of welcome, a city of sanctuary.

Brighton & Hove has for some years been part of the government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Unfortunately, high rents and the lack of designated accommodation for asylum seekers have prevented the city from matching the aspirations of many residents in securing homes for asylum seekers.

Statutory and voluntary organisations which support refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants are represented in the Brighton & Hove Refugee and Migrant Forum. Brighton & Hove is also part of a larger network of UK Cities of Sanctuary. This network is committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.

Numerous third sector organisations in Brighton & Hove also work to support refugees and asylum seekers. They do so financially or simply by befriending them. Local charity Thousand4£1000 funds accommodation. In the past, the University of Sussex supported 50 Syrian refugees to obtain the English language skills they needed to prepare them for life and work or further study in the UK.

Since the city become a City of Sanctuary in 2015, Sanctuary on Sea (as the local branch is known) has taken a lead role in the city’s Refugee Week celebrations. Refugee Week is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees and encouraging a better understanding between communities. This year it runs between 17 and 23 June, culminating with the popular annual day of free workshops and performances at the Brighton Dome.

No cause for complacency

While there is much to celebrate locally, there is always more to do. There is a particular need in Brighton & Hove for foster carers willing and able to take unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The University of Sussex, in partnership with Sanctuary on Sea and The Hummingbird Project, recently conducted research into the experience of asylum seekers in education in Brighton & Hove. Results showed that language and cultural barriers adversely affect their performance. Support needs to be better tailored to students’ individual needs. Refugee parents should be included in the UK education system.

Much needs to change before the city’s current refugees can become fully integrated into the labour market and into the community. Celebrating refugees during Refugee Week is a great start, but more needs to be done. Councillors from all parties should work with officers and organisations to make our refugees welcome, give them a permanent home and build a more humane, diverse and productive society.