Writer Ana Negut speaks to Selina Hales, founder of Refuweegee, to get her perspective on why the cause of refugees should matter to us all, and how we can help.
The cause of refugees is one of the most polarising political issues of the 21st century. Public narratives towards migrants and displaced persons are constantly changing, with the salience of the immigration issue peaking right before the June 2016 Brexit vote, but remaining more than prominent in the public consciousness since then. There is reason to hope that attitudes towards refugees are slowly but surely changing: while Britons have previously been among the most negative towards refugee assistance, polls as recent as 2021 find British citizens increasingly more accepting of refugees.
Discussions of forced migration are generally divided into two ‘umbrella’ narratives: the ‘threat’ narrative, and the ‘positive’ narrative. While positive narratives centre around promoting multiculturalism and diversity have proliferated in recent decades, the ‘threat’ narrative – the idea that refugees are a dangerous other – has unfortunately also endured. Unfeeling attitudes towards refugees often circulate within a context of racialisation, increased securitisation, and classism, all issues which continuously re-emerge in the public consciousness. For example, in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks, European security concerns translated into hostile discourse about securitised borders. Security issues have effectively been co-opted for the purpose of placating intransigent public attitudes towards displaced persons.
Hostile reactions to waves of forced migration are far from a historical anomaly. Throughout history, humans have continuously defined themselves according to the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ obviously refers to people contained within a perceived ‘in-group’, those we share characteristics such as language, tradition, and religion with. The distinction of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ implies that, while we are responsible for each other as a community, we owe nothing to those outside of our in-group. This border-generating exclusiveness translates into a millennia-old unwillingness to welcome ‘others’ within our territory.
In 2022, however, humanity largely shares the same global problems. We know that no nation can prevent nuclear war by itself, we acknowledge that climate change threatens all humans, and we understand the international implications of a global health crisis. One would predict that our increasingly interconnected world would deem sharp distinctions of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ unproductive. Globally, studies have indeed shown majority (61%) support for the principle of people seeking refuge from war, despite the persistence of integration concerns. In October 2020, a study published by More in Common divided the UK population into seven distinct groups to study public attitudes towards migration. The authors found out that the British Progressive Activists segment of the population was in fact highly likely to exhibit positive attitudes (85%). Largely composed of young, politically-engaged individuals, this migrant-friendly demographic has also been gaining visibility due to the prevalence of social media discourse. Nonetheless, as the refugee debate is being brought back into focus, we are faced with a vitriolic political response to refugeehood.
The UK Home Office has been singled out for its dreadful treatment of refugees amid a recent increase in the number of asylum applicants, as well as during the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis. Vulnerable refugees have recently been met with precarious conditions within migrant processing facilities such as the Manston migrant centre in Kent, as well as facing barriers to entry such as increasingly unsafe travel conditions on migrant boats. The UK Home Office has claimed that checks on migrants at the Manston migrant centre were supposed to be completed within 24 hours. However, the reportedly overcrowded facility was overwhelmed by the number of asylum applications, some applicants claim to have been contained within Manston for over 30 days. In terms of deterring refugees from reaching our shores, the UK has agreed on a costly deal with France, a plan which Rishi Sunak is confident would substantially reduce the number of Channel crossings. With the formerly proposed Rwanda policy proving unworkable and the legacy of the “gimmick” Homes for Ukraine scheme, it seems as though the £8 million a year deal with France continues a streak of Home Office hostilities towards asylum seekers and refugees. Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s reappointment has also sparked concerns over the future of immigration in the UK, especially with Braverman’s inflammatory rhetoric which characterises immigration as an “invasion”.
Given the stark sense of dissonance between the attitudes of young people and the approach of the British government, students increasingly find themselves turning to community action to support the migrant community. While many students are familiar with mainstream charities, staying connected 24/7 can prove overwhelming; in the wake of a humanitarian crisis, the internet is overflowing with both information and misinformation. We are made aware of institutional failures and reminded of the need to ‘ACT NOW’. It is important to take a step back and reassess why the cause of refugees matters to our community, as this is how involvement in community action starts: “why do we care?”. After all, the student community can appreciate the importance of a warm welcome in a foreign community more than most.
Refuweegee is a local charity welcoming displaced people, and founder Selina Hales provides a very valuable perspective on why involvement matters. Established in 2015, Refuweegee supports the Glaswegian community in extending a friendly welcome to refugees through their welcome packs, events and opportunities for volunteering. When asked about why the cause is important for the local community, Selina Hales firstly addresses the increased interconnectedness of our world: “We are better connected than we’ve ever been. We can now see and experience forcible displacement in a way that we haven’t before. And we are so much more connected with parts of the world that are further away geographically.” She also mentions the issue of media attention: “We’ve seen a huge response to what’s happening in Ukraine. It was the same for Afghanistan, and it was the same for Syria. But once that media attention dies down, so does the response.” Without continued media attention, it is our responsibility to maintain the momentum. In terms of why the issue should matter to us personally, Selina points out that displacement can happen to any of us. “Anybody that connects with an organisation like Refuweegee quickly realises that we are all human and that these people are people just like them.”
On what we can do as a community, Selina comments: “It’s easy to feel quite overwhelmed politically at the moment”, noting the passing of the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill and emphasising the current anti-refugee attitude of the government: “anti-refugee isn’t even strong enough for what they are”. “In my opinion”, she follows, “how we can help as a community is by not letting ourselves get overwhelmed by the hugeness of the political movement. It’s by doing everything we can at a community level and understanding that it does make a difference politically. Plugging the gaps that we see existing makes a huge difference in the lives of people who sought safety here. In doing that, we encourage people into spaces of knowledge and political awareness that will ultimately change our government”. Selina also stresses that every act matters, no matter how small. “We need to get better at recognising what those small acts can be, holding a mother’s baby while she looks around our free shop with free hands for the first time in months; sitting down with someone at lunch and having a conversation with them; donating a tube of toothpaste; writing a welcome letter; all of the things that we do on the daily.”
It’s clear then, that even in times of political upheaval, and as we are experiencing major historical events, small acts do make big differences. Helping can truly be as simple as a tube of toothpaste.
If you’d like to find out more about what Refugeewee do, you can find them here.