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There’s no such thing as an illegal refugee: In conversation with STAR Glasgow

President Charlotte Duffus and awareness coordinator Katia Hadjidemetriou Folman discuss STAR’s efforts to counter the hellscape that is the UK asylum system, as well as the moments of joy which punctuate it.

Under international law, there is no such thing as an illegal refugee. The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everyone the right to apply for asylum in any country. Crucially, it also recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular routes to seek safety in other countries. Why then, is there no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum? And why too is it left to groups like Student Action for Refugees (STAR) to fill in for the UK government’s lack of humanity towards asylum seekers once they arrive here.

I sat down with STAR Glasgow president Charlotte Duffus and awareness team member Katia Hadjidemetriou Folman to discuss the role of STAR and how students can resist the UK government’s institutionalised violence towards refugees and asylum seekers. 

When asked to describe the role of STAR in Glasgow, it’s unsurprising that the weekly conversational club in Maryhill came first to Charlotte’s mind. The hour-long sessions held at the Maryhill Integration Network building provide an opportunity for asylum seekers to make connections, practise their English and find a moment’s reprieve from the injustice and incompetence of the UK asylum system.

Both Charlotte and Katia were quick to stress that the function of the conversation club goes beyond English language practice. “It’s informal… not at all a classroom environment”. The sessions include free tea and biscuits, games, and conversation prompts (travel costs are reimbursed completely). “It’s important to give people a space, just to chat, it’s a social environment… improving English skills is almost secondary.”

Conversation club coordinators are trained by STAR’s national committee, and conversation prompt topics range from what to say in a supermarket, to job interviews and the GP’s office. When combined with a social, non-educational environment, this provides refugees not just with useful vocab, but with the necessary tools of integration, solidarity, and community. Tools which are invaluable in the face of constant displacement across the UK, with the Home Office moving asylum seekers from one city to another in temporary accommodation, not allowing for settlement or proper community integration.

Katia fondly recalled a group of three Pakistani women at the last session. One spoke more English than the other two and was there partly to support her friends, introducing them to the club. “That is literally the purpose of the group… to support each other and create a community space”.

Of equal importance to the conversation club is STAR’s work in raising awareness. Against an ever-rising tide of sensationalism, reactionary rhetoric and populist fearmongering, STAR provides a space for objective fact. Information on UK migration policy, advice on terminology and facts about displaced people, all with sources cited and links to further information, are regular features on STAR Glasgow’s Instagram page. “It’s really important to have that information accessible, especially on social media”. In keeping with Katia’s claim, STARs national website dedicates a section to information about refugees and asylum seekers, ensuring that students are first and foremost informed about the plight of refugees in the UK.

Katia also spoke of plans to introduce regular screenings of selected films which centre on refugee story telling. “It’s so easy to feel removed from what’s going on… films and storytelling offer a more embodied perspective”. Such a sense of feeling removed from the current political situation is not uncommon among students in the UK, STAR’s campaigning and activism work can help to bridge this gap.

Take STAR’s participation in the Lift the Ban campaign, the coalition of over 280 UK organisations who oppose legislation prohibiting those seeking refugee status from working until their asylum claim is accepted; a process that often takes years. With STAR, students were able to participate directly with the campaign, going to businesses and corporations to spread awareness about the labour rights asylum seekers do have, and encouraging employers to recognise them.

It’s important to note that STAR operates in a gap left by the government. Quite so many NGOs, charities and activist groups wouldn’t need to exist if the UK government showed just the slightest degree of humanity towards asylum seekers and refugees. For Katia, “The governance of asylum… it’s institutionalised violence, the way they don’t provide these essential services”. Her observation came just days before the launch of an investigation into the suicide of a 37-year old refugee held in an immigration removal centre. 

It’s difficult not to feel helpless when faced with stories like these. Nonetheless, my conversation with Katia and Charlotte showed me that there can be moments of joy through the cracks in the hellscape. When asked what some of their favourite moments at STAR were, both Katia and Charlotte mentioned interactions with users of STAR’s services. For Katia, it was the dramatic (although light-hearted) accusation from one asylum seeker that she was covertly coming to the conversation club to steal tea and biscuits. For Charlotte, it was during a game of Pictionary, in which a refugee drew a grotesque Mr potato head-esque figure. After some long minutes of guessing it was eventually revealed. “It’s Charlotte”, he said, laughing.

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