It’s Refugee Week 2021, a chance to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary with us in the UK, including in Wandsworth.
At Wandsworth Foodbank, we regularly support refugees, migrants and people seeking sanctuary who’ve been pulled into destitution, often due to restrictions of the government’s No Recourse to Public Funds policy (limiting people’s ability to work or claim benefits), and/or by the ‘hostile environment’ set of policies introduced by the Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012.
At the time, Theresa May said: “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. She created adverts telling ‘illegal’ immigrants to ‘go home’, which were banned by the Advertising Standards Agency in 2013. By 2020, a review of the ensuing Windrush Scandal found that the Home Office showed “ignorance and thoughtlessness” on the issue of race, and the government was forced to apologise and pay compensation to affected citizens (although many victims are still waiting to receive this).
And so to now. During the pandemic, we’ve provided nearly 500 seven-day emergency food supplies to people referred to us specifically because they have No Recourse to Public Funds – almost twice the number compared to the previous year. It’s been a difficult year to lose work (for those allowed to work, even in a limited way), but how much more so if you’re not eligible for the financial crisis help that many of us needed: furlough, Universal Credit, help with rent.
One family we supported were Meriam and her children. They were referred to us by a local primary school for emergency food and advice during the pandemic; after fleeing extreme and prolonged domestic violence in another country, and becoming destitute in ours.
I’m so grateful to Meriam* for sharing her story for this blog. Meriam’s is a continuing story of remarkable strength, resilience, and the love of a mother for her children, which has often moved me to tears. Her story is unique, but the strength and resilience she embodies are reflected in so many people seeking refuge and asylum who we’re honoured to welcome at our food bank.
As an asylum seeker, UK government policy prohibits Meriam from working or receiving benefit payments, and the family only recently started receiving asylum seeker support of £5 per person/per day for food, travel, clothing, shoes and any other essentials.
‘There was a day I sent my children to school without breakfast – all the food was gone. I took my kids to the front desk and I was honest. The school said they will take care of it and they would ask the Foodbank to help us, and the Foodbank sent us food the next day for the whole family. So then the kids could have breakfast before and dinner after school and that helped a lot.
‘Then the Home Office suddenly moved us to [an asylum seeker hotel in another part of the city]. They didn’t have proper food there or ok food for the children’s allergies – even when I asked about allergies they refused. We found cockroaches in our food when we tried to eat it. So then we didn’t have any money, or any food to eat.
‘I was very upset, because my son and daughter would cry for food. My son would fall asleep crying and he would wake up and ask for food and there wouldn’t be any and he would cry again. I felt like my hands were tied, like I couldn’t do anything for my children. Those days were very tough days for me and my kids. But then the Foodbank came all the way to us and helped us again, and the children were able to eat, and it was such a big blessing.
‘A mum thinks very much when her kids are hungry and crying. And for me, moving country to be safe, and then coming here and the children have to suffer – sometimes a victim like me starts to think ‘Is it a good thing I’ve done to move to try and protect my children or not?’ You might even jeopardise your safety if you can’t meet your children’s basic needs.
‘The Foodbank has had a big impact in me and my kids’ lives. It was such a big difference that is hard to express. I was always helped by them when I didn’t know anyone in this country and I didn’t know what to do.
‘I have seen smiles return to my kids’ faces after we received help from Foodbank and for a mum, that’s the most precious thing in the world: seeing her kids safe, eating, happy and playing. Whenever I asked the Foodbank for something like toilet paper or sanitary products – about our specific needs – they took care of that. It made me feel like my voice is heard, that I’m valued as a human, and that someone is there to listen and help me and my children.’
As churches running Wandsworth Foodbank with and for our local community, we’re thinking about this quote from the Bible during Refugee Week. It’s a no-messing instruction about how people should welcome and treat others who were new to their country. To summarise: don’t take advantage of them, treat them like your own citizens, love them like family:
‘When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him or her. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love her or him like one of your own.‘
Wouldn’t it be amazing for this kind of welcome, love and justice to be the experience of people in our community in Wandsworth, all the time? And also, for this kind of love and justice to influence government policy, transforming it from self-declared ‘hostile environment’ to something very different, and very much better for us all.
As the theme of Refugee Week 2021 says, ‘We cannot walk alone’. It’s a quote from human rights leader and church pastor Martin Luther King, in his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech, when he highlighted the White people who, realising their destiny and that of their Black fellow citizens was intertwined, joined the movement for equal rights.
“They have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom,” he said. “We cannot walk alone.”
Four things you can do this Refugee Week:
- Find out more about and join Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees, a group of local people, organisations and faith groups who are extending the hand of friendship to people who’ve have had to leave their homes.
- This Thursday 17 June at 6pm, join South London Refugee Association’s virtual event, launching their new report about the harmful effects of No Recourse to Public Funds policy, and access to support.
- Email the Home Secretary, Priti Patel MP, and tell her why you want our government to welcome refugees, and provide safe ways for people to seek sanctuary and asylum in our well-resourced country.
- Give help via Wandsworth Foodbank, as we continue to support and welcome refugees and people seeking asylum who are facing destitution.
* Meriam’s name has been changed to protect the family’s identity