Together For Leeds Conference
Cameroon Dance Troupe Councillor Gruen
Tuesday the 18th June saw refugee organisations, council members, volunteers, refugees and migrants come together to discuss working with migrant communities, the issues they face and how to overcome those issues.
After a brief introduction, the conference started off with a welcome from Bishop John Packer and an introduction of City of Sanctuary a short film by Roger Nyantou, a national trustee of the City of Sanctuary movement and Deputy Director of RETAS.
There were four workshops available split into two half an hour sessions. The workshops allowed people to learn more about refugee children led by the Children’s Society, Migrant English led by University of Leeds, Question and Answers on the Welfare Reform by the Welfare Rights Unit and PAFRAS who held a session on Destitution.
The children workshop discussed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Outcomes for Asylum Seeking Children, supported by the Children’s Society and fed back its findings to Parliament in March 2013. The workshop also covered the findings of the inquiry and how people can practically support children in Leeds.
The Migrant English session set a conversation to develop a dynamic resource containing information about English language classes for adult migrants in Leeds and there was also an exploration of both migrant English students and their teachers.
The Welfare Reform workshop hosted by Sean Kelly who has spent the last two years advising on Welfare Reform went through the recent changes that have been introduced to welfare benefits including housing benefits, council tax and other social security benefits since the end of 2010. Participants also got information on the changes and questions were answered for people who work with migrants from a range of perspectives including destitute, asylum, and economic migrants. Participants also raised interesting issues on the change such as the effect it may have on people in abusive relationship as the abuser might the only one receiving benefits which gives them financial power and why the Equality Diverse Act hasn’t been assessed by the coroner.
The workshop also informed attendees how refugees have full access to public funds and therefore the benefit changes apply to them as to any other claimant. Until the decision is decided in their favour Asylum Seekers have very limited, if not any, access to the benefit system. The migrant group who will be most likely to be affected by these cuts are EEA nationals as the government attempts to limit their qualification for benefits while at the same time facing European Union court challenges on grounds of discrimination in limiting EEA national’s rights to benefits.
Lastly the workshop on destitution explored the needs and challenges of working with destitute asylees in Leeds. The workshop was based on the “Still Human, Still Here” campaign, the participants of the workshop looked at how to provide practical support for destitute people in Leeds as well as the wider context of destitution in the UK.
After a quick lunch where people got a chance to network and trade information on the sessions they attended, the Cameroon Dance Troupe held an energetic dance which went down a treat and raised everybody’s spirits. There were also a lot of displays at the conference for people to enjoy, these included artwork by Lawnswood High School, Highfield Primary School and Hatim Hassan who bought items from his own home to display.
To ensure everyone got the most out of the conference there were two open space workshops where people who wanted to lead a discussion on a topic they were passionate about got an opportunity to run those. Some of these discussions included ‘Save Legal Aid’, ‘Motivation Progress Good Mental Health’ and ‘Integrating Migrants into Society’. Jennifer Brown a support worker in the Mental Health sector said “These sessions have opened my eyes to the issues that migrants face and it’s got me thinking about what to do to help reduce these issues and stigma’s surrounding people”.
To wind the day the down everyone sat in a big circle and passed the microphone around to get a chance to say how they felt the day went and what they’ve learned. Aman Kefley from Eritrea who works at York Street Health Practise said “It was very interesting, especially because we were talking about our own issues. We spoke about us, and for us.”
There was then a question and answer session with Councillor Gruen, Deputy Leader and Leeds City Council. Councillor Gruen said “I know you’ve talked about Migrant English- and how we can be very practical here in Leeds about making sure we have the best provision possible(despite, and you will have to indulge my political bias here, the best efforts of this Government to restrict access to it, whilst insisting migrants should speak a level of English that most native speakers would struggle with) I really do think this is an important issue- though- and speaks to so much of the migrant agenda- but if we can crack it here in Leeds- and I don’t see why we can’t- we could make a massive contribution to the migration debate nationally.” He also spoke on destitution and said “Through the excellent deputation that took place to Council in April- we will be discussing this at Executive Board in July to look at how we as a city can take action to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable”.
Rachael Loftus, who manages the Leeds migration partnership and also played a big role in organising the event, closed the conference saying “I’d like to first acknowledge the fantastic work that is being done in the migrant third sector in Leeds- not just during Refugee Week- but week in and week out.” She further stated “Obviously, we can’t get away from the fact that we are in a tough economic climate. And that this climate is ideal for spreading half-truths, lies and miss-understandings throughout the media- and in this climate- it’s all too easy to make refugees, asylum seekers and migrants the scapegoat. But I’m greatly encouraged by seeing here today: people who are countering those messages: challenging the stereotypes and contributing and leading in all aspects of the city’s life”.
The conference ended with a flag of all the countries around the world being lifted up by the attendees. It was a perfect ending to the day showing how united everyone was and came together for such a great cause.