Human Rights Week at Leeds University does an outstanding job every year of raising awareness of a huge array of issues that endanger the basic rights of people worldwide. The week of non-stop events is led by the Leeds University Union’s (LUU) Amnesty International Society but is successful in uniting a diverse set of groups, emphasising the diversity of rights we are fighting to protect.
On Thursday 28th November Human Rights Week brought us ‘Refugees in Focus’, an event co-hosted by Leeds Friends of Syria, LUU Revolutionary Socialists, Leeds Student Action for Refugees, and No Borders Leeds, an eclectic set of groups which served to further stress the broad-reaching scope of the week’s events.
The evening was split into two parts with a break in the middle to give a chance for the audience and the speakers to mingle, a nice touch which helped break down any artificial barriers and create an inclusive atmosphere. The first part gave the audience a chance to listen to different experiences from a refugee and an asylum seeker living here in Leeds. Nisreen Al-Zaraee, who was a student at York University when the war started in Syria, was at pains to explain that her experience of claiming asylum was not representative of the asylum procedures most people go through. Despite feeling that she is lucky in being one of the only 0.1 per cent of over 2.5 million externally displaced Syrians registered as a refugee in the UK, she still felt like she was “treated like a suspect” throughout the asylum process.
Nisreen’s situation, in which she was able to claim asylum relatively quickly while living with a friend, is in stark contrast to so many others, who may find they rely on charities such as Abigail Housing and volunteers working with projects such as Grace Hosting. During the process asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many have to rely on as little as £5 a day for food and transport before an initial decision is made. This can sometimes take up to a year and it is hard to imagine making ends meet on so little for so long while at the same time not knowing where you will sleep tomorrow night.
The second part of the evening focused on the range of charities that provide services to asylums seekers and refugees in Leeds. I was impressed to learn of charities such York Street Health Practice which provides an enormous number of services including counselling, visiting teams, immigration solicitors, and housing teams. At the same time however, there was a running theme when any charity was mentioned: increased strain and budget cuts. Major charities such as the Refugee Council received heavy cuts, meaning they have had to reduce the number of services available.
Throughout the event, it was stressed by the LUU Revolutionary Socialist that they wanted to see concrete action develop. This may not have happened in the way they envisaged but with the number of charities mentioned, the range of groups involved in the event and signup sheets available, they can be sure that the majority of people in the room that night will have felt inspired to get involved and help out with those who need our support.