With the narratives on asylum and immigration turning increasingly militarised and hostile, find out more about how one social enterprise is helping shift perceptions.
Over the last few weeks media attention has been focused on the English Channel, gripped by the scene of desperate people trying to seek refuge in the UK. The way the situation has been portrayed has been in the language of national emergency, we’ve seen military planes patrol the skies over the Channel and politicians have pledged to get tough and stop the crossings. A former marine has even been appointed as the ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ with the express responsibility of “making the channel route unviable for small boat crossings”.
Amidst the increasingly militarised language, the human stories of the people making this treacherous journey have been lost. Anti-immigration politics and policies have resulted in hardship and suffering for so many, but the reality of our asylum and immigration system is often not talked about with attention instead focused on stopping people from getting here.
In total the UK only hosts 126,720 refugees, people who have been granted the right to remain the country. This is tiny compared to Germany which hosts over 1 million refugees and it’s an underreported fact that the vast majority of refugees move within their region of displacement – 84% being hosted by developing countries. At the end of 2018, there were 45,244 pending asylum decisions – asylum seekers being individuals who have fled war and persecution and are seeking refugee status in the UK. Everyone has a fundamental right to claim asylum under international law and there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker.
The asylum process in the UK is bureaucratic and complex– there’s a pervasive culture of disbelief amongst decision makers, mandatory reporting to the Home Office whilst your claim is being processed and a policy of forced displacement where you’re made to move to an area of the country which may be far away from any form of support network. You also only have £37.75 to spend a week and are banned from taking up employment. This combined with the threat of deportation, detention (the UK has the largest immigration detention estate in Europe where migrants can be held indefinitely) and an increasing hostility towards migrants makes the whole process alienating and stressful. Even if your asylum claim is believed and you are given refugee status, huge barriers still remain from finding a place to live to seeking work where pre-existing qualifications may not be recognised.
Majeda is one person who made the long journey to the UK, fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria. She had been working as a children’s therapist when the democratic uprising against the Assad regime turned into a civil war in 2011. At the start of the conflict thousands of Syrians were arriving in the capital, Damascus, having lost their homes due to bombing carried out by government forces. Majeda decided to set up a programme to help feed these internally displaced people but her efforts and activism drew the attention of the regime and she was imprisoned for her human rights work. After her release she continued her work helping those who’d lost everything in the war but the threats from the state became too great and she had to escape, leaving being her family and making her way to UK where she was eventually given refugee status in 2017.
She was supported find a new sense of community in the UK by one social enterprise which has been set up to directly challenge negative stereotypes of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
Migrateful runs cookery classes led by people who have fled war and persecution. It was set up by founder Jess Thompson following conversations with a group of refugee women on what skills they could share to support them in their new lives, with many saying they could cook. Migrateful was then set up to support these women into work by letting them share their cooking skills with the world. – helping them integrate into society and taking on the legal, linguistic and social barriers they face.
Majeda was supported by Migrateful to host cookery classes where she combined her love of food with her activism, running an event called ‘Siege Soup for Syria’ where she cooked up a soup which was the only food that people in the besieged city of Ghouta could eat. Participants were asked to write to the UK government to help play it’s part, and the group of 100 people called a woman in the city whose birthday it was – an act of international solidarity which had the whole room in tears. Commenting on her work at Migrateful she said:
“I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love and that preparing a meal for the one you love, combining your skills and your feelings to create something, can convey a lot to the person: be it husband, children or friends. People usually leave my cookery classes newly politicised about the Syrian situation and delighted by our incredibly tasty food.”
Migrateful’s classes are designed to empower the hosts but also to help change public perception around migration. It’s all about creating a sense of community and since being founded in July 2017 Migrateful has supported 45 chefs from across the world. Some of the chefs have even gone on to set up their own catering businesses and this includes Majeda. She was so inspired by her work teaching Syrian cuisine with Migrateful that she has now gone on to set up her own catering company called the Syrian Sunflower stating that she is “a Migrateful success story”.
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