By Marienna Pope-Weidemann, communications coordinator, Right to Remain
It started with just a handful of locals, as these things often do. Like many international volunteers, Fran, who has been organising supply runs to Calais over the past year with her Unite Community branch, is turning her attention to the home front: Fortress Britain, where so many people risk and endure so much to reach in what Theresa May proudly calls her ‘hostile environment’. And Rosie, having spent many months collecting donations for Calais, came to realise how much solidarity work was needed here at home after attending a Right to Remain workshop.
On 19th October I met them both in a cafe in Sheffield, just a few days after I joined the team at Right to Remain. These women had ambitions to launch a new local group to fill the gaps in Sheffield’s solidarity infrastructure, and had organised an open meeting for existing volunteers and interested locals. Right to Remain has supported the development of local groups like this for more than twenty years – but this time things were a little different: they wanted to build a group based on Right to Remain’s model of mutual aid and practical solidarity. “It feels really good to be part of something so collaborative, that’s about humanity and solidarity,” Rosie explained.
At the meeting hall, I met her dad, Tom Heller. His parents had been refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. They had fled together at the last moment, forced to leave everyone and everything behind. “When they arrived in England they were put into a detention camp,” Tom said softly. “They never talked about what happened there… I don’t have to say anything else about why I want to help.”
Tom had been to Right to Remain’s annual gathering in Manchester a few weeks earlier and shared his thoughts with the group. “Being there helped me imagine that it’s possible to create a community of common interest and that together we can actually do something positive. This is a moment of enormous social upheaval, forcing mass migration all over the world and so many challenges for us here, too. How we react will define us as nations, communities and individuals. But as an individual, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be paralysing, that sense of: ‘what can I – or we few alone – really do about all this suffering?’ But at that national gathering I felt a strong common bond was formed. People from all over the world, many of whom have had experience of displacement and seeking asylum, made personal contact with each other and together we looked for ways to overcome.”
What followed at the Sheffield meeting was similar. More than thirty people attended from a range of backgrounds: students and pensioners, those seeking asylum and locals from the community. Much of the time was spent exploring their questions. We talked about how Right to Remain would support and complement existing local groups; the range of different ways everyone could contribute; and the importance of local work linking into a national network to share knowledge, resources and mutual support.
Michael from Right to Remain also shared a little of the organisation’s history. Starting as the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, it represents over 20 years of solidarity work. Over time, with the system becoming more treacherous to navigate, campaigning against individual deportations simply wasn’t achieving enough. “I joined Right to Remain in 2009 and much of the work was on our helpline for people in increasingly desperate situations. Sometimes we were able to delay deportations – but it was heartbreaking, frustrating work because it just wasn’t winning people what they needed: the right to remain.”
So, those involved decided to re-define their approach. They travelled to migrant communities and the solidarity groups that supported them across the country, to find out what they really needed. The overwhelming response was: solidarity, not charity; and early-stage support, because when things go wrong at the start it’s often impossible to undo the damage. Part of what defines Right to Remain is this understanding: that the system is set up to send people back, not to find the truth.
That’s how the toolkit was born: Right to Remain’s comprehensive, clear and honest guide to the British immigration and asylum system. The toolkit now forms the heart of the training Right to Remain offer to migrants, asylum seekers and their allies, since it was first tried in Calais back in 2011. In European camps I’ve seen first-hand what a difference such guidance can make. People are thrown into a bewildering legal system it takes English-speaking law students years to get their heads around. Often there’s no independent advice on regulations, but failing to obey can mean assault, family separation and detention.
Many participants at the Sheffield meeting were keen to attend the training session Right to Remain will host there on 10th November, for supporting people through their initial asylum interview. Lisa, from Right to Remain, shared her conversation with someone seeking asylum in Liverpool the previous day: “He told me, ‘When you go into that interview, they all tell you that you’re this thing; this thing that you’re not, because they don’t believe you, they don’t believe your story. And then you start to become this thing, that the Home Office says you are.’ And so our approach is all about fighting back for the person that person actually is; it’s about having people around you who say I believe you, and I stand by you.”
I felt her conviction being quietly taken up by the rest of us. “And he’s about to get a decision, so it’s not an abstract point for him whether he gets the right to remain,” she continued. “But he said ‘even if I get refugee status, the way the Home Office treats you, if that’s all you have… it changes you.’ That’s why we need to see mutual support happening all over the place. It’s not just the person going through the process that’s important in this approach, it’s about us as well, it’s about having stronger communities at the end of it. And that’s the kind of thing that really threatens people like Theresa May.”