By Freddie MachinRefugee Week 2015 will take place on the 15-21 June, just a month after the UK general election. And even in that short interim, the political discourse around the status of refugees, migrants and those seeking asylum may change substantially.
Ahead of events planned for all around the UK this summer, Counterpoint Arts hosted their annual conference at Amnesty, bringing together arts and advocacy organisations from across the nation.
In his opening address, Maurice Wren, chair of Refugee Week and CEO of the Refugee Council, warned of the uncertain times ahead but argued that there are already positive signs the attitude towards migrant issues is changing.
This week Theresa May announced an independent review into the welfare of immigrants held in detention centres, suggesting an acknowledgement of the need for reform following years of Home Office criticism.
And in our first action point of the day, Wren urged organisations large and small, left-field and mainstream, to endorse the Birmingham Declaration, a document calling for “all migrants, including refugees, to be welcomed in the UK and to be safe, healthy and integrated”.
The emphasis of this year’s event is on celebration, but the annual objective is to personalise the discourse around refugee rights in the UK. Not to think of immigration to this country in terms of ‘waves’ or happening ‘en masse’, but as individuals who make an immense contribution to life in the UK.
Andrej Mahecic from UNHCR – the United Nations Refugee Agency – hit us with some startling facts. Contrary to what some of the UK political discourse would suggest, 86% of world refugees are in fact hosted by developing nations. And it is no surprise that the largest proportion of those that have suffered displacement are from Syria.
The UNHCR offers a huge online resource, replete facts and figures such as these as well as a series of iconic portraits, and personal stories detailing some incredible global journeys.
One of the events that this summer’s celebration holds in store is The Refugee Tales, an eight-day walk following the route of the Canterbury pilgrimage in reverse, from Dover to Crawley. Along the way, stories will be shared of migrants coming to the UK, scripted in collaboration with a selection of well-known writers.
Counterpoint Arts, who organised and facilitated this year’s event, insisted that it was not in fact a conference, but a party. And indeed with poetry from the award winning Azfa Awad, a performance from Zimbabwean musician Kudaushe Matimba and contributions from Musicians without Borders and Syrian grafitti artists, it certainly felt like that.
But the constant question posed to participants throughout the day was “why is the refugee contribution to the arts in the UK so important?” A question that we are all responsible for answering, in both art and advocacy, now and especially following the next election. Our answers on the day were multiple – to benefit from alternative perspectives, to learn about ourselves through others, to be able to communicate through something less tangible but more complex than language alone. But the resounding note we ended on was a desire to create an inclusive history. Based on the knowledge that our culture only succeeds when everybody is able to contribute to it.