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Hastings Community of Sanctuary – one year on October 2018

Dr Felicity Laurence, Chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary

A little over a year ago, Hastings Supports Refugees took the decision to join more than a hundred cities, towns and even villages across the UK and Ireland in the national City of Sanctuary movement, sharing their vision of hospitality towards all who come here seeking refuge from war and poverty. Over the past year, we’ve been working steadily to build upon the work already being done to help all those seeking sanctuary in our town as well as those desperately seeking refuge abroad, and also to set up new projects to expand that work. Our aim is to work collaboratively to make a strong, sustainable narrative here in Hastings and St Leonards – of a welcoming and safe environment for everyone who comes here to make a new life with us. We want to invite them to take part in our community in all sorts of ways, and for our community to be able to meet and know their new fellow-Hastonians. Here is a quick story of our journey over the past 12 months.

The first major new project was Hastings Refugee and Asylum Seekers’ Buddy Project, convened in July 2017, with its first full training day in September 2017. Since then, this project has developed into a complex and highly organised network of support for incoming refugee families from the Syrian Resettlement Programme. As its structures are tried, tested and amended, the Project is gradually being expanded to include all others in our local refugee population. Buddies work on an ad hoc basis to support families and individuals, and/or also on a regular basis, attached to a specific family. The Buddy committee meets regularly with the families’ official case worker team, and over the year the Project undertaken many events and activities with our new friends, including social gatherings, days out, picnics, the Quilting Project, a film of our developing work, and much more.

Autumn 2017 also saw the launch of the Hastings Debates, a series of public talks about different aspects of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ – in fact a crisis of how we in the rich countries are responding to the people coming here from war and poverty. To launch this series on September 27th, the international war journalist Rohan Jayasekera gave a powerful account of his work in the field and with the organisation Freedom from Torture with which he is closely involved, with a focus upon the theme of supporting survivors of torture, which so many refugees seeking asylum have undergone. Our second speaker, in October, was the renowned war reporter and author Nadene Ghouri, whose work includes her co-authorship of The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Story, which she discussed in her talk. Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais came from Calais in January to speak of the current situation in the cold of winter there.

In March, Professor Sue Clayton showed her compelling film Calais: a Case to Answer, documenting the destruction of the Calais ‘Jungle’.  This film was part of testimony brought in a high court case challenging the failure of the Home Office to allow entry to hundreds of unaccompanied minors, young people and children who had a legal right to claim asylum in the UK, but who were left stranded after the destruction of the Jungle. A judgement is expected imminently. In May, we welcomed the artists Bern O’Donohue and Giovanna del Sarto who presented their collaborative photography-art installation work on the theme of refugees’ journeys across the Mediterranean and through Europe.

The series culminated with the two ‘Supper with Giles Duley’ evenings, held in St Mary in the Castle on 4th and 5th July 2018 (you can see Giles speaking here), co-hosted with Giles’ own Legacy of War Foundation; two hundred people attended this incredible event. Local people were able to meet with many of our new fellow-citizens from the Syrian families who have been arriving here over the past year. Giles gave an unforgettable account of his own life and humanitarian work with refugees across the world, which we could glimpse from his portraits exhibited at this event.

During Autumn 2017, we started work on our Website, with tutorials from the City of Sanctuary advisor: we attended the Sanctuary in Parliament event on 28th November, to which our MP Amber Rudd, then Home Secretary, sent her representative to hear our specific concerns. In December, Hastings Borough Council unanimously passed a Resolution of Support for Hastings to become a City of Sanctuary. In January, we drew up our Constitution as an Unincorporated Association.

In the New Year, we visited Amber Rudd herself to update her on our City of Sanctuary progress, and to bring to her attention the campaign points from Asylum Matters (the campaigning group hosted by City of Sanctuary ) pressing for change in Government policies on refugees’ ability to work, on support after receiving asylum (when so many become destitute), and on the level of basic support for all people seeking asylum (currently much less than anyone else receiving Governmental support in the UK).

We have also been writing constantly in various local media, and taking part in numerous meetings and conferences at home and across the country, including the City of Sanctuary AGM and Conference in Newcastle  (May 2018). Through our founding group Hastings Supports Refugees, we have sent significant amounts of aid to refugees in Calais and elsewhere in Europe, including a huge shipment of clothes in January. The main organisation of asylum support, Links, held a wonderful party during Refugee Week in June, and we celebrated the conclusion of that week with the Festival by the Lake at Ashburnham Place, attended by more than 1000 people including many refugee friends from all groups. There was music with Liane Carroll, Ian Shaw and many others, food, communal dining, all kinds of workshops, and the formal declaration of Hastings Community of Sanctuary as now officially part of the nationwide City of Sanctuary movement. Many thousands of pounds were raised at that event, and distributed across refugee support projects in Calais and Greece

Since we started, the extent of the hostility of Government refugee policy has become evident in an unprecedented way, with the revelation of how people from the Windrush group have been treated. Suddenly, the ‘hostile environment’, practised by different governments over recent decades, has become much more widely recognised and debated, and its effects not only upon the British Windrush citizens but also on thousands of people seeking asylum. Current policy prevents most people seeking asylum from taking part properly in our community – they may not work, and there is an active strategy to make it difficult for anyone to settle and fit in until their asylum claim is decided – a process that often takes many years. Recent moves within the Home Office to reform and ‘humanise’ the treatment of refugees, and to transform the ‘culture of disbelief’ that has prevailed there for so long, are welcome.

Hastings Community of Sanctuary is all about challenging any form of hostile narrative. It’s about enabling everyone to become actively a part of our community from the moment they arrive: about welcoming and sharing, and seeing each other – whether here with us, or far away on a Greek beach- as fellow human, and extending the hand of friendship.

We look forward to our ongoing work in the coming year, with many more projects afoot.