Monday 9th June was a significant date for Newcastle and the North East in a number of newcastleways. Firstly, it was of course the date when true faith went digital. It was also the 152nd anniversary of the original Blaydon Races, so famously celebrated in the song by Geordie Ridley.  And it was the day Newcastle became a City of Sanctuary…..

A city of what?

Whilst the first two reasons for 9th June being a significant date are probably known to all of you, the third may be something of a mystery. In becoming a City of Sanctuary, Newcastle joined many other cities around Britain in putting in place, appropriate provisions to welcome and help asylum seekers and refugees.

The following is from the Newcastle City of Sanctuary website:

“Newcastle upon Tyne is proud to be a welcoming city where people have historically sought sanctuary for many years. In more recent times, Newcastle was selected as a dispersal area for asylum seekers. Agencies within the city responded through developing projects, networks and awareness raising initiatives. We are thrilled that, through the work of these projects, many people with leave to remain choose to stay in the city.However, even with our successes there is still more work to be done, more communities to be encouraged to welcome our new arrivals and more people to be supported during their time here. For this reason we decided to become a nationally recognised City of Sanctuary”.

I was reminded yet again this week of just why people need to find a safe place. The appalling news story that prawns on sale in our supermarkets are acquired with the help of  slave labour employed by Thai fishing fleets.

Sadly this news didn’t surprise me at all. There is a lot of what is effectively slave labour, especially from Burma, operating in Thailand.

About ten years ago, I was in Mae Sot, a town in Thailand about six miles from the border with Burma, on three separate occasions. It is a fascinating place – with human rights NGOs and Burmese government spies – if you are from somewhere like the UK or Australia. Most of those living in the town are from Burma and many of these are from the Karen ethnic group.It is often anything but fascinating to them….

They have flooded over the border – it is surprisingly porous – to escape the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in Burma. What awaits them in Thailand is often worse…

I remember two stories from Mae Sot in particular. In the first story migrant workers from Burma were working in a factory and hadn’t been paid for weeks. They went to see the boss about it and he suggested they all go for a drive up into the rainforest, with some of his men. There, they were summarily executed. The second story concerned a factory owner whose method of wage negotiation was to fire a gun into the ceiling of the factory and decide arbitrarily how much the workers would get, depending on his mood.

I was in Mae Sot, because I have visited three refugee camps along the Thai/Burmese border. There are at least 150 000 refugees from Burma in a string of camps all down the border, who have fled from violence, rape and a host of other appalling human rights abuses in Burma. I have taught English, played music and even tried to play football (never easy in the tropical heat) with Karens who have tried to find a safe place in Thailand. I found them to be a lovely, generous, charming and very courageous people.

They had a great sense of humour, but even in the hot tropical sunshine there was a dark shadow hanging over the refugee camps; many of those living there did not know where the rest of their families were or even if they were alive or dead. And most were unable to leave the camps. The steep mountains around them seemed so beautiful when I first saw them, yet after only six days they began to resemble prison walls.  What they must have seemed like after six years, I can only imagine. One refugee told me that she did not like life in the camp; it was like the fish in the pond. There were young children there who had probably been born in the camps and been nowhere else in their short lives.

It is one of the great myths that we have more than our fair share of asylum seekers in this country.  Given that United Nations High Commission on Refugees official statistics in 2010 showed that we had about 2.6% of the world’s refugees, that we are the sixth richest nation in the world – not that that wealth is shared out fairly – and that the vast majority of asylum seekers, like the Karens taking refuge in Burma,  are where you would expect them to be – in the next country to their home, away from whatever threatens them at home – the idea that we have more than our fair share is patently absurd.

This myth of the UK being flooded with asylum seekers is just one of many which have led to some people in this country having a problem with asylum seekers. Yet I wonder just how many of these people have ever met an asylum seeker or talked to one? Or even read what they might have to say? Or know anything about the human rights situations in the countries asylum seekers are coming from? Or considered the role Britain has played in the development of some of the worst human rights crises of our times – in countries such as Burma, Palestine/Occupied Territories or Zimbabwe – all former colonies of Britain?  Or thought about how many refugees are fleeing from wars while we are the world’s second biggest arms producing nation? How many of those who rail against asylum seekers have visited refugee camps such as Mae Ra Ma, Mae La and Umpiem on the Thai/Burmese border?

In 2004 I was able to play a small role in the production of a Show Racism the Red Card video on asylum called ‘A Safe Place’. The reason why this excellent production was given that name was very simple. It was so people would realise that that was what asylum meant. This of course beggars the biggest question of all; how many of those who rant against asylum seekers even understand what the term really means?

Of course there are bogus asylum seekers,. just as there are a small number of benefit cheats. In any system like these, there will sadly always be a few who abuse it. Perhaps it is even sadder however, that all asylum seekers are painted with the same brush. And of course, it suits some people to blow the numbers out of all proportion.

It is also very sad that some people have so little empathy with the suffering of others. Empathy with others is surely one of the things, which makes us truly human. To be truly human, this empathy cannot just be cut off once we get outside the borders of what we might see as ‘our tribe’. It must extend to all humanity and this of course, includes asylum seekers.

As Refugee Week was about to start on Monday 16th June, I was heartened by two events. Firstly, there was the tremendous show of support at the Justice First football tournament in Middlesbrough on Saturday 14th June, which is held annually to mark Refugee Week and show how people from diverse backgrounds can play football and live together peacefully.. Justice First is a Teesside-based organisation which helps asylum seekers and refugees in the Tees Valley area. Over 100 people, including myself, turned up to p;lay foorball, with many more supporters there as well.

Then on Sunday 15th June, there was othe publication of an in-depth survey, which showed that 8 out of 10 first-time voters in the general election next year were rightly proud of Britain’s legacy of providing a safe haven for those fleeing, war, violence and persecution. A similar survey of over 21s showed 7 out of 10 were similarly proud of our traditional British values of showing support for asylum seekers.

We have a great history in Newcastle and the North East in helping those in need. It was a great centre of support for the Anti-Slave Trade Movement, in the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries. Joseph Cowen, Newcastle M.P. and owner of the Daily (now Evening) Chronicle in the second half of the 19th century, was a great supporter of refugees coming from Europe. We took in Basque Refugees from war-torn Spasin in the 1930s and Jarrow M.P.Ellen Wilkinson was a strong supporter of Jewish refugees fleeing the nightmare of The Holocaust. We have much to be proud of. As Newcastle has joined other cities around the country becoming a City of Sanctuary, this tradition is happily continuing.

© Peter Sagar June 2014    


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