Durham is a city full of divisions. Student and local, rich and poor, young and old, native and foreign – all these things can at first glance set us apart, but in fact it is this very diversity which makes our city such a vibrant place to study and live. One division that some feel is a step too far, however, is the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in our community.
The north-east for a long time was not the first choice for refugees, with many of them gathering in London and the south-east where they felt better integrated with family or cultural links. In 1999 the government rolled out a new policy of ‘dispersal’, with Newcastle becoming one of the designated dispersal cities. This created a flow of refugees into the north-east. Sixteen years later, Newcastle is more multicultural than ever before, and refugees are also being placed in other towns and cities, Durham included.
Many of the details of refugees in Durham have been shrouded in secrecy, ostensibly to protect the identities and safety of those involved. This is not surprising. With news of verbal and physical threats to refugees and asylum seekers on the rise, caution is necessary. An incident earlier in 2016 in which asylum seekers in Middlesbrough were housed in buildings with easily identifiable red doors led to graffiti, arson, and people feeling unsafe in their own homes. Many refugees and asylum seekers also say they feel less welcome in this country since the EU Referendum vote in June, which seems to have sparked several racially motivated attacks.
Alienating newcomers instead of welcoming them into the community has led to raised tensions. Historically this area of the country has not seen much exposure to immigration, whilst also experiencing high levels of deprivation, unemployment, and economic hardship. This would lead many to conclude that the local population might resent an influx of newcomers, but it perhaps is an unfair assumption to say that people’s reactions will be unsupportive of refugees. In 2015 the Council noted that several local people had got in touch eager to help Syrian families with offers of accommodation and food, among other things.
As of August Durham had become home to six Syrian families, with the Council committed to housing 200 refugees by 2020. In the face of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, the north-east needs to take its share of the responsibility. But housing and feeding people is not enough; there needs to be a concerted effort to encourage the integration of these people in the community, so that they feel comfortable and included.
Several societies within the university are trying to make sure Durham does just that. These include Amnesty International, Durham for Refugees, and People and Planet, all of which are running campaigns this year related to the refugee crisis.
Amnesty’s current campaign, simply titled ‘I welcome‘, invites us all to stand with refugees. The campaign is planned for two years, and is based on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution.
Here at the Durham Amnesty group we have lots of plans to welcome refugees to this country and this county through the coming year. So join us in saying loud and clear –