Making a Difference in the Lives of Refugees
The Eritrean Refugees Support Association in the United Kingdom (ERSA-UK) organised a successful launch conference on Thursday 31st May 2012 at the Westminster County Hall in London.
The main aim of this full day conference was to highlight the challenges Eritrean refugees are facing in the United Kingdom as well as in the refugee camps in places such as Ethiopia and the Sudan and discuss what might be done to help. The conference sought to identify UK and international organisations actively working with refugees and explore ways to cooperate and work together to make a difference to the life of refugees.
Sixty delegates attended the conference, including UK nationals of Eritrean origin, Eritrean refugees living in London, and other parts of the UK such as Plymouth and Manchester and also people of non Eritrean backgrounds working with local, national and international charities such as the Anti Slavery International, the Evelyn Oldfield Unit, Freedom from Torture, Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London and Refugee and Migrant Forum in Kensington and Chelsea.
Mr. Amanuel Mesghina, Chair of ERSA-UK, opened the conference by introducing ERSA-UK and its objectives which are to carry activities to help Eritrean Refugees to build their life in the UK, and also to mobilize material help for those languishing in Refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan. Amanuel explained that getting sactuary in the United Kigdom is not a panacea that would solve all the problems of refugees. There are many challenges to overcome. Their educational level is low and knowledge of English is poor, many experiencing difficulties accessing basic skills training and higher education that increases employment opportunities..” In addition many find themselves homeless or live in squalid accomodations. Many suffer from traumatic experiences with mental health problems. These are some of the challenges that the refugees face and they need support particularly from their communities to build a good life in the UK.
As a humanitarian organisation, ERSA UK’s main focus is to help Eritrean refugees in the United Kingdom to transform themselves from dependency to independent life. To do this ERSA UK seeks volunteers to solicit expert advice, skills training and services. At the same time to solicit aid from the British public and international organisations to help refugees in the camps.
The Chair of ERSA UK then invited Ms. Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice, to chair the first session: Issues affecting asylum seekers and refugees in the UK today. The presentations highlighted the challenges faced by refugee professionals in securing employment (presented by Ms. Sheila Head, Director of Transitions); problems in securing social housing especially for single persons and large families that are dependent on the Benefit System (presented by Mr. Dorian Leatham, Chief Executive, African Refugee Housing Association, ARHAG); employment issues and the availability of skills training and volunteering opportunities offered by refugee and mainstream organisations relevant to refugees with different experiences, interests and skills (by Dr. Zibiah Alfred, Development Worker, Evelyn Oldfield Unit) and the challenges faced by refugees in forming strong communities and integrating into the wider UK society (by Ms. Zrinka Bralo, Director of MRCF). All the speakers underscored that, with the current economic climate, where services and community activities are continuously becoming underfunded, and the need for more coordinated effort within and across communities become paramount. They stressed that community leaders and members must be more creative than ever and think outside the box in an environment where unemployment is growing and social housing is becoming scarce, especially for single people and those with more than three children.
The second session, chaired by the long-time friend of Eritrea, Mr. Andy Greg, Director of the Charity Evaluation Services, was on Issues affecting Eritreans and their families in the Diaspora. The presentations were on the plight of Eritrean refugee and humanitarian needs (presented by Ms. Selam Kidane, Director of Release Eritrea); the tragedy of trafficking (by Ms. Kiara Skirivankova, Trafficking Programme Coordinator of Anti-Slavery International) and basic needs of Eritrean refugees in refugee camps in Ethiopia (by Mr. Petros Tesfagiorgis, ERSA-UK’s Coordinator). The session also included a message sent from Washington DC from the International Commission for Eritrean Refugees, ICER, who were unable to attend the conference in person. The presentation highlighted the gruesome experiences many Eritrean refugees go through, including rape, organ trafficking and death at the hands of human traffickers and border security personnel. Individuals’ plights often continue in countries such as Israel where, although signatory to the Geneva Convention, refugees are subjected to inhumane treatment, face racist discrimination from the public and the state security and find themselves threatened with eviction. Eritrean refugees in Ethiopian refugee camps, mainly composed of young people, face acute shortages of food, clothing, educational, sanitary and health materials.
Questions from the floor were collected for speakers after each panel session and further discussion continued between delegates over the lunch break.
Two topics were presented after lunch: Refugee mental health (by Dr. Angela Burnet, Freedom from Torture, Medical Foundation) and Achievements and challenges working with refugees (by Rita Chadha, Director of Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London). Dr. Burnet revealed that the number of refugees with physical and mental health problems in the UK is disproportionally high. She also explained that people may experience multiple losses due to previous experiences, cultural bereavement and the discrimination they may face as refugees. A holistic approach is needed in addressing mental health problems in order to foster independence and resilience. Ms. Chadha highlighted issues, such as racism and discrimination, reported by some refugees which may be exacerbated by the current economic climate in the UK.
Dr. Maknun Ashami, Lecturer, University of London, introduced the parallel workshop sessions. Conference participants divided into three groups. Each group addressed one of the following three topics: a) what are the most burning issues that refugees and refugee communities face? How can we work together on these issues? Led by Belay Kahsai, community Development worker, Manchester refugees support network b) what causes conflict between groups? How can we overcome conflict and maximise cooperation for the benefit of the community? (Led by Walid Abdullah, Vice-chair, Sudanese Community in Sussex); c) What difficulties do refugees living in dispersal areas in the UK face and how can they be addressed? (Led by Dr. Mebrahtu Ateweberhan, Secretary, ERSA-UK). The key points raised by each group were then shared in a plenary discussion session led by Dr. Maknun Ashami. The current fragmented nature of the Eritrean community in the UK and the need for a concerted effort of people from all backgrounds to address the challenges faced by refugees were both highlighted within the conference. Delegates were encouraged to reflect on the conference and suggestions for further actions through conference feedback and evaluation forms.
ERSA-UK thanks the speakers and audience of the conference. We thank the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, for providing the conference hall free of charge.
The initial work of ERSA-UK, including this conference was supported by the Big Lottery Fund.
A detailed version of this report will be out on due course. Stay tuned at: http://www.ersauk.com