Maggie Pearse explains the work of her community group that has just won a prestigious award
Bradford Immigration and Asylum Support and Advice Network (BIASAN) has been running for 22 years, and this year received a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, equivalent to an MBE.
Unlike most refugee support groups, which tend to be formed by statutory, religious or student bodies, BIASAN was created by Bradford TUC, Bradford Resource Centre (a social action centre), and some community groups.
It has never had paid staff, relying entirely on volunteers, including many refugees. Nor has it ever received major funding, existing on its own fundraising efforts, donations from individuals and organisations and small grants for specific purposes, an example being seaside trips.
It does not own a building, a vehicle or office equipment, preferring instead to rent, or relying on volunteers’ hardware. This frees it from constraints such as going under because it loses staff, or not being able to speak freely for fear of losing funding.
BIASAN caters for roughly 150 to 200 people each week in non-Covid times, running a weekly Women’s Club, Drop-in and English classes. In addition, there is a Storage Unit which accepts donations of furniture, clothes, children’s toys, etc., and redistributes them to refugees who need them. The organisation also gives some legal help through a retired immigration solicitor and a McKenzie Friends group, and helps with other advice, queries and sign-posting on to other organisations as necessary.
It has strong links with local and regional arts organisations, which enables people to enjoy artistic, craft and performance activities when offered. 300 people go on an annual seaside trip every year, and walks and residential stays happen in the Yorkshire Dales and other parts of the northern countryside.
Just prior to the lockdown in March 2020, a decision was taken to stop group activities and reduce personal contact as much as possible. The English class recruited many more volunteer teachers and went online, with new people joining as the pandemic continued. The Women’s Club moved onto weekly deliveries of food parcels to vulnerable people. Other activities, such as legal help, continued remotely where possible. The Storage Unit set up new online request systems and home deliveries.
The organisation was asked by the Race Equality Network to nominate their Covid Community Champions to work with risk-averse people from their own communities, to persuade them it would be sensible to be vaccinated. Four Covid Community Champions, from Malawi, Egypt, Pakistan and El Salvador, were recruited, and they spoke to many people in various languages to spread the message about the positive benefits of vaccination.
At present small group excursions to the Yorkshire Dales, in partnership with People and the Dales, have just restarted.
Refugees attend from many countries, including. Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and many other places.
The reasons why most refugees come to the United Kingdom are very varied, and include fear of persecution on account of their religious beliefs, political opinions, family circumstances, sexual orientation, ethnic origin and other reasons.
The politics of asylum seekers and refugees varies, but political views are rarely expressed openly as people often fear persecution of their family members who remain in their home countries, if their views become known.
Non-refugee volunteers come from all walks of life, bringing a myriad of skills and experiences. The organisation is non-racist, non-sexist, internationalist and strives for human justice. Campaigning happens on behalf of individuals, on specifics such as the Right to Work campaign, and generally against the hostile environment created by successive Conservative governments.
The treatment of asylum seekers is an issue on which the Labour Party should be prepared to take a more proactive position. The UK’s record is a poor one, as we rank 17th among European nations in the number of asylum applications received per head of population in the year to March 2020. Germany had 122,000 applicants, France 93,500, Spain 88,500 compared to our just under 27,000. Of those, about 54% receive either refugee status or humanitarian protection, either on the initial decision or after going through the appeal process, despite all the hurdles put in their way.
In contrast to the position of the Home Office, we generally find that local people in Bradford are very supportive and act as good neighbours to those newly-arrived. It is ironic that we have received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service when a wing of Her Majesty’s government acts in such a destructive way towards those who need to seek sanctuary in our country.
There are many similar organisations throughout the UK, working at ensuring fairness for people who have fled great hardship. In particular, we applaud the actions of the community in Glasgow, who thwarted a dawn raid by the Home Office when they tried to remove asylum seekers who had not been able to pursue their claim through to a conclusion.
While BIASAN cannot claim to be a socialist organisation, socialist values shine through constantly.
Maggie Pearse is an active member of BIASAN, writing in a personal capacity.
Image: View of Bradford City Centre. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonfarman/5942532511/. Author: Jon Farman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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