Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Reality of 'Big Society'

Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of ‘Big Society’. David Cameron and his campaign team did their best to make sure we didn’t forget it in the lead up to the 2010 election. It was a great way for the Conservatives to frame their economic plans – huge spending cuts would be offset by a ‘Big Society’ picking up the slack. While the idea wasn’t exactly a massive vote winner, the Tories endured with it until a short time after the election when the term became politically useless and began to be omitted from the vocabulary of senior Conservatives. However, with each passing month under this government, the reality of ‘Big Society’ is becoming much clearer. It is not exactly surprising that it has been a failure, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch as the most deprived in our society are made to suffer. For those of us involved in the voluntary sector, the view is all too clear.

One of the reasons that the ‘Big Society’ idea was so defunct from the start was that, as well as big cuts to education, transport, policing and welfare, the government also decided to slash funding for the voluntary sector. In a time of economic hardship, when charitable donations go down by default, it seems fairly ludicrous to expect this sector to pick up the government’s slack, particularly on the back of huge cuts to it. It owes partly to this fact that ‘Big Society’ was dropped from the discourse of politicians. Instead, cuts have repeatedly been referred to as “tough but necessary” choices being made by politicians who claim “we’re all in this together”. I think it is safe to say we are not.

Refugees and asylum seekers are among the worst affected by these cuts. The recent inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, summarised here, showed that the government is leaving children, in particular, woefully unsupported. The voluntary sector is being left not just to support them a little, but to support them entirely. The report showed that many children rely on charities for food, and the government can no longer claim to be ignorant of this now it has been published. This is the reality of ‘Big Society’. The neediest people in our society are being knowingly neglected by the government and, as each new cut takes effect, the situation worsens. It is clear to see that, while the charitable sector may be more sensitive to the needs of the deprived, the gulf in resources between this sector and the government is far too great to expect equivalent capabilities.

Furthermore, there is a gap between the reality and the politics when it comes to certain cuts. In times of hardship, the need for welfare increases. But recipients of welfare, particularly those not originally from the UK, are by far the easiest to scapegoat. The government gleefully obliges. What is so often forgotten is the level of poverty involved here, as well as the number of children whose development is being blighted by abject poverty. Tough but necessary choices? Is it really “necessary” to give those earning over £150,000 per year a tax cut while asylum seekers are sometimes left with less than 70% of JSA to support their families? The government is happy to pay for tax cuts for the rich but it is ‘Big Society’ who pays for food for hungry children. The closer we get to the next election, the more important it is that those in the voluntary sector use their voice to demonstrate just what a failure ‘Big Society’ has been and campaign for a change in priority in the spending habits of our government. And I suggest they could start with reform of the asylum support system.

Please take one minute (literally) out of your day to get the Children's Society to contact your local MP on your behalf and encourage them to take action on this issue!

How many asylum seekers come to Britain?

This briefing sets out key facts and figures, as well as information gaps, relating to the number of asylum seekers applying to stay in the UK, who these asylum seekers are, how many are rejected, what the overall impacts of asylum seekers are on UK migration statistics and what happens to asylum seekers after their applications have been processed

How many asylum applicants does Britain receive compared to her European neighbors? This and more information in University of Oxford's Migration Observatory briefing on asylum.

End forced destitution

The asylum system often lets down young people and their families, leaving them vulnerable and forced to survive far below the poverty line. The recent parliamentary inquiry from the Children's Society uncovered the same situation for these vulnerable families. They described a situation that often leaves young people vulnerable and far below the poverty line, and the report called for the Home Office to make urgent changes to the asylum-support system.

Please join us the Children's Society in demanding change, so that no child, no matter where they are from, ever has to suffer inhumanely. The link below explains more and provides an easy way for you to contact your MP.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Pancake Day

On the 11th of February, Leeds City of Sanctuary hosted an insightful evening reflecting on their work 2012, and how our community can make even more of an impact in 2013. Everyone from all walks of life enjoyed tasting pancakes from all over the world, whilst listening to stories about how the charity helps people who are seeking safety in Leeds. The event provided an opportunity to discover all of the different projects that help refugees with a variety of issues, such as the ‘Welcome to Leeds Project’. Leeds City of Sanctuary also works with all generations and ages, seen by the School of Sanctuary Awards. There was an opportunity to listen to presentations by school children and how they too help make Leeds a friendly and understanding place. Through attending the event, all of the members got to contribute their ideas on how the charity can make a further impact in our society. The pancake event highlighted to everyone, all of the small acts that people can do in their everyday lives to make refugees welcome in our city.

By Sophie Dermaux

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Speaking Together media award

Announcement of the shortlist 

On International Women’s Day 8 March 2013, as part of the Migrant and Refugee Woman of the Year award celebration at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Women for Refugee Women are launching an award for outstanding media coverage of women and migration.

 The judges looked particularly at the way in which the work covered women and migration, the effort the journalist had made to discover new facts and stories, how first person accounts had been used and if the work challenged myths and stereotypes. The shortlisted articles provide a great example of some good reporting - see

Winners will be announced on 8 March.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Syrian students face problems here in the UK

The appalling scenes from Syria have become a regular feature on our TV screens and in our newspapers but can this impact on people here in the UK, here in Leeds?
Concerns have been raised about the problems posed for Syrians currently studying in the UK as the crisis in their homeland continues. With the Syrian  Embassy in London closed and financial restrictions taking their toll in Syria, these students are at risk of losing their funding for courses they have already invested considerable time, effort and money in. There are signs that the relevant bodies are aware of their plight but the information is confusing.The government has said they will address the issue but asks the universities to help.Universities say they are helping but ask UKBA to do their part.UKBA say they have addressed the issue but only until March while well known online campaigners Avaaz claim “some students have already been expelled” and highlighted the dangers that these students face well beyond not managing to finish their studies. 

 The various statements are conflicting. It seems the only thing that is certain is the uncertainty Syrian students in the UK are facing.
For me, this issue has a very personal resonance because of the friendship and excellent working relationship I established during my recent spell at Leeds Metropolitan University. It was there I met Bilal Souda with whom I worked successfully and happily on many projects. As well as studying together we shared duties as Course Representatives, being responsible for conveying the views and opinions of all our colleagues from home and abroad.
I wasn’t alone in sharing in his company and contributions, far from it. He was seen promoting the university on their social media sites,  was a member of numerous sports clubs and societies, travelling to Lincolnshire and London as well as promoting harmony and cultural exchange in Leeds.
Bilal has now left the UK but has chosen not to pursue his career as an English teacher and instead works to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey.  He may not feel able to return to Syria where he risks the possibility of being “arrested by the Syrian intelligence”, and his family had to help with payments for his studies but, compared to others, he is one of the lucky ones. Of course there are many people in much worse situations in Syria itself but there are also others here in Leeds who, as Bilal explains, are afraid of  “the Syrian government even [if] they were already away from Syria, especially [if] they don't know if they can stay here after they finish their studies.”
If this situation is not addressed conclusively then not only do we risk losing the valuable contributions these educated, motivated members of our society can make but, astonishingly, they could actually feel punished for attempting to share knowledge and understanding. The problems in Syria are an international problem, one that we in the UK have a responsibility to address within, as well as beyond, our own boundaries.