If you knew of someone who had fled their home in fear of their life would you extend the hand of friendship? Sheena Grant meets a woman dedicated to challenging the misconceptions that can kill compassion

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FOUR years ago Melissa Day met a refused asylum seeker from Zimbabwe whose story had such a profound effect on her that it no longer seemed possible to continue living quite as she had done before.

The man, who had been a primary school teacher in Zimbabwe but fled after being attacked by supporters of dictator Robert Mugabe, had been detained at an immigration removal centre near Heathrow.

“He went on hunger strike in protest at the removal of Zimbabweans who were being sent back to face Mugabe’s regime,” she says. “When he was taken to hospital he was wheeled to the ambulance in handcuffs. He was put on life support for nine days as his organs were failing – with three officers guarding him 24 hours a day. This treatment shocked me. I was appalled at how an innocent person seeking sanctuary was being treated as if they were a criminal.

“Before this I was ignorant about the issue of asylum seekers. Like a lot of people, I was only aware of how asylum seekers were often depicted – scroungers flooding our streets and taking our jobs. Meeting someone who was willing to share their story made me see things differently.”

Melissa, who had met the man through a friend who was a volunteer visitor at the immigration removal centre, returned to Suffolk and set about trying to change the way asylum seekers and refugees are perceived. After staging an awareness-raising event locally, she came across something called the City of Sanctuary movement, which had started in Sheffield in 2005. She founded a group in Suffolk aimed at making Ipswich a Town of Sanctuary, a place with a commitment to welcoming the asylum seekers housed there by the Government’s Border Agency.

It’s not always been easy. As well as support from politicians Chris Mole and current Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, actress Juliet Stevenson and John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, Melissa, who is still only in her 20s, has also received hostile reactions from people with entrenched attitudes.

But this week marks a real milestone for the Sanctuary movement. On Wednesday Ipswich Borough Council passed a cross-party resolution of support, aimed at countering misunderstanding and promoting tolerance and respect towards asylum seekers.

“It’s a real opportunity,” she says. “Offering a hand of welcome and helping to create a safe and inclusive community is even more significant and important in Ipswich as it is a designated dispersal area for people seeking sanctuary. Between 2006 and 2010, 214 asylum seekers have been housed in Ipswich through UK Border Agency.”

Ipswich is one of about 20 towns and cities across the UK with a Sanctuary group. Some are charities; some are run by volunteers like Melissa, who juggles her Sanctuary commitment with her day job. She wants people to understand that being known as a place of sanctuary will not mean asylum seekers flocking to the Ipswich area in ever-increasing numbers. They can’t. Where they end up depends on the dispersal area they are allocated by the Border Agency.

“What we would like to achieve is more understanding around the issue of asylum so that people can start to build relationships,” she says. “When I first introduced the Sanctuary idea to Ipswich in 2009 a lot of the comments from members of the public were very prejudiced. Some people said asylum seekers were taking our jobs or taking our houses. In fact, asylum seekers are not allowed to work and only get temporary housing. Others said they were taking our benefits when actually they don’t have access to benefits. They have food vouchers. These are the types of things people need to get a greater understanding of, so there is more compassion.”

It’s especially difficult to get that message across in the current economic climate. Recession often makes people who are themselves facing adversity look for someone else to blame. All too often this can be anyone perceived as an outsider – a “foreigner” – whatever their background.

“This country has a long tradition of offering sanctuary. We are looking for the community to take pride in offering a place of safety to people whose lives are threatened,” she says. “People often say we are not a big island. That’s true, but we do have a lot of people emigrating as well. We are not a static population.”

Another of the “myths” she wants to explode is that most asylum seekers end up in developed countries.

“It is actually poorest countries that take the largest numbers of the world’s refugees. The UK has just 2%.”

According to national figures from Migration Watch, two thirds of asylum seekers get refused asylum when they first apply, often because they do not have the required evidence. Life for refused asylum seekers is particularly hard.

“They usually appeal or make a fresh claim, but will be homeless with no rights until that claim is processed,” says Melissa. “Looking at the official figures for the numbers of asylum seekers housed in Ipswich through UK Border Agency, it suggests that at least 160 individuals locally have faced or are facing homelessness and destitution. Refused asylum seekers may be sofa-surfing or sleeping on the streets.

“I feel passionately about this. But I never go out with the thought that I can change anyone’s opinion. I think that is something that happens when people are in contact with each other. Once the barriers are broken down there is no fear. People realise that the people they have feared are actually very vulnerable. That is when the magic happens.”

For more information visit www.cityofsanctuary.org/ipswich

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