ABOUT 180 people packed in to a lecture theatre for a stunningly successful annual meeting of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre.
The guests at the Coventry University venue included Coventry’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Michael Hammon, city councillors, academics, religious leaders, members of the public, clients of the CRMC, and staff and volunteers at the charity.
The speakers included the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, and Sabir Zazai, Director of the CRMC. And after the business of the AGM was over, the audience was treated to a lecture, “Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis”, from Professor Heaven Crawley, of the university’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.
Opening the event, Tim Godwin, chair of the CRMC, said that even his career in policing had not prepared him for the tragic stories he heard from the charity’s clients.
“I am humbled to listen to some of the stories of our clients – people who have had everything taken away from them, and have found a new home in Coventry.”
He paid tribute to the work of the CRMC’s staff and volunteers, and to the outpouring of generosity from the people of Coventry.
“We have got the ingredients here to pull people together and to offer hope,” he added.
Sabir Zazai, CRMC Director, paid his own tribute to the CRMC staff, volunteers, board members, language teachers, and supporters.
Sabir, who was himself a refugee from Afghanistan, said the evening was celebrating what was great about Coventry.
“I never dreamt of a day when I would be reporting on the activities of an organisation that once welcomed me to this city – but in Coventry that is possible, because in Coventry we don’t only give people sanctuary, we encourage them to play an active and fuller role in our society.
“My journey as a refugee, and that of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, would not have been possible without the support and dedication of the selfless and hardworking team of people at the Centre who are working against all odds to make sure that the welcome Coventry extends to newly arrived people is sustained.
“To help people on a journey that I have taken is a source of great pride to me and it motivates me every time I walk through the doors of our offices; every time I wave at a former refugee who is now a taxi driver; every time I am greeted by a refugee who has now set up a shop, or drives a bus, and every time I meet someone who has just arrived and is working to set up their lives in our city.”
Sabir said 2015 had seen significant changes for the CRMC . The profile of the charity had improved, and enquiries about volunteering, and invitations to talk at events and conferences, and donations, had all increased. The CRMC was now a key part of Coventry’s reputation as a city that welcomed and supported refugees.
But the organisation was still led by its original values and principles: To welcome and meet the needs of refugees, to support their integration, and to help them rebuild lives shattered by war and conflict so they could contribute fully to the life of Coventry.
He said in 2015, the CRMC offered 1,369 appointments to 260 vulnerable refugees; 150 homeless people were helped; 614 employment support sessions were held, and 1,453 students were taught English thanks to just 20 volunteers running the ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) programme.
He told the audience: “The vision for the future is that we work in partnership with other organisations to meet the needs of refugees, but more importantly, for the CRMC to become a bold and ambitious organisation – one that will support refugees locally with a national and international impact. To do this well, we need your support on this journey.”
Professor Heaven Crawley’s detailed and often passionate lecture was aimed at highlighting the complexities behind the Mediterranean refugee crisis, how those complexities have become submerged under a single narrative pushed by much of the country’s media, and how that single narrative has become the basis of government policy.
Some of the details were harrowing: She said over a million people had crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe but during 2015, at least 3,771 people died during the crossing.
“That is certainly a gross underestimate,” she said. “Bodies get washed up – sometimes they are counted, sometimes they are not.”
She said border closures in Europe had contributed to a growing humanitarian crisis: “Large numbers of people are stuck in Greece on the border with Macedonia. They are stuck in the mud, literally, while governments work out what to do with them.”
She said that in 2015, the vast majority of refugees came from conflict zones, and over 50 per cent were Syrian. So although they were clearly refugees with a right to protection, their story was framed as a migrant crisis, and government policies were based on “push and pull factors”.
The push factor – escape from violence – was clearly very strong, but what of the pull factors?
Prof Crawley said her investigations as part of a university research project called MEDMIG, showed that of a sample of 500 refugees, two-thirds had a secondary school or university education, and 72 per cent had jobs before making their journey.
“This chips away at the idea that people are coming for work,” she said.
But she added: “These are human beings with mixed motivations. They may want to escape violence, but they also want to end up in a place where they can rebuild their lives.”
The MEDMIG researches were aimed at understanding the “back stories” of refugees and the different journeys they undertook, she said. But government policy was focused on the journey to Europe and the role of so-called people smugglers.
She added that failures of policy reflected assumptions made about why and how people were on the move, without understanding the back stories. A policy of deterrence would simply drive demand for the services of smugglers. There was a need for nuanced, tailored and targeted policy responses which reflected the diverse and complicated flows of people.
For more on the work of Prof Crawley and her research project go to http://www.medmig.co.uk/
For the Bishop of Coventry’s speech, see separate story.