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Sanctuary in Senedd 3rd April 2019

This annual event sponsored on this occasion by Julie James AM from Swansea was a great opportunity to hear about several recent pieces of research, to hear from both the First Minister and Deputy Minister of Wales about their commitment to making Wales a Nation of Sanctuary and to listen to moving testimony from experts by experience. Some background facts here. It was also good to have the chance to catch up with friends such as Thanuja, Hisham and  Helen from Swansea, Ruth and Harry from Abergavenny, Lee and Shona from TGP Cymru, Eva from Newport, Meg from the Powys Syrian Family Resettlement scheme, William, Talgarth County Councillor and long term supporter, and to share some thoughts and time with our own AM Kirsty Williams. The coffee break and lunch were  good networking sessions.

Sanctuary in the Senedd 2019 provided  an opportunity to celebrate the contribution that asylum seekers and refugees make within Welsh communities, a chance to celebrate the welcome offered to sanctuary seekers by Welsh communities and for the voices of refugees and asylum seekers to be heard at the heart of power in Wales. The event  explored how far we have come on our journey towards becoming a Nation of Sanctuary. and gave Assembly Members and attendees an opportunity to hear directly from refugees and asylum seekers living in Wales. A website giving information about services, sources of support and advice  for people seeking sanctuary is being developed with a view to being launched at the end of April.

Many people talked about the long term Welsh welcome of strangers and the need to listen to the issues faced by people seeking sanctuary and to respond to what can be done on a national level whilst trying to encourage a kinder response from the Home Office. An example of this was a new agreement with Clearsprings the accommodation provider for people seeking asylum. This is hoping to minimise moves which are so disruptive . Several people talked about the great privilege we have to meet so many people with such different life experiences and to be able to form a cohesive, inclusive community. Rocio Cifuentes,Chair of the Welsh Refugee Coalition, introduced her father to present Mark Drakeford the First Minister with a Welsh map with messages of welcome. He said ‘this is our country that welcomes the world” and talked about how he and his family had had to flee from Chile 40 years ago and had found a new home in Swansea where he worked as a professor at the university and he was now proud to see his daughter doing so much to help people like themselves.


Dr Gill Richardson from Public Health Wales presented some findings from recent research on the health experiences of Asylum seekers and refugees in Wales. This work has shown that Health professionals lacked resources, time  and knowledge and that many people seeking asylum didn’t really understand the NHS. Most had contact with Primary care but many didn’t know about out of hours services and a particular issue was around both the stigma many  attached to mental health services and the difficulty in accessing these particularly with language constraints. Solutions  suggested  were improved access to translation / interpretation services ,  increased knowledge  in health professionals about some of the issues faced by people seeking Sanctuary , provision of information about health services and health literacy in peoples own languages ,  provision of trauma informed Mental Health services, improved continuity of care [ hard when people are shifted randomly around the country] and improved access to English language tuition. It was also mentioned that people needed to have sufficient money for buses etc to be able to access these services .

Rosie Wallbank from The Equality and Human Rights Commission talked about human rights and health care and how this applies to people seeking and refused asylum. She mentioned how peoples’ asylum case often takes precedence over their health whilst often impacting adversely upon their health. People seeking asylum may also perceive barriers and be fearful that personal data may be used against them and staff may not be aware of the rules. Basic humanity was emphasised as important in trying to improve peoples health experience. As was trying to ensure that people were able to look after their health, could buy sufficient food and not have to miss out food in order to buy medicines Next week a document will be launched ‘The Heath care access guide for people seeking asylum.

Jo Hopkins from Public Health Wales spoke about research on Adverse childhood experiences and their impact upon mental health in the future. Equally severe trauma at any age has a bearing upon mental health.  Adverse environmental/community  issues such as discrimination, community disruption, poor housing, violence together with adverse experiences such as abuse, maternal depression or homelessness  combine to impact upon subsequent mental health. She talked  about research about building resilience by having a stable adult child relationship, ensuring the person feels that  they can overcome an issue, that they are equipped to manage behaviour and have an opportunity to develop skills and  that they are involved and connected to their community. She suggested asking ‘what happened to’ you rather than ‘what is wrong with’ you as this may help to understand better the context of the person’s illness. A trauma informed approach realises  the prevalence of trauma, recognises how it affects people, helps to resist re-traumatising and by building trust, giving choice and encouraging collaboration this empowers the individual.  Clearsprings and the Home Office have apparently agreed to train their staff upon the effects of trauma and ways to help traumatised individuals.

Sian Summers Rees and Holly Taylor talked about asylum rights and Asylum Justice. The Welsh Refugee Council has an Asylum Rights Programme and will help people when these have been violated as well as providing advocacy, information and advice. Asylum Justice is a charity that is the only organisation in Wales, and one of the last remaining in the United Kingdom, to provide free legal representation for asylum seekers up to court level. They take pride in fighting for the rights of those affected by wars and persecution. Sian took the opportunity to talk about the asylum seeking journey and  issues that arise. 1 make a claim as soon as possible- if not this will count against the individual. [ however people aren’t born knowing the system and may be scared of authority] 2 Make sure the substantive interview is as full and accurate as possible – anything not disclosed will be treated as probably untrue [ hard when you don’t speak the language and may be traumatised and scared] 3 Legal aid is only available if on a merits base there is deemed to be a more than 50% chance of success. 4 if you are refused you have a short  time to appeal or make a fresh claim. And how do you get fresh evidence?  Asylum Justice has a high success rate and provide advice and legal service for free but don’t take on cases that they don’t think that they will succeed in…

Personal Testimony  from people seeking asylum was extremely thought  provoking and moving . A Syrian man who had been  settled in Carmarthen thanked the Welsh community for taking him in and said how he felt he was among family .

George talked about his difficulty in accessing Level 4 training due to the fees that he can’t afford. He has been able whilst he is an asylum seeker to access level 3 courses [ and has taken and passed 3] but would like to go into more detail and can’t. His wife has been refused any level 3 course as she is ‘ over qualified already’ but also can’t take a level 4 course as she can’t afford the fees. He has also not been able to do voluntary work on a building site as he has been unable to afford the fee for a CSS card.[ about £60].

Larysa left barely a dry eye in the room when she also broke down whilst talking about arriving in a beautiful country with lovely people who she couldn’t understand initially . She said she felt comfortable  and safe but had brought a lot of bad memories with her. She talked about the impact upon her children who ‘ just want to be like the others in their class’  but can’t do many of the same things due to poverty.  ‘Its not their fault or mine that I don’t have the money and I’m not poor because I’m lazy but because I’m not allowed to work and have to be here to escape persecution.’  ‘ You only have one childhood’ . Still ‘you have to have darkness to see stars.’

She said what she was doing was ensuring the children had a good education  so they could be strong and ready for the future when they wouldn’t be a burden. She said how when her teachers told her about the value of an education she didn’t know what they meant but she now realised that no one could take it away from you and it is a good bit of baggage to carry with you. .She believed that one day she would be able to belong and ‘say thank you for keeping me safe  and allowing me to live here.’ She is a qualified teacher and has been in limbo for 5 years.

Press releases here and here give some additional details about this meeting.