Bristol Area Meeting Conference
Forced migration: some causes and consequences

Saturday 14 October 2023,  Redland Meeting House

Forced Migration is once again centre-stage in politics and the media, and the aim of the October Area Meeting Conference was to provide information and a platform for discussion. Now is a good time to revisit some core issues.

Bristol Quakers have supported refugees and asylum seekers for many years. Friends have contributed towards the work of active local organisations and our Area Meeting will soon complete purchase of a refugee house, to be leased and managed by ACH (a refugee-led company providing housing and support services to people recently granted refugee status).

Three local speakers opened discussion on the causes of migration; government policy responses; and local efforts to build a City of Sanctuary.
Speakers: Helen Kidan (Bristol Hospitality Network), Jo Benefield (Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers), Susana Askew (Bristol City of Sanctuary).

The text of Helen Kidan’s talk is available here. Helen has also provided links to some of the resources used to prepare her talk:
1. CEDAW Report: click here
2. List of articles on EMDHR website: click here

Report on conference, 14th October 2023

Around 35 people, many but not all Quakers, gathered in a sunny Redland meeting room for this half-day conference organised by our Area Meeting QPSW Group.  Most of us went away having learned a great amount from the three speakers and discussions, and energised to get more involved.  

Helen Kidan (Bristol Hospitality Network) focussed on the causes of forced migration, largely a complex combination of politics, climate and conflict.   For example, in the Horn of Africa, tree-felling during civil war in Eritrea led to desertification, and construction of a huge dam in Ethiopia has worsened tensions over water availability downstream in Egypt and Sudan.  Disempowerment and lack of compensation has led to loss of livelihood in the areas affected.  Many thousands have migrated within and out of the region.  Refugees are often vulnerable to trafficking and may be tracked by their governments once abroad, with dangerous repercussions for family still in their home country.  The UK needs to address its lack of vetting of translators and others working with refugees.   

Jo Benefield (pictured, Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers) described the UK government’s migration policies and their impact over the years.  They have tended to favour white people of the old colonies and whilst keeping people of colour out.  The most recent legislation has been the Nationality & Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023.  The backlog of asylum applicants in the UK is now over 170,000 which is ten times the number in 2014.  Whilst waiting for a decision, asylum seekers cannot work or get social support and receive only a small allowance.  There is much misrepresentation in the media over those arriving in small boats:  the 45,000 arriving in the UK in 2022 is small compared with the overall numbers.  Asylum seekers would use legal routes if they existed.  It is estimated that 3 in 4 channel-crossers would be accepted if their claims were processed. 

Susana Askew described the work of Bristol City of Sanctuary. Bristol City council became a Council of Sanctuary in 2012, and Bristol City of Sanctuary became a charity in 2017, with the aim that Bristol should be a place of welcome.  Their work is mainly with organisations not directly involved with refugees such as schools, churches and companies.   The three-step process provides knowledge of how and why refugees are here; how to embed a culture of welcome in the organisation; and sharing strategies with others.   In Bristol there are 16 schools of sanctuary with 10 more in the process.  There has been success at the two Universities, with Bristol University providing 80 scholarships since 2017 worth £4million.  The charity is also campaigning for asylum seekers’ right to work and against NHS chasing payments, and they run a transport fund to help with bus fares.  The Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership BRASP provides an umbrella for local organisations.  

Summarising some outcomes from our discussions:  

  • How to respond?  Campaign against punishing regulations; and provide practical help to asylum seekers and refugees.  In the longer term, think big – refugees are a benefit, many are young, and migration is inevitable.  
  • How could Bristol be more welcoming?  Help create homes. Publicise volunteering opportunities for asylum seekers and for the public.  
  • What if climate migrants were given legal sanction?  Numbers of climate migrants will inevitably increase.  We all have a role to respond.  
  • Connections between climate justice and support for forced migrants?  We need to change the narrative, recognising human dignity.  Politics and economics are big drivers.  
  • Adaptation by wealthier countries rather than trying to prevent forced migration?  Help people stay in their own countries if possible.  Here, adaptation to refugees will mean sharing cultures, language fluency and avoiding ghettos.  Education of all to improve understanding and reduce resentment. 
Other resources: “Nomad Century – How to Survive the Climate Upheaval” by Gaia Vince (paperback)
Gillian Smith, Bedminster Meeting