True or false?

During Refugee Week Fay Young of Leith Open Space Group joined an information session organised by Edinburgh Refugee Centre. This is the first part of her report.

We sat at tables in small groups grappling with questions. What exactly is an asylum seeker? Where do most refugees come from? What is a migrant worker? Can there be an illegal asylum seeker?

The words matter. Dispelling myths was one of the aims of the Information session organised by Edinburgh Refugee Centre with the Scottish Refugee Council during Refugee Week. There is a lot of fear and confusion surrounding words like asylum seeker and refugee.

We were a mixed bunch – from voluntary organisations and public bodies, including two uniformed police officers – who met in St Georges West Church in Edinburgh to gain accurate information about rights and entitlements of asylum seekers.

But first the definitions. Across the table from me is a young man who turns out to be a psychologist. He spends much of his time treating traumatised asylum seekers, many of them suffering from the added anxiety of HIV plus the uncertainty of not knowing whether they can stay in Scotland. Perhaps not surprisingly his definition of asylum seeker is pretty much spot on: ‘someone who has arrived in the country, made themselves known to the authorities and exercised the legal right to claim asylum’.

A refugee, therefore, is a successful asylum seeker – someone who has been granted the right to stay either first time round or – since 80% of applications are refused at first – after appeal. A migrant is someone who has come to this country on a visa to work. And, as Jamie Spurway of the Scottish Refugee Council name makes clear, there can never be any such thing as an ‘illegal asylum seeker’ – when he sees that term in a newspaper he knows the rest of the story is not worth reading.

Many of the people at today’s workshop are refugees. I am sitting next to a woman from Palestine who helps me name the countries on the map where most refugees come from (to name but five: Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq). And why. Civil war, rape, religious persecution, ethnic oppression, political repression, tribal conflict, government corruption – these are the main causes why people are forced to flee their native land.

In such a complicated world it is increasingly difficult to fit 21st Century refugees into the definition laid down by the United Nations in 1951 – a refugee is someone unable to return to their country because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Rape as a weapon of war is not included.

A morning’s workshop doesn’t answer all questions but the interest and concern in an Edinburgh church hall is heartwarming. We leave with news of many more information sessions to come.

For more information about future workshops and training courses visit the Scottish Refugee Council website.

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