Islington and the Refugee Crisis
Islington and the Refugee Crisis: The Islington Refugee Centre’s Struggle to Survive
In the latest instalment of our special series on the refugee crisis, Daria Casalini discovers how the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants helps those fleeing persecution and why its future seems so uncertain…
An asylum seeker who fled his country has just arrived in the UK. Here, £5.28 per day is all the cash support he will receive from the government until he is granted the status of refugee.
This decision can take months, a period of time in which the asylum seeker doesn’t have the right to work. That is why places like the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants are so important in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, where £5.28 a day is not enough for food, sanitation and clothing.
Thanks to its educational classes (which cover everything from English to the arts), hot meals, clothes and counselling services, about 190 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers regard the centre as their home.
Today, an art class is taking place. An Eritrean woman stands up and shows the rest of the class what she has just sketched: a red house standing under a dark sky. “This is my house back in my country before it was destroyed, but it also represents my ideal house, a safe place where I want to live.”
There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ students in this class – every drawing is applauded at the centre. All the participants are wrapped up in heavy winter coats because the heating inside the building is not working.
Once open from Monday – Friday, the centre now operates just one day a week, after the Waltham Forest College, the centre’s main source of income, decided to cut the funds, posing a serious challenge for both its staff and the refugee community.
“In July 2014, I was called in to be told that we would no longer be funded as part of WFC adult skills budget provision,” says Andy Ruiz Palma, chief executive of the Islington Centre charity.
“We are trying very hard to get more funding so that we can open at least two days a week,” says Anya Paul, project worker and English teacher at the centre. Anya has been working here for 15 years and everyone knows her. She does not lower her guard for a second, her vigliant eyes always focused on what is going on in the room.
“The biggest problem for these people may change from day to day, but I would say that there are lots of people who have a very sad housing problem because they can’t stay where they are.”
In a corner of the room, a young man aged 25 is drawing the French flag. He wants to write the words ‘Pray for Paris’ – “I’ve got a lot of friends in Paris,” he says – but cannot find any black pencils.
His name is Fabianus and he comes from Congo. After fleeing there as a teenager, Fabianus went to Morocco to study Business and Management, but he did not finish the course.
“The problems I had at home followed me in Morocco, so I left and I came here eight months ago.” He joined the Centre as an asylum seeker to improve his English and socialise. “What I want the most is studying at university here, doing something with my life. I really hope the government will accept me.”
Refugees account for 25 per cent of the guests, while asylum seekers (i.e. those who have yet to successfully apply for refugee status) account for 33 per cent. This means that these migrants, most of whom have fled their countries to escape persecution, make up the majority of the Centre’s community.
“I think London is a very welcoming and multi-cultural city,” says Anya. “I would like to think that the city is doing enough, but one of the things that always strikes me is that we have people who travel an awful long way to get here. Yesterday we had a lady who travelled from Kent. It took her two and a half hours to come here because there was nothing else closer.”
By the end of 2014, according to the UNHCR Asylum Trends Report, the UK received 31,300 new applications for asylum. Germany and the US received 173,100 and 121,200 requests respectively, making them the year’s largest recipient countries.
In the case of UK immigrants, the top three countries of origin were Eritrea (3,568), Pakistan (2,302) and Syria (2,204). Last year, after more than 30 years of the position being held by Afghanistan, Syria became the world’s top source country for refugees.
The Centre is currently aiming to reach £30,000 of donations. At the moment, in part thanks to a donation campaign led by the actress Julia Stevenson (pictured above), they have reached £22,000. “We’re doing quite well but we haven’t hit the target yet,” says Andy.
“Many of these clients attend the classes on a weekly basis and view the Centre as a place where they can be themselves in the knowledge that there is always a listening ear and someone who cares where and how they are. If it had to shut down, it would be a great loss for everyone here.”