A 350-STRONG conference in support of refugees took place in Manchester last Saturday. Suresh Grover from the National Civil Rights Movement summed up the mood at the opening session. He said:
'This government has seen the most draconian, racist legislation and practice against asylum seekers. This is something we didn't even witness under the Tories.' Campaigning lawyer Louise Christian praised the conference, saying, 'I've enjoyed every single minute. I've got new confidence to go on campaigning. 'We should take the momentum forward from this conference.'
Refugee support groups, activists, asylum seekers and their families, and workers in refugee support services all packed into the rallies and workshops. The lively workshops included discussions on detention centres, deportation, dispersal of refugees, challenging the media, and the threat of the Nazis in the local elections.
Campaigner Emma Ginn spoke about the scandal around the fire at the Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedford in January. The Home Office has admitted deporting an 'unknown' number of refugees from Yarls Wood. Many of these may have revealing information about the fire. Around 70 refugees have been moved to prisons since the fire.
Emma said, 'The government has said the people they have moved to prison have a violent history. It's simply not true. They are being made scapegoats.' Gabriel Nkwelle described his experience of being in nine detention centres since he arrived in Britain just over two years ago:
'The newspapers have called Yarls Wood a 'luxury hotel'. This shocks me a lot. The Home Office and Immigration Service are guilty of inhuman acts and violence behind closed doors.'
Liverpool council worker Bayo Omiyola spoke of how he had just won a court ruling to stay in Britain after a nine-year battle.
'When I got a deportation order back to Nigeria in 1995 it was about the same time as Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others were executed in that country. I shared many of his ideas. I felt it could be me-after all, he was more famous than me and they killed him. Now I feel it is my duty to give other people under threat of deportation some hope.'
Speakers throughout the conference stressed how crucial local campaigns were to challenging New Labour's attacks on refugees. Successes include forcing the government to shut Campsfield detention centre, and 50 people who were rescued from planes ready to deport them. Delegates voted for a national demonstration in London in support of refugees on 22 June. This is around the anniversary of the 58 Chinese people who suffocated in the back of a lorry in Dover trying to get into Britain. The demonstration will follow a week of action over local campaigns.