27 Sep 2015

The Refugee Crisis; the Stroud Coffee House Discussion

The dark, drizzly September evening didn’t put off around 100 supporters gathering in Stroud to answer a crucial question; what can we do about the refugee crisis?

On Wednesday 23rd September people from Stroud crammed in to the Imperial Hotel for a discussion organised by Amnesty International mid-counties and Stroud District Green Party, to answer that important question;

·         What is already being done in Gloucestershire?
·         What are the needs?
·         What can we do here in Stroud?
·         How can we change the rhetoric from ‘keep out’ to ‘welcome’?
·          What should we be demanding of our MP and the government?

Imperial Hotel, Stroud, crammed with supporters

How have we ended up with so many people seeking safety?

The evening kicked off with a lively and interesting discussion from Judith Large, Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Conflict Analysis Resolution, University of Kent, about how we have come to the current situation in which half of the Syrian population has become displaced. The desperate situation began with what was initially a popular uprising in Syria but soon spun in to an international issue because of a dictator who refused to budge from power; President Bashar al-Assad.

One of the most heard about results of the conflict in Syria are the significant advances and abuses carried out by the so called ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS. Since 2013 ISIS have made strong advances in Syria and Iraq and none of us strangers to the news of the various atrocities that they have inflicted.

From the outset the US have supported the Syrian rebels opposing President Assad, initially with food and supplies but then moving on to training and arming them. From 2014 a US-led coalition, of which the UK is a part, has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS.

Between the brutality of the Assad regime, the barbarity of ISIS and the bombardment by the US-led coalition, Syrian civilians, regular folk like you and me, have become terrified for their lives. More than four million people have packed up and left in fear for their safety.

The question Judith Large left for those gathered in Stroud to wonder was; is the use of force really the answer to a problem caused by a use of force?

Climate change

An interesting point raised from the floor was the impact of climate change on the current refugee crisis.

The worst drought to strike the country in modern times had gripped Syria in the years leading up to uprising in 2011. Researchers were able to draw one of the strongest links yet between climate change and human conflict;

They cited studies that showed that the extreme dryness, combined with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies of the Syrian government, caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. This in turn added to social stresses that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

Our government is taking an embarrassingly inadequate approach to the refugee crisis in general, as I will go on to explain, but this adds yet another dynamic to that woeful response. The Conservatives have taken a full scale assault against the climate at an extraordinary pace, killing off many of the existing green policies in the UK.

Stroud MP, Neil Carmichael has demonstrated a real ignorance for the environment during his time in office, voting against many measures and in support of fracking; as covered in this blog previously.

Action in Gloucestershire and Stroud

The swell of action from the people of Stroud has been astounding. An article in the Guardian on 5th September described how locals had offered to open up their homes to refugees. Stroud District Green Party played their part by writing an open letter calling for Stroud to take it’s fair share of refugees. The Stroud News and Journal reported how District councillors, John Marjoram and Martin Whiteside, County Councillor Sarah Lunnon, Stroud Town Mayor Kevin Cranston and Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato had used the letter to indicate that Stroud could take just 10 refugees to have a fair share of the 40,000 refugees which the EU will need to resettle over the next 2 years.

Some of the most impressive action locally has come from the facebook groups as Jeannie Etherton passionately explained to all of us assembled in Stroud on Wednesday. These groups have been very far from being ‘just a talking shop’ and have in fact been the main mechanism for local people to combine and coordinate their stunning efforts.

There are two main facebook groups that Jeannie discussed, the first being Stroud2Calais – Refugee Support which started as a group to get donations to ‘the Jungle’ in Calais but has moved to more widely supporting refugees entering Europe. They have now raised £2607 in one week to go to a fundraiser purchasing tents for refugees.

Jeannie explained how this group has joined up with the other incredible group Stroud Supporting Calais Refugees. Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of the kindly people of Stroud this group have collected an unimaginable amount of donations in to two large shipping containers to take to Calais; the collection has now ended because they simply cannot take any more donations.

Collecting the donations for these groups and raising the funds has taken an enormous amount of work and energy by local people volunteering their time and working tirelessly.

It is so terribly important that we do all that we can. Not only are the conditions in Calais ‘appalling’, as described by the charity Doctors of the World, but to make matters worse there have been reports that the French authorities have recently moved in with bulldozers and tear gas against the camp.

Judith Large 

Next to speak at the Coffee Discussion was Adele Owen from Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers or GARAS. Adele explained that GARAS work with people seeking asylum in Gloucestershire and how recently their work has been thrown in to the forefront of the public’s consciousness because of the current crisis.

The government have proposed that they will take the embarrassingly low amount of just 20,000 refugees over 5 years and Adele explained how this represents only 0.2% of those people who have left Syria. However refugees are still coming from many other countries, including Afghanistan (the setting for a previous military intervention from the West that you might remember).

Furthermore the plan from David Cameron is to help only those refugees still in Syria and not any of the people currently on the move or already in the awful conditions in Calais. This plan is very ill thought out and will not, as Cameron has argued, encourage people to keep away from the EU.

In the discussion it was noted how the government, some media and other sources appear to deliberately blur the language used when referring to the current situation by interchangeably using the words ‘immigrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’. The discussion raised how Neil Carmichael MP has seemed intent on muddying the waters in this way whilst towing the government line that they are doing enough and will not do any more to help.

GARAS are now working with Gloucester City Council and the County Council to arrange the all important programme of response to the current situation. It is crucial to have structures in place with health, social services and education to ensure that the people who come out of the crisis to our county get the best support that we can give.

Not a single seat left.

What next?

Once refugees start arriving in Gloucestershire, and hopefully Stroud, Adele Owens said that the current groundswell of support will be crucial in assisting individuals and families to settle. Help will be needed to prepare and kit out houses with basics such as TV’s and simple home comforts. There will be a continued need for donations and for donations of appropriate food.

People settling afresh here will need locals to help them get familiar with the area, to help with learning English and support with accessing local amenities and services.
We need to keep the movement going. We need to keep our hearts open.
Adele’s message was that we are all human first.

Local Amnesty International members explained that it was crucial for as many people as possible to continue to put pressure on the government to take adequate action, particularly by writing to your MP. You can write to Neil Carmichael, MP for Stroud District, by writing to;

           Neil Carmichael MP
House of Commons

You can also contact him through his website http://www.neilcarmichael.co.uk/contact

It would also be very good if you could send copies of letters/emails that you send to the local press to help raise the profile of the crisis locally.

Talk to your neighbour

In my opinion one of the simplest and yet boldest suggestions made at the evening event in Stroud was made by a woman standing near me in the throng of the discussion. It is my regret that I did not have the chance to get her name, so if you know her, or you are her, please let me know if she would like to be credited properly.

This woman passionately explained that one of the most important things that we can all do is to speak to our neighbours. We can challenge attitudes that we meet that might be misguided or else discriminatory. There is a lot of misinformation out there, as with blurring of the terms of ‘immigrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ for a political purpose. There is a lot of hate out there with certain groups looking to capitalise on people’s fears of immigration.

We can counteract this by putting an alternative message out there, by painting the picture of what is really happening and by cutting through the myths and confusion; that we can afford, in every sense of the word, to do more.

Talk to your neighbour. With compassion and with love, show everyone you can that the most important thing to do in light of the current crisis is to open your heart.


I note that I have not really credited people directly and have probably unfairly skimmed over individuals and groups who have done awesome work locally. I apologise for this but suffer from the limitations of writing inbetween the normal hustle and bustle of life; which for me includes a very energetic 15 month old! Please post about anyone you think has been important in the comments and include any links that are relevant


Martin Whiteside said...

Excellent summary Alex, many thanks. For people who want a clear explanation about the crisis in Syria that has led to many people fleeing, particularly if you want to brief yourself before talking to your neighbours, friends and work colleagues can I recommend the short animation

Alex Lodge said...

Thanks Martin, really excellent video.