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United Kingdom: Asylum seekers telling their stories

More and more refugee organizations are using online social media and asylum seekers’ own words in their advocacy work and outreach to donors. With these stories they are able to bypass, and/or complement their work with traditional media, and provide information directly to donors and advocacy groups.

Some examples:

“Four years ago I was living a busy life [in Cameroon], running my own business. Now I am in the UK, waiting to hear the result of my asylum case. The reason for my altered situation is that in my home country there is a lot of prejudice and harassment of people who are gay. It is illegal to have a homosexual relationship, and sentences range from a fine to five years imprisonment.”

  • The Refugee Council also features podcasts with women refugees involved with its Vulnerable Women’s project, available at this link.
  • Twitter: Anselme Noumbiwa from Cameroon has been using Twitter to draw attention to his case (http://twitter.com/anselmenoumbiwa). His story can be found here, on the ARDC website, but I wasn't able to establish exactly his current status. His last tweet was June 26, 2009, and his page indicates that while he had been released from the detention centre, his situation is still vulnerable. An example update from May 2009:

“Hi i am laying on the bed, watching TV and believe something will happen before the end of week.”

  • The Testimony Project. Newly launched, this is an extremely exciting endeavour. Testimony Project's Holly Pelham told me about its aims. Powerful film speaks above all else, she says. By showcasing various women's testimonies on film she hopes these cases will be picked up on by the world.
  • She sees the stories spreading via both traditional media brands, as well as social and online-only media. “One of the important things is for the project to find its own place,” Pelham says. “I want it to be able to grow organically. “You can see some of the first testimonies here. An extract from Mercy's, a victim to sexual and physical abuse in Kenya, before escaping to the UK.

    “I would rather die than go back to Kenya. I flew a thousand miles to be safe in this country, so if they take me back, it’s just like killing me. I’d rather die here tomorrow than go back there.”

    Another element to the project is the site's forum. Anonymous commenters have begun leaving requests for help. For example:

    “My solicitor has said that she can no longer represent me, I don't really understand why and she's not picking up the phone when I call. Where can I get free legal advice? Can anyone help me?”

    Someone else helps out below the post with links and information.

  • The Refugee Week Simple Acts campaign on Twitter and here on YouTube. Ben Matthews of Brightone.org.uk, a volunteer-run communications agency for the Third Sector, helped run it: “It was a great online campaign, using small actions across a number of social media platforms to raise awareness and participation in the campaign, leading up to the final event – Refugee Week itself. There were nearly 7,000 simple acts completed, which generated lots of interest on Twitter and numerous blog posts, as these in themselves were simple acts.”
  • “The Simple Acts campaign was about inspiring individuals to use small, everyday actions to change perceptions of refugees,” adds Gerdy Rees, online and marketing officer at Refugee Week UK. “It consisted of 20 actions that can be completed by anyone and that encouraged people to learn and do more with refugees. With every person who joined the campaign and did a small thing with and for refugees, we got a little closer to removing barriers between communities and to creating the kind of world we all want to live in. Every journey begins with a single step and it is with simple acts of kindness, generosity and empathy that we begin the change.”

So what are the problems these organisations face in publicising the stories?

It's not easy getting nuanced and accurate refugee and asylum stories to the attention of the public. In theory, access to the internet should allow asylum seekers communicate their personal stories themselves. But certain barriers are difficult to overcome.

“I am trying to develop ways of getting more refugee voices online, but computer access and language confidence and abilities can be a deterrent for many people,” says Kelly Arnstein from the Refugee Council.

For example, the Refugee Council ran a fundraising campaign where ordinary citizens (normally non-destitute) had to live on £1 a day. On their blog, one person raised the point that free internet access at the local library would be a bit tricky to organise if you weren't fluent in English, and really did have no money.

“We’re hoping to set up a blog for refugee volunteers who are working on an allotment project in Leeds later in the year– many people have been put off by thinking their English won’t be good enough,” says Arnstein.

Independent voices

As you can see, the list is formed mainly of examples that have gone through the filter of an ‘organisation'. If you know of any cases where people have used blogs and social media campaigns independently, please do leave comments below.

There is increasingly less dependence on mainstream media to tell a story. If it's powerful enough it should be able to reach the influential people it needs to, without necessarily negotiating precious printed column inches. And it can be told accurately, at length, and in a person's own words.

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