Features | Students show support for struggling refugees

The UK government, this year, refused to raise asylum support rates, meaning they have not been changed since 2011 and leaving many refugees unable to provide for themselves and their families. To tackle this, University of Leeds students have joined together in order to offer support to local refugees, providing valuable language skill workshops.


While you might spend your Wednesdays and Saturdays shopping or planning a night out, every week students from the University of Leeds dedicate their time to refugees in their community. Student Action for Refugees (STAR) help refugees and asylum seekers to build their confidence with the English language and offer support and encouragement to people that have fled their homes out of fear.

On our newsstands and in British politics, immigration is a controversial topic. Discrimination, prejudice and ignorance mean that there is confusion over who is a refugee, an immigrant or an illegal immigrant and scaremongers would have the British public believe that all are illegal immigrants. However, this is not true. A refugee, according to the 1951 Convention, has a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’ and is therefore allowed to apply for asylum because they are either ‘unable or unwilling’ to return home due to fear. Fear is the overwhelming emotion repeated throughout this legislation. Families, men, women and children who are too afraid to live in their homes do not deserve the discrimination and fear that they are met with. They deserve the security and safety they are searching for.

In 2012, 21,300 children applied for asylum, with 21,785 total asylum applications made to the UK. People are displaced from their homes due to war and political conflict. Their homes are destroyed or taken away from them.

As students we complain about the bare and less-than-perfect conditions we live in but imagine if we did not have a home to return to. Students are always told to walk in groups and be careful of attackers but imagine if violence and turmoil were events you witnessed everyday: would you not want to escape it too? One of the main areas where people are fleeing from is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sexual violence in recent years has been labelled the worst universally. Other countries include Columbia, Burma and Syria. 15.6 million men, women and children are displaced around the world and are searching for a new home and settlement with around 6 million of these from Syria alone.

Yet despite media portrayals of a wave of refugees and asylum seekers flooding into Britain, figures released at the beginning of 2012 showed that only 0.27 percent of the UK population are refugees, with just under half of the total number being under 18.

Despite popular belief the application system for asylum is extremely difficult with the majority of cases rejected, those that do find shelter in the UK are usually only allowed to stay in the country for five years.

As students the idea of a future is very important to us as we are working towards it but how can refugees make a future for themselves when potentially in five years they will be uprooted again. These people leave their homes to find security, yet we fail to offer them it.

Also, the vast majority of refugees live in poverty. As students we complain that the heating does not work, that our cupboards are bare and we cannot eat branded foods. Some refugees live off as little as £5 a week and have described their situation as ‘worse than a prison’. As students this kind of budget is completely alien to the vast majority of us. Furthermore, refugees are restricted from council houses and many are not allowed to work in the UK. With the prospect of graduate jobs being so competitive and the number of vacancies depleting not being able to work is something we can sympathise with. Refugees do not deserve the label of lazy that gets thrown around so easily nowadays, which is proven by the work of STAR.

STAR is a student-run organisation which operates across the UK and in Leeds. Meeting every Wednesday and Saturday they offer support with the English language. All who attend are willing and eager to improve their language and the atmosphere is relaxed and enjoyable, creating a communal atmosphere where everyone is welcome.

The students’ effect upon the refugees is profound with many thanking the students for their support and help. Yet the benefits are not just solely for the refugees. The sense of success and happiness when the person you are helping understands you is extremely fulfilling and rewarding. You know you are using your time productively and for the benefit of others, who have not had our benefits in life such as free education, a sense of safety and massive support from all around us. We are the fortunate people and we have the support available to help people who, through no fault of their own, were born into a country in turmoil.

STAR creates an environment of security and safety, something which has been denied from the refugees. Everyone is welcome to attend these sessions with no experience needed; just an enthusiasm to help other people.


Victoria Hesketh

Image property of the Guardian

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