by our friend Dr Victoria CanningA mural in Toxteth, Liverpool, a key historic area for immigration in the city.
As a dock city, Liverpool has served as a gateway to the sugar trade, slavery and global transport for hundreds of years. It has long been a city of immigrants from Ireland, India and Pakistan to Somalia, Ethiopia and Jamaica. It boasts the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and the largest Chinese arch outside of China. But like other parts of the UK, for those seeking sanctuary in the city today, the tightening of the immigration regime has made life full of uncertainty and injustice.
In early September, the women of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MaMa) – a Liverpool-based group of refugee rights advocates and women seeking asylum which I am involved with – were worried when two of its core members did not attend a regular meeting.
As news filtered through, we learned that the women (alongside two others) had been dispersed from their accommodation to a northern town 20 miles away: too far to walk back, and too expensive to travel for women receiving £5.30 per day while awaiting refugee status. The practice of dispersal means people seeking asylum can be moved away from friends and family at any point, without choice or negotiation, with little notice, to a place they may have never been.
Eventually, from speaking with the two women, it transpired that they had been approached by staff from one private sector provider at the accommodation block they lived in at 1pm on a Friday afternoon and informed they would need to move “temporarily”. They were given until 4.30pm to gather their belongings and leave their already temporary homes. No need for the children to get ready for school on Monday morning, since they were being wrenched from attendance at the very start of term.
Echoes from 70 years ago
The treatment of people seeking asylum in Liverpool today has parallels with a more sinister moment in the city’s post-war history. In 1946, it was Chinese migrants who bore the brunt of rising anti-immigration sentiment in the region. Having recruited around 20,000 Chinese men into the British Merchant Navy during World War II, once their service was over, they were deemed “undesirable” elements of Liverpool life.
Instead of offering these men and their families sanctuary, the Home Office ordered a police raid on their homes. In an early morning round-up in the summer of 1946, an estimated 1,362 Chinese men were arrested, temporarily detained, and deported. Around 500 children were estimated to have been left behind.
Seven decades later and similar events are still happening. In 2014, the women of MaMa were shocked when a long-time member was detained and deported by the Home Office. Her right to further appeal had been rejected. She was forced to leave 13 years of life and belongings in the city that she loved, with the friends she knew. We had known her well, some for almost as long as she had been in the UK. We sang from a phone on loudspeaker to comfort her as she sat in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. She was deported to her country of origin within days.
As weeks and months went by, other women grew increasingly concerned for their own futures. Those seeking asylum must comply with regulations which require them to sign in with the Home office regularly. In the aftermath of their friend’s deportation, Home Office meetings were daunting. Some of the women have already experienced Yarl’s Wood – none of them want to experience it again.
The ‘Utopia’ of rights
Unlike 1946, the legislative landscape of contemporary Britain is now embedded in a discourse of rights: human rights, refugee rights, and the rights of the child. Home Office policy and legislation advocate rights-based approaches and it has even published a plethora of guidelines on how to adhere to them.
And yet there seems little evidence of this Utopia of rights in practice. People seeking asylum are subjected to arbitrary detention, with no time limit in the UK. Abject poverty and destitution have become staple parts of the asylum process. Living in limbo, the threat of deportation looms every day, limiting individuals’ ability to look ahead to the future, particularly if they fear returning to their past in their country of origin. For asylum-seeking women living with violent men, refuges and support have been diminished by government cuts.
Meanwhile, people seeking asylum face ever more insidious forms of social controls on a daily basis, including immigration enforcement officers on public transport and regulations within housing. To give one example, women I spoke with who lived in one accommodation facility run by SERCO said that they had been told they would be reported to the Home Office for leaving bedroom doors open that could be a fire hazard. In this way, everyday actions become border offences.
New laws are biting
The impact of legal aid and appeal restrictions, introduced in the 2014and 2016 immigration acts have begun to bite. Refusals for asylum faced by women in MaMa are regularly based on obscure and sometimes legally precarious grounds.
Adequate legal support is ever diminishing. Cuts to legal aid mean fewer lawyers are available to take on appeals. The 2016 act facilitates easy deportation with those removed expected to appeal from the home country, and this has already begun: 42 people were recently deported on a chartered flight to Jamaica. A huge increase in the fees for appealing Home Office decisions now threatens further limitations on access to justice: another wall between refugees and their rights.
To fight back, MaMa has turned to choir performance fundraisers among other projects in an effort to pay legal costs. Only recently we collected goods to raffle to raise legal funds: a “raffle for justice”, in one of the world’s richest countries, with one of the world’s oldest legal systems. A country that colonised many of those that MaMa members have come from. The irony is not lost.
We realise that some people aren’t going to be able to make it to our events in person, but you can still help. At the moment the best way to do this is via a bank transfer to our account, we will send a MaMa Manifesto for any contributions over £40.
Unless you specify otherwise donations will go towards our Justice has a price tag fund. We strive to meet the running costs of the group through choir performances and community dinners.
Transfer directly into our bank account, but please let us know by email where to send your prints!
Migrant Artists Mutual Aid
Sort Code: 08 92 99
Account Number: 65562282
TRANSMUTABLE VOICES A PERFORMANCE CELEBRATION
Tickets: £10.00 – book through Bluecoat website below
Saturday 12th November
4 – 6pm
This autumn is the 5th Anniversary of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid 5 years of performance, music, campaigning, laughter, tears and prayers. Much has gotten worse in the UK for women seeking sanctuary, but we as a group are stronger than we have ever been.
On June 24th 2016 MaMa choir members along with visiting artists began devising their current work. Transmutable Voices: new aesthetics of citizenship was conceived as a way to capture and disseminate the unique community of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid. We have collaborated with World Renowned photographer Manuel Vason and award winning filmmaker Phil Cox (native voice) to capture the journeys and the voices of the women of MaMa.
This event at Bluecoat is a unique opportunity to be part of MaMa’s ongoing journey. This relaxed performance supported by Bluecoat who have generously offered their space. It is a celebration of how far we have come, how far we have to go, a relaxed performance suitable for the whole family and also a chance to be part of a community based justice project. The new aesthetics of citizenship embraces all of us and a performance a(u)ction will offer an opportunity to support a justice fund for the MaMa choir members/
This event will combine photo-performances co-created by MaMa members and Manuel Vason with live performances, storytelling and written text and will culminate in a “performative a[u]ction” of the photographs.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE: https://uk.patronbase.com/_Bluecoat/Productions/57N/Performances
At the heart of MaMa’s activities is a weekly drop-in. Every Wednesday we share food, have a choir rehearsal, plan fundraising events, and support members who are going through the asylum system.
We welcome visitors, volunteers and donations to make this happen. This weekly time we spend together forges our friendships that provide a safety net. Often gender based violence whether it is domestic violence, rape, sexual slavery, FGM or trafficking results in people not being able to advocate for themselves in a hostile system. If we want to see an end to this violence we need to support survivors.
Several members of MaMa are currently struggling with the impact of Legal Aid cuts. They are survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual slavery but cannot find any local solicitors even though they are entitled to this provision. Some have children, born in the UK who have special needs.
We have been meeting the challenge with song and targeted campaigning to members of parliament. Modern slavery and the trafficking of women for forced marriage, sexual slavery and domestic servitude will never end unless we support the courageous mothers who have resisted, stood up and escaped.
Many have never even had the right to stand in front of a judge to give evidence and they will never get that chance unless they get the legal support they are entitled to.
MaMa needs your help
MaMa started meeting weekly on Wednesdays in May 2013. There are a lot of challenges and joys of a weekly meeting. The biggest challenge to migrant mutual aid campaigning groups is how we deal with dispersal and privatisation, the policy of the Home Office to scatter people about so they don’t form connections and community. Privatisation because for any group to gather the costs of covering local bus travel is simply staggering. Before we ran out of our transport budget we were spending between 60-70 pounds a week just for bus fares.
Nobody is sure what to do. Dispersal is a strategy that works. While running 5k with the Santa Dash is not really going to solve the problem of Migrant Mothers being dispersed, it will help keep us ticking along while we try and come up with a brilliant idea to deal with really expensive bus travel.
Hey friends and supporters!
Mama members are planning to take part in the Santa Dash, which takes place on the 7th December, and to raise some much-needed funds for our members to be able to attend our meetings and up-lifting choir practices! Recently we have been very quiet, though not inactive, with training for immigration raids on local public transport which have become more frequent in recent months all over the UK. We are also supporting Naome’s daughter to help her mum get back on her feet after her removal to Zimbabwe.
Some of you have already shown an interest in joining the run. It is still possible to sign up at the lower fee of £22 till Saturday at
If you can’t make it to the run but would like to support us Hanna has set up a funding page for her recent marathon, you can donate online there!