For the 25th anniversary of the Welsh Refugee Council, Chloé Farand explores what it means to be a refugee in Cardiff.
Under the vaults of the former Methodist church, at the Oasis refugee day centre, one could forget it is still Cardiff. In the sports hall, a group of middle-aged men are playing volleyball, while in the cafe, younger men are sat around tables playing dominos, chatting and laughing.
The atmosphere is cheerful and yet charged with emotions. In its first year, the centre, opened in September 2008, on Splott Road, welcomed between 25 and 45 people every day. Three years later at least 150 people walk through the door every day, despite the quieter on Mondays and Fridays, prayer days.
The centre, run by a group of 25 volunteers and six full-time staff members, hosts free wellbeing workshops, drama, music and English classes and provides a meeting place for a sport game or a catch-up. Sion Richards, 25, the volunteer coordinator, said: “ There are those who have been here about 10 years and who have jobs, those who come here because it is something to do while waiting for their application to be processed.There are families and young children waiting for a place in school and the oldest man here is in his 80s. People come because it is a secure place.”
Mr Richards explains: “There is a lot more men than women because men make the first journey and then bring their family over when they’ve got the refugee status. There is also a lot more women groups and organisations that are very good and sometimes specialise in specific issues like female genital mutilation but there isn’t much for men.”
“The centre gives them somewhere to go and it gives them an identity. You would be surprised how many people have moved away [after getting the refugee status] and have come back. They say they now have the Welsh identity. I don’t think this happens as much in England for example.”
Cardiff, along with Newport, Swansea and Wrexham is a dispersal area, which means asylum seekers who arrive in the UK cannot choose their destination but can be sent to Cardiff. One woman explained in a very good English she had joined her husband in Cardiff seven months ago when she left the region of Darfur, Sudan. She now lives in Splott and comes to the centre every day where she takes classes to improve her English and meet with her friends. As she leaves the hall, she laughs “Thank God we are here”.
Hani, 35, from Syria, stands aloof of the other men. He fled the war zone and first arrived in Cardiff on 7 July 2014. At the end of February his wife and three children aged seven, six and 11 months joined him when he managed to secure a house in Adamsdown. He used to own a small company which recycled plastic on the outskirts of Damascus but both his factory and his house were bombed and he and his family were left destitute.
He tells the story of his trip from Damascus to Lebanon where he crossed the desert to Libya , from where he boarded a small raft boat and did the 22 hour journey to reach the shores of Italy. “After me, many people died because of the change in the weather. I was lucky,” he said.
“After me, many people died because of the change in the weather. I was lucky,” he said when talking about him crossing the mediterranean on a small boat.
He then took a train to Paris and on to Calais where he spent two weeks before being able to cross the Channel at the back of a truck. “Cardiff is very nice but I have difficulties to find work because it’s a small city. I’m looking for anything in the plastic industry because that’s my experience, but any work will do. Maybe I will move to Manchester – my friends told me the work was better there,” he said.
At the other end of the room, Kibrom, 24, and Fimon, 25, have done a similar journey from Eritrea, after paying smugglers to leave their country, both men met in a camp in Italy. Kibrom said: “There is no solution, nor improvement in Eritrea, we left everything behind and all our family but this is the start of a new life.” They too come to the Oasis centre every day and take English lessons. Kibrom explains he also started learning the piano and enjoy practising in the cafe. Both are qualified.
Kibrom, who left Eritrea in March 2010, graduated with a degree in applied Biology from a university in Ethiopia through the UN Refugee Agency and Fimon used to work as a mechanic. At 4 o’clock, everyone helps tidying the centre, putting chairs and tables back in order, and as people pour out into the chilly streets, silence falls in the former church.
In 2013, the Welsh Refugee Council in Cardiff, which helps refugees deal with the complex administrative system to apply for accommodation and work, was visited 25,920 times on different occasions by asylum seekers and refugees and 1,140 initial temporary accommodation were granted.
But on 1 April 2014, Cardiff stopped being an asylum seeker centre and now only cares for refugees. Althea Collymore, the press officer at the WRC, describes the process by which asylum seekers become refugees as “a matter of empowerment”. She said: “It is a really rigorous system where people have lived through possible trauma and are constantly put face to face with their story and other people are peaking through their background and their life.
“An important part of our job is to show refugees in a different light, to show the contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the city and challenge people’s perspective. The WRC is making a real contribution and it is a life line for refugees.” For most refugees, housing is the first hurdle to overcome in order to stay in the UK.
“An important part of our job is to show refugees in a different light, to show the contribution of asylum seekers and refugees to the city and challenge people’s perspective. The WRC is making a real contribution and it is a life line for refugees,” said a spokesperson for the Welsh Refugee Council.
When they first arrive, asylum seekers are given a room at the Lynx House, on Newport Road, for 28 days. After this initial stage, they have to apply for temporary accommodation which can be granted to them within a 50 miles radius and sometimes as far as Plymouth.
Between 1 October 2014 and 31 December 2014, 152 asylum seekers were granted the status of refugees in Cardiff, and while 25 per cent of them moved away, 24 per cent were housed by the local authority and nearly 20 per cent lived at a friend’s house. Mrs Collymore said: “There is never enough housing and some of the housing is not suitable to live in. Some people also live in streets where they don’t feel safe. Although Wales is very welcoming and, the Welsh Government supports and funds our campaigns against hate crime, it is still a big issue.”
The map below shows the countries of origin of most asylum seekers and refugees who arrived in Cardiff in 2013-14.
But accommodation is far from the only obstacle for asylum seekers to make a case to stay in the UK. As of April 1, a new legislation designed by the Home Office will oblige asylum seeker to travel to Liverpool to give new evidence for their application to the refugee status, a process they could previously complete at the Home Office’s reporting centre in Cardiff.
The scheme is defended by the Home Office as being more effective and putting less pressure on public funds. Chloe Marong, a project coordinator at the Trinity Center Cardiff, a church based charity which provides a range of social, welfare and legal support for asylum seekers and refugees in Cardiff, said: “Asylum seekers are not allowed to access benefits and are not allowed to work and so they are destitute. They will need to try to find charities to pay for their travel ticket to go to Liverpool.
“If you look at taking the bus from here to Liverpool it’s a pretty grim outlook and it would take the best part of three days, which means they will probably have to stay the night in Liverpool but have no means to pay for accommodation.”
The cheapest option to travel to Liverpool from Cardiff is to take a bus, and change at Birmingham but the the journey lasts at least eight and a half hours.
In 2013, the UK received 23,507 asylum applications, less than Germany, 109,580, France, 60,100, and Sweden, 54,260, and there was an estimated 149,799 refugees representing 0.24 per cent of the population.