SURREY, United Kingdom — The world is currently facing the largest refugee crisis in modern history, Doctors Without Borders says, with the number of refugees worldwide being greater than the population of Texas. In 2022, the world noted about 32.5 million refugees globally and almost 5 million asylum seekers (people seeking refuge but not yet granted refugee status), according to data from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). To celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, The Borgen Project spoke to Jo Doherty, manager of Croydon Refugee Day Centre, to gain insight into the organization’s work and better understand the situation of refugees in the U.K.
Refugees in the UK
According to the UNHCR, the U.K. had 231,597 refugees living in the nation in 2022, along with 72,027 new asylum applications and 127,421 pending asylum cases. While this number may sound considerable, it pales in comparison to the 3.7 million refugees in Turkey and the 1.7 million refugees in Colombia.
In 2021, Albania, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria stood as the countries with the highest number of asylum seekers in the U.K. The U.K. government has recently drawn criticism from human rights organizations for their treatment of and negative rhetoric surrounding refugees and its plan to relocate asylum seekers in the U.K. to Rwanda to reduce levels of immigration in the U.K.
Croydon Refugee Day Centre
The U.K.-based Croydon Refugee Day Centre (CDRC) was established in 1997 in Croydon in response to community unrest involving refugees from Kosovo. It offers practical assistance to refugees and asylum seekers and won a Pride of Croydon Award in 2022 for its contributions to the community.
In the first quarter of 2023, CRDC supported 410 adults and 250 children and young people under 18. The organization has given 222 coats, 243 pairs of shoes, 440 pairs of new underwear, 317 toiletry packs and 229 food packs to needy refugees and asylum seekers. The CDRC also gives all refugees and asylum seekers who visit a selection of second-hand clothes to choose from. Croydon (a borough of London) is a vital location for a refugee center as it is home to Lunar House, the headquarters of the U.K. Visa and Immigration Department where individuals can make asylum claims.
“Our primary focus is on clothes in order to meet one of the main needs of the people we support,” Doherty explains. She says further, “In Croydon at the moment, there are [more than]1,000 asylum seekers living in hostels who don’t have the right to work in the U.K. yet. Through government support, they [receive]three meals a day and basic toiletries in the hostel in which they’re staying. But then, they only have access to less than £10 per week to meet all their other needs and this financial support often doesn’t kick in for the first couple of months or so.”
Essentially, there are “new people arriving in the borough who have absolutely nothing and would have no way to access any clothing other than what they stand up in if we didn’t provide this service,” Doherty highlights. It is not uncommon to see new arrivals from warmer climates wearing flip-flops, which are lightweight and easy to carry, but very impractical for rainy U.K. winters.
Wednesday Welcome Sessions
The Wednesday Welcome sessions are a new initiative that the CRDC started last year. “Before the pandemic, we had a big center that dealt one day a week with everything — it would provide a meal, a chance to socialize, a help desk, some clothing support et cetera,” says Doherty.
Doherty highlights that during the peak of the pandemic, the organization had to scale back the initiative. “Our Wednesday Welcome project is now separate from our clothing support and its focus is to provide activities and well-being support for those who are living long-term in hostels. The refugees we help are in a place where they’re very powerless and they’re living in extreme poverty because they don’t have the right to work.”
“What we hope to do with the Wednesday Welcome sessions is to give them opportunities to start the process of integrating into the U.K. so that when they’re eventually granted asylum, hopefully, they can thrive. This includes supporting mental health and also signposting to local support networks, other local activities and English speaking practice,” Doherty says.
When asked for feedback on the services that the Croydon Refugee Day Centre provides, an anonymous refugee said, “Coming to Wednesday Welcome brings me up to speed, I know there are people there to help me, they help me to communicate and I know they’re always there.” Another refugee shared, “I like to socialize with people from other countries and I like helping as a volunteer.”
The Importance of Refugee Centers
Doherty says refugee centers in the U.K. are critical because “people often arrive with nothing and then they experience hostile rhetoric, often from the government or sometimes from local communities.” These vulnerable people have already endured trauma and may feel unwelcome, scared and fearful of the society that they have come to find themselves living in.
She says further, “Refugee centers are a way to begin to undo a little of that and offer support. If we don’t offer support in this stage when people are at their most vulnerable, then often, years later, people go on to get asylum but they have been through such a difficult time that they then still haven’t integrated into the U.K.”
Many times, refugees are not in a position to begin working immediately because they haven’t had the support needed while awaiting their asylum decision. “Refugee centers are crucial and if the work is done well, it means that people’s sense of power over their own lives increases somewhat,” Doherty says. For the Croydon Refugee Day Centre, ensuring the refugees feel heard and represented within the organization is crucial.
Understanding the Situations of Refugees in the UK
In a blog post called “Interviews with Refugees Living in Croydon,” the Croydon Refugee Day Centre asked some of its beneficiaries what they wished people in the U.K. would understand about their situations. Zarema, a former press secretary for the Ministry of Education and Science in the Republic of Dagestan shared, “No one chooses to run away from a good life to a foreign country, where you suddenly become nobody with your two higher education degrees and a master’s degree.”
Lorena from El Salvador stated, “We are people with rights and we should not be seen as usurpers in their country. We also go through moments of tension and stress for which we need empathy.” An anonymous refugee said, “We are not here to be a burden or a problem for you, but to contribute. There are great values we can take from each other; we can focus on those. We need you to make our difficult journey a little easier. We are human and we need you.”
To be able to carry out its mission of helping refugees in the U.K., the Croydon Refugee Centre relies on fundraising, donations and support from communities. Thanks to the impactful work of organizations like the Croydon Refugee Day Centre, some of the world’s most disenfranchised people can begin to reclaim their power and look toward a brighter future.
Highlighting the importance of compassion and empathy this World Refugee Day, Doherty tells The Borgen Project, “Sometimes all people are asking for is a bit of understanding, kindness and an awareness of the difficulties they’ve faced.”
– Tasha B. Johnson