The refugee experience

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Role-playing and an obstacle course were used at a conference to help a group of English students understand the plight of asylum-seekers. Reva Klein reports. A roomful of students from Oxford and east London are given three minutes to make a list of the things they would carry with them if they had to flee their homes on foot.

Working in small groups, they note down their priorities - a walking stick for granny, a bag of rice, a blanket, a machete, documentation.

The exercise is a salutary one for the students who wear badges of western affluence - Nikes, Benettons, Levis. But that wasn't the aim of this conference run by the Refugee Council, the Refugee Studies Programme and Oxfordshire education authority.

It has been designed to open A-level students' minds to the myriad complexities of north-south migration, asylum-seekers and the political and moral positions of Britain and the rest of Europe in the whole problem.

It is hoped that when they go home at the end of the day, the students will have a wider perspective of who refugees are, why they leave their homes and what the realities of asylum are.

The conference - the sixth of its kind - is timely as the Asylum Bill and social security restrictions on asylum-seekers are about to be introduced. The legislation will restrict access to income support, shelter, health care and some forms of education.

Jill Rutter, of the Refugee Council, had invited various speakers to talk about the controversy over landmines and their own first-hand experiences as refugees.

The students play a board game called Make or Break which is an obstacle course in which students pretend they are an African family fleeing insurgent rebels through the landmine-studded countryside. The students, divided into small groups, have to make decisions together quickly.

They are shown a Refugee Council video presenting different sides of the refugee life as experienced by young people from Turkish Kurdistan, Colombia and Eritrea. They speak of alienation, bullying and frustration at the inability to communicate.

Former immigration minister Peter Lloyd offers his interpretation of why people come to Britain ("We're seeing more and more movement to countries where there are better jobs, education, etc").

But the simply-told stories of Rwandan refugee Connie and Cuban asylum-seeker Manuel make the biggest impression on the students. The two attractive, articulate young people were indistinguishable from the students themselves, until they told their harrowing tales.

Connie tells how she left Rwanda alone at the age of nine. She was driven from her school to the Zairean border and ordered to get out and fend for herself. Manuel says he fled his country after harassment by the Cuban police because of his dissident activities.

If his asylum application is refused, he says he will have to leave his studies at Oxford and become "a refugee in orbit".

A key aim of the day is to stimulate thought. Jill Rutter gives the students information about befriending refugees in their own schools and colleges and lobbying for refugee organisations.

The conference was part of Refugee Week which included in-service education and training for teachers and lectueres, film shows, theatre in education, exhibitions, adult education workshops and displays of books and resources.

Ian Hooper, who brought five of his A-level geography students from Tower Hamlets College in London for the day, says the strength of the conference was the time and the space it gave to the issues.

"You can cover it quickly in the classroom, but without taking the time to think about it, it's hard to understand the reality beyond the words, to think about how quickly political situations and people's lives can change."

Jill Rutter stresses the need for balance. "We try always to be balanced. Only then can you effectively counter the arguments of others.

"Belief in the issues has got to come from the students. It is no good trying to feed a particular line because students can easily see through the propaganda."

The conference at the end of last term has no formal follow-up with the schools and colleges involved, but there is enough feedback to show that the participants are keen to develop the issues further.

Many others mount exhibitions or form local amnesty groups. Others call on local politicians to explain their own views on immigration - particularly now the Asylum Bill is nearing the end of its passage through Parliament - during school and college debates.

One teacher says: "There are no quick political fixes to the problems of asylum seekers. If students think there are then they are soon forced to think again when they try to confront the issues."

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