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Breaking down borders: Student action to integrate refugees in Coventry

Immigration has always been politicised in the UK, but debates around the magnitude of the refugee crisis have never been as intense as they are currently. The power of single-issue parties, like the BNP and UKIP (now Reform UK), during the 2010s has normalised hostility towards refugees across the political divide – a sentiment exploited by our incumbent government. Yet, fascinatingly, Coventry is overwhelmingly recognised as a city ready to embrace them – an attitude which bleeds into the heart of student life on campus. Contrary to media narratives, there are large and active communities within the West Midlands attempting to meet the needs of the growing number of refugees in the area.  

The University of Warwick is undoubtedly a multicultural hub, hosting students from over 147 countries. Achieving the University of Sanctuary accreditation in 2017 has allowed the University to partake in the “proud and radical” tradition within higher education: namely, welcoming sanctuary seekers with assisted support to enable them to succeed, despite their circumstances.  

Many students in the Warwick community have gained renewed concern for the refugee students on campus, after proposals surfacing from the Home Office revealed that students could be deported for their expression of political affiliation in the ensuing Israel-Hamas war. It is clear that for many refugee students, the prospect of genuine security is fleeting.  

Warwick STAR (Student Action for Refugees) is perhaps the most prominent of the refugee-tailored societies on campus. They are a hybrid society that focuses on campaigning for refugee protections on campus and volunteer projects, like English classes and youth clubs within the local community. Speaking to Bel Govier and Eloïse Bui, the two co-presidents, highlighted the challenges Warwick refugee activists are currently facing. They both expressed their disdain at government rhetoric, labelling it “shocking and terrifying… The University of Warwick is a sanctuary University that welcomed 31 refugee and asylum seeker students in the year 2023-24… all strongly impacted by the anti-immigration policies rolled out by the current government.”   

We will continue to support asylum seekers in Coventry on a weekly basis and campaign for a welcome environment on campus

– Warwick STAR

This occurred with ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s Illegal Migration Act as the backdrop, which came into law in July. Whilst dealing with the aftermath, both co-presidents reveal “the Coventry City Council has asked us to increase vigilance and not to divulge information about the asylum seekers we volunteer with” due to the “proliferation of fascist protests throughout the UK.”  

Nevertheless, Warwick STAR is choosing to continue onwards with their work, stating that “[they] will continue to support asylum seekers in Coventry on a weekly basis and campaign for a welcome environment on campus.” Other societies, like Warwick Liberation, have organised events alongside Warwick STAR this academic year. Gateway Enactus was another student-led organisation aimed at “empowering refugees and asylum seekers in Coventry through skills training and career support” that was active last academic year. In the context of several global humanitarian crises, and the increase of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, it seems that there is a louder call to action, incentivising students to help wherever they can.  

Outside of the boundaries of campus life and further into the vibrant heart of Coventry, there are also abundant contributions made to ease the immigration crisis. Located on Bird Street, the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre (CRMC) attracts a large number of volunteers who support a variety of services that are offered to those who come in every day. There are teams who assist with housing, employment, teaching English, and therapy.  

One of the biggest teams within the CRMC is the Advice Team, who operate a drop-in service open four days a week from 9-5pm for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who need help or guidance. The Advice Team attracts the most volunteers and gives them a client-facing role to directly support those coming to the centre. Most of the needs of the service users relate to issues with the asylum process, which can take up to months to resolve. Those who are unfamiliar with the system or who are not proficient at English may request the caseworkers to guide them in their applications, contact support organisations, or to make referrals to help with finding housing and employment, a primary issue for refugees and asylum seekers.  

As a charity organisation, the CRMC reserves the funding they get to support their service users, such as offering food, sanitary items, mobile data, and transportation. Therefore, a large portion of the work they do relies on the involvement and contribution of volunteers.  

They’re doing it for personal reasons because it’s a passion and a drive to add value to society and to support those in need

– Heather Grimes

Volunteers join from all walks of life. Some are retired and seek to dedicate a time in their week towards a meaningful cause, whilst others do it on top of their occupational and educational commitments to gain experience and contribute to social good. Heather Grimes, the volunteer coordinator at the CRMC said: “They’re doing it for personal reasons because it’s a passion and a drive to add value to society and to support those in need. That willingness to help, that caring nature, wanting to see change in society.”  

She believes “it can give students that insight into vulnerable people, into world-wide crises across the world and to experience people from different cultures. With that, they can gain knowledge and experience, and confidence interacting with different people from different cultures which is incredibly important in this day and age.” 

With immigration laws constantly changing and the asylum process taking months, the work of the Advice Team primarily involves clarifying the situation to the service user, assisting with applications or referrals, and providing basic necessities. Oftentimes, the main issues that caseworkers can help with boil down to the service user’s difficulty in understanding the intricate legal system, as well as the language barrier. Whilst the Advice Team tries their best to help every client, it is often difficult to entirely resolve issues, which can at times be frustrating.  

There are several students from the University of Warwick who have volunteered for the CRMC, one of which is Sabina, who is doing a part-time Masters in Continental Philosophy. Whilst she’s not on campus, she works part-time at Mind, a mental health charity. She has been a volunteer for the Advice Team of the CRMC for four months and comes in once every two weeks.   

When asked why she volunteers on top of her busy schedule, Sabina revealed that although she is an immigrant herself, she is less aware of the complexities of the immigration procedure for refugees and asylum seekers. Thus, she prioritises her role as a supportive figure and is guided by her supervisor for more sophisticated issues. She continues: “I just wanted to understand the client’s perspective more. Just helping the clients. I think that’s everyone’s favourite part. Seeing their situation improving even by a little bit. Them just saying, “Oh thank you, this really helped,” and leaving feeling better about the situation than when they arrived.” 

The participation of students in the efforts of the CRMC enables them to go beyond their studies and reach past the University walls to contribute to a greater change in community. Although some of the help they offer can be as simple as offering a food voucher, it can make a large contribution towards bridging gaps in society and fostering a more welcoming and empathetic community, just by offering those in need a place to go for assistance or to be heard. Sabina adds, “It’s just about talking to people, asking the right questions, and making them feel comfortable.”  

Heather believes that every bit counts. “[It is important to] use our privileges that we have in society, in this society where we can get an education and we can express ourselves and improve ourselves. And use those skills to support those people who maybe don’t have those advantages and privileges that we do. … It is a really valuable experience that I would encourage everybody to do wherever they can because it can really bolster your life.”  

The endeavours made by Warwick students and members of the Coventry community highlight their dedication towards integrating marginalised members of society and providing support to those who lack resources. At times where there are incessant changes in immigration policy and shifting social attitudes towards those who are deemed to be outsiders, any effort can create a significant difference towards a more harmonious world.  


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