London is arguably the most diverse city in the world with less than half of its population belonging to the national minority. But right now, London as a city of refuge does not reflect the deep histories of its alterity. Newcomers who have been offered refuge in London post-2015 are numerically insignificant and their acceptance has been conditioned to very strict rules of abject vulnerability; in fact, the British government only received refugees within the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme and a very few among this narrowly defined group has been allowed to settle in London. As newcomers have been recognised only on the basis of vulnerability, their humanity has largely been reduced to bare life. Even basic needs are only just about met as the politics of (post-)austerity and of the hostile environment have deprived refugees of even the most fundamental resources, such as health and education.
LONDON: A DESTINATION, BUT A HOSPITABLE ONE?
The London newcomers who have arrived in the context of the “refugee crisis”, have been welcomed on the basis of their vulnerability and by a state that recognised them as “survivors”, not as people with agency and with “the right to have rights” (Arendt 1949). Ironically though, the system of abjection that gave people the right to enter the country was swiftly replaced by a system of entrepreneurialism after arrival: a new set of requirements were soon imposed to those received as refugees. Within a period between one and three years, they were told, they had to prove their right to stay by passing demanding language tests, securing employment, and demonstrating that they pose no threat or burden to the state by depending on welfare or becoming engaged in criminal activities. Thus, an impossible set of contradictory requirements has been imposed upon them: they first had to prove their abject vulnerability and soon after their ability to swiftly transform and assimilate.
This expectation of a rapid transformation has been monitored and regulated through institutions that are meant to provide welfare and support, such as the Job Centre and local authorities. But refugees’ expectations have been met with hostility and suspicion. Hoping for recognition and dignity, many have instead been presented with rigid data profiles recording how they perform and regularly being reminded that they have to make their own way into society. On the backdrop of these requirements, newcomers are denied access to full-time education, which could help them secure a better future, and their access to part-time education is tied to a contract stating that they should abandon their studies if this competes with any full-time job. Unsurprisingly, the contradictory demands the state puts upon people’s lives causes enormous anxiety among many who feel constantly monitored but rarely supported.
The advisor at the Job Centre recommended I volunteer at Poundland. I worked there for two months, then I started volunteering at the Hackney City Farm. Volunteering is good for learning conversational English. I also do an intensive English course three days a week and study IT two nights a week. I feel like I have to be the best possible representation of a refugee so that they continue to support us to come here.
As a Muslim also, I feel like I need to show that I can integrate into this society, to counter Islamophobia. And I do try, very hard. But there are days when I hear some news about Syria, and for a week I feel low and helpless. I wish there was more understanding from the Job Centre, that as determined as a person can be, there are emotional issues we are dealing with, too. As much as refugees want to integrate into the culture, everything is new to us, it’s difficult to let go of everything all at once.
(Al-Halabi Family, hostility)
We tried to persuade Haringey Council to adopt the 'lead agency model' like Lambeth and Camden where refugee agencies with experience were brought in to manage the process. But the Council really didn't like us interfering, and we weren't always invited to meetings or got information. So, for example, we found out really late in the day about the problems for two Syrian families who were housed in, basically, garages in Tottenham during the snow without proper heating. And one of the families had a 4-year old child with a congenital respiratory condition. The Council knew that and they also knew about this accommodation because they'd previously placed other families there. A local paediatrician raised a campaign emailing the MPs and the counsellors. And Muswell Hill Methodist church, who had done a community sponsorship of one family, got involved and found new accommodation for them. But the Council sat on their hands. So, you know, you can never take your eyes off them at all.
(Haringey Welcome, hostility)
The date we arrived here is very memorable. In Lebanon, we sometimes didn’t even have food to eat. But when we got here, there was a hot meal ready and the fridge was full of food. It had been stocked for us. Nothing can match that feeling of knowing you won’t go hungry. A caseworker from the council met us at the airport with a translator and an ambulance for Zahra, and brought us home. She is the one that took Baker to enroll in school. She used to come every day, until she had registered us for everything, and taught us how to use the bus and things, but now she only comes occasionally. But we get a lot of help from Soumaya now also.
(Ra'ed & family, solidarity)
When Reza first got to London, no council would help him. You have to have that local connection to a borough and lived in the area for six months first, otherwise, they don't help you find housing. And as a single guy, he would have been very low on the list of priorities — families, vulnerable people, elderly, disabled, women. To get a private flat, you need to pay the deposit and rent upfront, then you apply for housing benefits. So it’s very, very difficult. Through my voluntary work at the Refugee Council I know that a lot of refugees become homeless. I had come across Refugees at Home through my work before, where they encourage people with spare rooms to host refugees, and I put Reza in touch. It's a fantastic organisation, I speak really highly of them. Reza got very lucky because Miki and Miriam’s family was really, really lovely and they’ve been so good to him.
(Reza & Catherine, austerity)
The social worker assigned to us by the council reacted really horribly after the problems with Owais. She made it all my fault, talking about the lack of boundaries and discipline in the house. She was really mean. She put up a daily schedule on the wall stating what time we should wake up in the mornings, when we should shower, for how long. Television only for one hour, and only 15 minutes for breakfast! She made us sign the schedule — not just me, all of us. We tore it up after she left.
(Leila & family, hospitality)
In the beginning, the families are just worried about income. It's challenging to explain the rules for welfare benefits and that it takes a long time to get replies. They ask me when it's coming, and I have to tell them to just wait. The Welcome to the UK book may help but the main problem is language... and understanding how the system works.
Some of the families I work for have been here for 6 months, and they feel bullied into finding a job. The Job Centre tells them they will suspend support if they don’t start working. But they don’t even speak English yet. One person who is disabled hasn’t received his disability allowance, and he has depression because of the war he fled, but they are on his case to find a job and start working. Some have been hit by bombs and have lost limbs. Even though they are here in the UK now, most feel like the war has not left them.
LONDON AS A DIGITAL CITY OF REFUGE
Digital communication is cherished among newcomers: many say that it is a lifeline, others note that it is a gateway to invaluable and necessary information, and all agree that it is the connective link necessary in a life interrupted, bringing loved ones closer, at least virtually. Everyone is digitally connected, as connectivity is a priority for individuals and families. It is a priority, and even when trying to balance a limited income, “the internet” comes high up among the basic needs that need to be met. A need for communication and for dignity, digital connectivity is not recognised as such by the state. In fact, the state considers media and digital connectivity as luxury items, thus it forbids their public provision to refugees being offered housing in London and across the country. Finding ways to connect the best way they can (often by using public WiFi alongside basic personal connectivity), newcomers navigate the city and their new life digitally. They use apps like GoogleMaps to navigate the city and compensate for the abandonment by the state, which offers no to very little information. They engage in user-generated content and peer-to-peer information sourcing and crowdfunding, especially through social media. Newcomers have created an online ‘Index,’ a guide that provides everyday information on life in London for migrants, information that is often basic but life-changing, as for example, on how to apply for free public transport when disabled. Digital communication is essential to everyone we met and digital resources are considered vital but unsafe and untrustworthy, and there is uneven awareness of their surveilling power. Basic media literacy is developed organically and shared among refugees, while advanced media literacy is supported by coding schools that offer free training for digital work. Neither, of course, is enough: as public provisions of connectivity, of job opportunities, education and training are scarce, the prospect of settlement with a sense of security and dignity remain uncertain.
The mobile Internet was too expensive to top up all the time, so we had to be economical. We would memorise the maps so we didn’t have to use Google Maps too much. You can’t get WiFi at home until you have three months of bank statements. So we started going to Wood Green Mall to use the free Internet so we could talk to my sisters. Then the three of us would sit down to watch Arabic series on my mobile phone. This was before we got a television, two months ago. Just in time for the World Cup.
Then, we met a Palestinian woman at Lidl who offered to sign us up for home internet in her name. She even paid for the first month. There are many kind people here, thank God.
(Al-Halabi Family, communication rights)
We love London. I met Hanaa*, one of my closest friends here, through a Syrian group on Facebook about arriving in Haringey. Our first week here, we wanted to go see Big Ben. We used Google Maps but kept on getting lost! [laughs]. We started asking anyone for directions. ‘Follow me, follow me’ they’d say! We had a great time. It was raining a lot but it was still amazing.
(Leila & family, digital lives)
Our students are from all over — Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. Women are still a minority — although higher than the tech industry average — but a very vocal and active minority. This isn’t for everyone, you need to like coding and be able to demonstrate that. They also promise to commit to 20 hours a week because what they learn every Sunday needs to be practised. It’s not easy. Over the course of 6 months, they work on a project developing a website for a local charity. If their website is minimally viable, then Code the Future applies for grants to allow the student to continue working on it until it’s ready, or the charity might contribute funds. That way a local charity gets a website and the student gets a better portfolio, as well as professional pay for their skills. Our students have previously developed websites for a UN refugee skills-matching database and a Refugee Service Directory.
(Max, digital skills)
There aren't that many really good online digital resources in general, at least I don't know of any, and I’m quite involved in the refugee community now through work and volunteering. I don't know what happens when a refugee comes to this country — is there an app that they can access to tell them exactly what they need to do? How to Register? How to do this or that? At the Refugee Council I’ve been told that there have been cases of people literally getting off planes and boats and going straight to their office in Stratford, just sitting in the reception area going, 'What do I do now?’ The Refugee Council can help with some things, but not everything. Everybody has a smartphone these days, it’s probably the most important thing they have. So an app would be a good idea.
(Miki, digital lives)
There are lots of opportunities in coding in London and I want to make the most of the opportunities here. I graduated from Code Your Future a few months ago, and now I’m developing my graduation project, which they’re paying me for. It’s an excellent course to increase knowledge and real application of tech that is used in the industry right now. And it’s the only free coding school I know of. When I worked in hospitality I used to look for jobs on Indeed; now I look for them on sites for tech jobs, like hired.com.
(Reber, digital skills)
Digital impacts how migrants feel welcome in the borough. In the last few years, the nature of life online is changing. It's intense and, unfortunately, increasingly polarised. It’s much easier nowadays to be exposed to your own views than to the views of others, creating an environment where people are stuck within their own echo chamber. It’s important to realise as well that as migrants, we have a space in that digital environment, to not only receive and be fed information, but to be creators of it. Some of our projects emphasise the concept of digital citizenship and how it affects migrant families. It’s not just about how to use Wi-Fi or the iPad, we’re asking them to take that extra step. How can you become a creator of information? How can you share your views widely? How can you participate in digital civic life?
We’re piloting this digital citizenship initiative for young people in Hackney because there's this assumption that the younger generation is digitally native, but we’re recognising we need to support them to become good digital citizens. This is a long-term view, I suppose, but this is the way that we should be seeking to break the cycle of polarisation, of hate crimes. The more agency we have, as migrants and as British people, the more we can create a world that reflects who we are and who we want to be in this space.
(Sheena, communication rights)