Migrant solidarity in Sheffield is how we mobilise against Sunak's inhumane policies

Migrant solidarity in Sheffield is how we mobilise against Sunak's inhumane policies
As Rishi Sunak’s government continues to peddle anti-migrant rhetoric and enforces violent policies to deter refugees, the work of solidarity groups, like those in Sheffield, is all the more urgent, explains Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya.
7 min read
Home Secretary Suella Braverman reaffirmed her commitment to the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda after a favourable High Court ruling, writes Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya. [GETTY]

On 10 February, several hundred far-right demonstrators launched a violent protest outside a hotel housing asylum seekers near Liverpool, UK. This was not an isolated incident; similar protests are continually being planned across the country, even as left and migrant solidarity activists fight back with counter-protests. 

This current wave of far-right activity comes after several months of government clampdowns on migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new migration plan was laid out in December, including policies such as ‘thousands of Albanians [being] returned home’, moving people into lower quality accommodation, and new legislation meaning people could be ‘detained and swiftly returned’ to their home country or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Suella Braverman reaffirmed her commitment to the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda after a favourable High Court ruling. These announcements sent a clear message to migrants and refugees that they were not welcome in the country, vindicating the government’s far right rhetoric around migration which has already translated into law over the past year with the Nationality and Borders Act.

''Whilst rallies of several thousand may be harder to achieve, even small-scale actions and campaigns can be vital in boosting morale among those facing continued battles with the forces of power.''

Earlier in the autumn, the Home Secretary was also forced to respond to revelations around the inhumane conditions in Manston asylum centre.

Localised UK initiatives in solidarity with migrant and refugee communities have gained traction over the past few years, fighting successful campaigns and providing vital support to many in areas such as housing. Whilst Sheffield isn’t widely known for its migrant solidarity activism, the South Yorkshire city in fact became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees in 2007. 

A few months ago, I attended a protest outside Vulcan House, the main centre for Home Office immigration operations in South Yorkshire, in solidarity with Sheffield’s migrant communities amid the current clampdown on their rights. There, I met several activists at the frontlines of the continued migrant solidarity work.

“Sheffield was really, really good at mobilising people, especially in [the city’s] two universities,” explained Nell, the former president of Sheffield Student Action for Refugees (STAR). She described a successful local campaign in 2020 that demanded the closure of Morton Hall detention centre, during which Action for Refugees groups from neighbouring cities Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds were also mobilised to join. But far from being limited to students, the protests involved numerous organisations.

New Narratives

For Nell, challenging far right government rhetoric around migrants and refugees and getting the truth out continues to be a fundamental aim of migrant solidarity activism. “It’s really, really scary how many people can side with [the government] view,” she said.

So how do we create new narratives? 

Nell highlights the impact of participatory forms of action, such as one which was organised during the pandemic outside Vulcan House and involved “turning the hostile environment into a hospitable environment,” through art. 

The approach of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) to challenging such rhetoric, meanwhile, extends to education around the links between migration, colonial history and ongoing neo-colonialism – “to try and educate ourselves and the public on the situation in various countries that people come from,” as Stuart, their long-time activist explains.

SYMAAG has shown solidarity with protest movements within many asylum seekers’ countries of origin, including in Iran amidst an ongoing revolution.

Of course, challenging dominant narratives must go hand in hand with resistance against specific government policies. 

Nell recalled a campaign led by the Sheffield branch of These Walls Must Fall, a network of refugee and migrant campaigners across the North, against the policy requiring ‘signing’. This policy demands migrants regularly report to their local Home Office in person, making themselves vulnerable to detention or deportation as well as being a health and safety risk, particularly during the pandemic. 

As the activist explained, we must not lose sight of the Home Office’s power, which no welcoming counter-narratives can change. “As soon as you enter you're instantly criminalised…This reporting was still supposed to be happening [during the pandemic], which is dangerous and probably illegal,” she added.

Manston and Beyond

Sarli, an organiser with Migrants Organise in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, locates detention centres such as Manston as just one of several ‘pillars’ of the wider hostile environment.

“People have died [in Manston], people died in the channel… the whole asylum system is murderous in so many ways,” Nell aptly pointed out.

For Stuart, meanwhile, the revelations about conditions at Manston reinforce what SYMAAG has long raised about asylum housing, “that it actually operates as a form of detention.”

One of the organisation’s major successes has been getting the notorious security company G4S off the contract for asylum housing in three major regions in the UK. “With a group of a few dozen volunteers in Sheffield, there was a limit to what we could do,” Stuart admits. 

G4S was ultimately replaced regionally by the Mears Group, a similarly ‘puppeteering’ company. “But we were really pleased about the David and Goliath nature of the battle between a few activists in Sheffield and [one of] the world's biggest corporations.’

The victory was also partly symbolic; as Stuart quotes one asylum seeker: “I don’t want a security guard as my landlord.”

Forms of solidarity 

When I ask what he sees as the most crucial tactics within solidarity activism, Stuart said: mobilisation. “I always thought mobilising people meant shouting out at a demo, “go to a meeting, conference”. And it does, but it also means mobilising people’s skills. Students, retired citizens… people who wouldn't have been putting their knowledge and expertise to [activism], helping them to do that.”

One example of this is South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, which was set up by SYMAAG alongside law students in order to fill the gap in legal provision for people seeking asylum. 

Sarli also highlighted the impact of organising alongside people in detention, as one of the most meaningful acts of solidarity. Migrants Organise worked with detainees in Napier Barracks in Kent to stage protests against the detention system, and have previously joined activists blocking vans from picking people up from detention centres to be deported. 

As well as the numerous campaign successes they told me about, all three activists emphasised the value of showing up at events simply to show solidarity with those with lived experience of migration and the UK asylum system. 

This really resonated with me. All too often we become demoralised by the size of events, and the knowledge that our actions aren’t getting widespread media or public attention. Inevitably, this is especially likely in smaller cities. But since moving to Sheffield from London a year ago, I’ve come to realise how easily solidarities can be forged in a smaller activist community. Whilst rallies of several thousand may be harder to achieve, even small-scale actions and campaigns can be vital in boosting morale among those facing continued battles with the forces of power.


Sarli offers a concrete example of this: his organisation’s work on the Justice for Simba campaign. Zimbabwean asylum seeker Simba was charged over £100,000 for treatment by the NHS after suffering a stroke and being in a coma for two weeks. The campaign was ultimately successful in getting the fees dropped and his refugee status granted - and making him feel empowered to campaign for others in a similar position.

For Nell, solidarity is also about countering loneliness. ‘Because the hostile environment is so isolating […] solidarity is way more meaningful to individual lives than people can comprehend.’

Whether such connections are initially formed online, in rural Yorkshire or in London, outside Vulcan House or the Houses of Parliament, the need for sustained solidarity between regional and global people’s movements has never been starker. As Sarli puts it: ‘We cannot challenge borders if we are creating borders within organisations. Everybody needs everybody.’

Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya is a writer, activist and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine, interested in arts and culture and social movements.

Follow her on Twitter: @AnanyaWilson

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