Under a clear blue sky, buffeted by brisk sea breezes, groups of people carrying large colourful banners stretched out on the Hastings to Bexhill seafront. ‘Refugees welcome here’, ‘Solidarity knows no borders’, ‘No hate no fear’ all spell out one striking message in a glorious visual testament to shared humanity, a loving rebuttal to the voices that call for this island to pull up the drawbridge, patrol the channel and repulse the so-called invaders.
While the town’s Conservative MP, Sally-Ann Hart, called for tough government action to curb immigration, the people who live here got on with the task of doing what residents of seaside towns have always done – welcoming visitors.
The people who make the dangerous Channel crossing often have no choice – there are few legal routes for those seeking asylum. And, despite the anti-migrant rhetoric, the UK has far fewer asylum seekers than most other countries.
Hastings is proud to call itself a Community of Sanctuary, part of a national movement to help those who end up here searching for safety, a future for their families, a place to call home.
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And so, in October 2020, in the brief interval between lockdowns, all those who cared about refugees, asylum seekers, migrants (however they are described), but crucially regarded them as brother and sister human beings, came together to demonstrate what it means to be a Community of Sanctuary.
The banner display was organised by the Hastings, Rother and Wealden Refugee Buddy Project, which was founded by Rossana Leal, who fled from Pinochet’s Chile in 1977 when she was nine. She has never forgotten the kindness her family received from the moment they arrived in London, and later where they settled, in Edinburgh, a welcome that Rossana has given back so many times to the refugees arriving in Hastings.
Leal is a force to be reckoned with and her project helps to prepare a new home for a family and give them all the support they need for starting a new life. Another organisation, Hastings Voluntary Action, runs the Links project which also gives practical help and advice to newly arrived immigrants.
This same weekend in October saw Hastings Support Refugees food bank collection in the town centre. Two car-loads of food were donated to the local food bank with two more, plus hundreds of pounds in donations, going to Care4Calais which helps those in the irregular camps along the coast. Volunteers from Hastings bring warm clothing, hygiene packs and other essentials as well as food. It’s a never-ending mission as these camps are often raided by the authorities with peoples’ belongings and papers thrown wholesale into skips.
The town also joined in with ‘Conversations from Calais’ – a campaign which saw posters put up throughout Hastings, with poignant quotes from refugees about their experiences in the camps or on their journeys.
But ongoing battles have not been forgotten either. Hastings is part of the national ‘Lift the Ban’ campaign – calling for people seeking asylum to have the right to work. This is currently denied, with applicants having to survive on just £37.75 per week, or £5.39 per day for food, toiletries and clothing. The campaign is also calling for a 28-day limit for immigration detention which causes such suffering to so many thousands each year. There is currently no time limit.
Covid-19 has made the work harder this year but has not dented the enthusiasm or determination of this particular community of sanctuary. In June under lockdown there was initial disappointment as a big event, the Festival by the Lake, had to be cancelled. Undaunted, an online festival was held instead and raised almost £2,000 for frontline refugee support groups.
October did not see the end to their efforts as almost 100 people came together on a windy rainy night at the beginning of November in a vigil to remember the Kurdish Iranian family who had drowned in the Channel: Rasul Iran Nezhad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi, both 35, daughter Anita, nine, and sons Armin, six, and 15-month-old Artin.
Beacon of light
And film-maker Rosa Torr is planning to gather 50 volunteers to stand on the beach with torches on towards the Channel, a living lighthouse and a symbol of the warm welcome refugees can expect from this Community of Sanctuary. It’s taking place on 14 December at 6pm at Hastings’ Rock-a-Nore beach.
Hastings truly is sending out the light of hope across the Channel.
A Christmas Appeal has been set up by the Refugee Council. Click on this link if you’d like to donate to help these vulnerable people.
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