Inspired to ease the plight of migrants and refugees fleeing to the United Kingdom from war, economic struggles or other hardships, Refugee Action St Andrews (RASA) is a society committed to increasing open dialogues about these issues. Having affiliated with the University of St Andrews Students’ Association, the society holds various events, talks, fundraisers and volunteering opportunities. The society are now calling for the University to “play our part” in order to support those who have fled war and persecution to find safety and rebuild their lives.
One way in which they hope to achieve this is through their main agenda to increase refugees’ access to higher education institutions in Scotland. RASA point out that refugees are considered overseas or international students by many universities, and are unable to pay these high fees. Focusing directly on the University of St Andrews, the society highlights that the University remains inaccessible to migrants and refugees who cannot meet the financial demands of a degree from the university. They are not eligible for any grants or student loans and face the additional burden of fees up to £21,000 a year which they cannot possibly afford considering many are unable to find work and must—according to the society—rely on government handouts of just £36 a week. Forced to abandon not only their homes and families but also their education, these refugees have few prospects for the future.
Drawing on the examples of the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, RASA calls for the vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews to support “asylum seekers, people with Limited/Discretionary Leave to Remain or Humanitarian Protection.” They launched a petition earlier this month demanding that all asylum seekers be classified as home students when it comes to fee status, and that scholarships be introduced for at least five asylum seekers, covering their tuition and living costs. Another demand in their petition was that the university publicise their Equal Access policies, thereby making them far more accessible to prospective students. RASA additionally point out that there is a wealth of difference between “someone who has fled their country of origin to avoid war, torture or persecution” and someone who has “chosen to study in Britain”. They argue that this distinction should therefore be taken into consideration and reflected in the university’s policies. Hopefully through these proposed changes, the university will be able to bridge the gap between home students and refugees, offering equal opportunities for all.
RASA’s petition received 270 signatures from both students and non-students alike. One notable supporter was Stephen Gethins, a member of parliament for North East Fife, who signed the petition as well. This overwhelming support from the St Andrews community meant that a motion for scholarships was approved by Students’ Representative Council and will be passed on to higher authorities for consideration. This significant step towards the inclusivity of asylum seekers and migrants reflects the hard work and perseverance of the society members who committed their time and effort to achieving this.
Aside from their petition, RASA have been working tirelessly to increase conversations about refugee rights and opportunities within the community. They have hosted talks with leading activists and experts RASA: Supporting Scotland’s Refugees such as Natasha Saunders, Alicia Kearns and Sarah Mardini who discuss the refugee crisis and its various political, social and economic intricacies. To highlight different cultures and increase awareness and understanding of different refugee groups, RASA also hosted a Syrian Food Night with traditional dishes.
Since their founding in 2016, the society has chosen a couple of charities to support each year. For example, the chosen charities for 2018 are the Scottish Refugee Council and the Refugee Council UK. RASA coordinated donation drives in collaboration with large Edinburgh and Dundee- based organisations, seeking clothes and other items to distribute amongst refugees throughout Europe. Their various events, such as the aforementioned Syrian Food Night, also aim to raise money for the various charities supported by the society.
For people interested in volunteering abroad, the society hosts informative talks where members share their experiences, offer advice on how to get involved and address key questions on the logistics of working abroad with refugee organisations. RASA is also working towards launching a volunteering program with several locally-based groups that will soon be looking for community member participation.
RASA is also working towards a social media campaign titled “Reinventing the Word ‘Refugee’’’. With the campaign, they aim to “explore people’s connotations to the word,” and the various discourses on migration. By highlighting cases of integrated, assimilated and settled refugees, they hope to depict an alternative view to what many might think of when they hear the word “refugee”, thus combatting the various preconceived notions and stigma surrounding the topic.
Their upcoming event, an art exhibition, explores the refugee crisis through an artistic perspective. By exploring the works of revolutionary photographers such as Elrik Johan Solheim, Simon Fox and Mariano Gringaus Urrutia and famous political cartoonist Vasco Gargalo, RASA hope to offer an interesting perspective into the crisis. The event will also feature testimonies from refugees and artwork, scripts and poems by students under the theme of “Beyond Borders.” Traveling across borders and fleeing everything you have ever known in order to start a new life is a daunting prospect, and the event page on Facebook calls for students to “reflect on their own sense of home” and immerse themselves in the life experiences of refugees.
Depicting the multi-faceted nature of the issue will hopefully increase understanding of the hardships of fleeing home and the hope that refugees can find in their new communities. It will also explore the concept of a world without borders and the prospect of a more fluid and inclusive world community.
RASA can be found on Facebook @RefugeeActionStAndrews for updates on the current conversations on the refugee crisis. For more information on their upcoming events, fundraisers and volunteering opportunities.