Posted on 30 September 2015 - By John Vincent

Welcoming Refugees to the UK (and to Libraries)

Welcome: the role of libraries in times of crisis

This post is part of a series of blogs we are publishing about the role of libraries in times of crisis. Other blogs in the series include The role of libraries in times of crisis and Anti-Bullying Week - what can libraries do?

As part of its response to the international refugee situation, the UK Government has recently announced that 20,000 refugees will be arriving in the country over the next five years. 

Libraries have a major role to play in welcoming new arrivals to the UK

Most obviously, public libraries are an important source of information and are key to signposting refugees to other local services. Many are open outside ‘office hours’ and are therefore somewhere that can be welcoming to people searching for help – often basic information is needed, such as how to find somewhere to stay, how to access health provision, and so on. School libraries also play a major role in supporting refugee children as they find their way around their new country.

However, in addition, all kinds of libraries have a role to play in providing access to information about refugees and why they have fled their home countries, helping to inform their users about the realities and the myths.

The Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) have just issued a welcome Statement, outlining in broad terms what all public libraries can offer, and it’s worth reiterating this offer here:

  • Free access to computers and wifi
  • Free access to materials to learn English, and access to physical and online resources in other languages (Including Welsh in Wales)
  • Free activities and reading resources for children and families
  • Trained workforce who can help with access to information and resources
  • Community space to use for learning and networking
  • Signposting to local education, health and wellbeing services
  • Signposting to other Council services
  • Signposting to community organisations and resources
  • Tours of the library and all services offered

The Statement also includes some brief library case-studies. The Statement echoes those being issued elsewhere, for example by EBLIDA (the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations). 

The Network has also started to outline some practical examples of what libraries can offer – these include:

  • Re-thinking how we work, eg: Re-create our spaces as welcoming, inclusive places, Develop consultation and outreach, Review procedures to ensure that they are welcoming and do not place barriers in the way of refugees engaging with our services (eg joining procedures, bookings, access), Build sustainable work (as opposed to short-term projects)
  • Providing information
  • Events and activities
  • Promoting resources
  • Creating social impact
  • Marketing and promotion.

Collecting practical examples of the work that libraries are undertaking

We are collecting more practical examples of the work that libraries (and museums, archives and cultural & heritage organisations) are undertaking – please let me have them (john@nadder.org.uk), and, with your permission, I’ll add them to the resources on The Network website. 

This builds on the approaches developed by the Welcome To Your Library project (WTYL) which ran from 2003-2007. WTYL won the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award in 2007.

WTYL was a national project connecting public libraries with refugees and asylum-seekers, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and co-ordinated through the then London Libraries Development Agency. It aimed to “connect public libraries and refugee communities in order to nurturelearning, well-being, and a sense of belongingfor all. WTYL builds on library services’engagement with social justice matters andaddresses key issues such as citizenshipand cohesion.”

WTYL developed a range of activities, including: 

  • Understanding and mapping local needs – identifying the size, location and changing make-up of local communities to map specific and emerging needs and planning accordingly
  • Simplifying procedures – waiving charges and making it easier to join the library
  • Working with community organisations
  • Developing a multi-agency approach to service planning and delivery
  • Outreach work
  • Awareness training and tailored support 
  • User involvement in both service design and delivery 
  • Providing ESOL, community language, reading and citizenship support.
  • Developing resources to share lessons and good practice and highlighting relevant policy and opportunities – in particular using websites, e-digests,evaluation reports and events.

Some key resources from the WTYL project, which are still relevant today, include:

The final evaluation of the PHF Reading and Libraries Challenge Fund, Leading questions, is also still available, and draws out themes from a range of different kinds of work.

We also produced a “Good Practice Guide” which, now dated, is no longer available. However, it highlighted four critical areas of work – which are still vital today. These are:

  • Understand the policy context in which public libraries are operating
  • Go beyond statistics in understanding local areas and their make-up
  • Use this intelligence to develop strong partnerships to plan and deliver services
  • Actively involvelocal communities in planning and shaping the delivery of services.

Finally, it also stressed the need to make an impact!

“Three rules for winning support:

  1. Never assume that others understand what the library does or what it takes to do it. Take every opportunity to educate them.
  2. Ask! Research shows that even people who don’t use the library appreciate its role and wish to support it.
  3. Don’t do this alone. Your message is most powerful when others speak up for you.”

About refugees

Finally, a note about refugees and other new arrivals to the UK:

The Government emphasis is primarily on providing a welcome to refugees from the civil war in Syria. However, as the SCL Statement says, the welcome needs to be extended to the existing 150,000 refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people who are currently in the country.

According to the Refugee Council:

“A refugee is a person who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…’ (Definition quoted from the 1951 Refugee Convention)

An asylum-seeker is:

“A person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded.”

A refused asylum seeker is:

“A person whose asylum application has been unsuccessful and who has no other claim for protection awaiting a decision. Some refused asylum seekers voluntarily return home, others are forcibly returned and for some it is not safe or practical for them to return until conditions in their country change.”

An economic migrant is:

“Someone who has moved to another country to work. Refugees are not economic migrants.”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

“‘The international legal definition of a stateless person is set out in Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines a stateless person as ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’. This means that a stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives.”)

It’s also important to remember that we have a strong role in supporting other new arrivals to the UK. These include: 

  • European Union migrants (citizens of the majority of countries in EU, EEA and Switzerland permitted to live and work in UK)
  • Other skilled workers (eg from India)
  • Family members coming to the UK to be reunited with their family
  • Overseas students
  • Returning British nationals.

Do you have examples of work being done to support refugees and other new arrivals to the UK?

Let us know in the comments below, or email john@nadder.org.uk

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