Just a few days before the launch of the Leeds Migration Research network at the University of Leeds, an item on the local news recently caught my eye. The staff and students of Sheffield University had organised a walk in support of refugees and asylum seekers. The University presents this as part of a more general welcome: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/sheffieldinternational/refugees-welcome.
Going for a walk may seem a trivial action in the face of all the difficulties faced by refugees and asylum seekers. However I was reminded of a talk given earlier in the year (15/3/16) by Liz Fekete, Director of the Institute of Race Relations, when she spoke at our University on the moral crisis of European identity. Notwithstanding the outpouring of sympathy prompted by the photographs of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, she charted an increasingly antagonistic reaction to migrants wanting to settle in Europe. Observing the way in which refugees are being brutalised and robbed across Europe, she was particularly concerned by the way migrants were talked about in such dismissively, derogatory, disparaging terms; what she referred to as rhetoric; what sociologists refer to as a ‘discourse’. Clearly universities can play a role in shaping that discourse in a more positive manner.
The research focus tends to be on employment, housing and education, but our own research has shown the potential significance of leisure and sport spaces in integrating new migrants into the local community (http://eprints.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/418/). They offer the chance to improve language skills and develop social networks, provide continuity with their past leisure lives, and to appreciate local culture and show off their own. However, it is a potential that is not always fulfilled. For example, in Wales the positioning of rugby as the national game deterred some. The association with a close community of white Welsh males (or the image of cricket or tennis as being white men dressed in white) can make the prospect of getting involved appear daunting and all too easily serve to exclude even if clubs declare their openness (http://eprints.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/1725/).
Our research demonstrated that being white did not necessarily prevent European migrants experiencing ‘racism’. But it does not take racism to create feelings of rejection; the simple indifference of people who already have their own established social networks is likely to lead to new migrants feeling unwelcome. This is particularly hard to take in spaces that are supposed to be about convivial socialising. In the political posturings there is much talk of the need for ‘them’ to integrate without proper thought for what ‘we’ should be doing to allow them to feel integrated.
We haven’t walked with refugees and asylum seekers around Leeds yet, but we do have a special interest group exploring ways for the university to reach out to refugees and asylum seekers in our community. Those who would like to contribute should contact Karl Witty.