||In February 1996 the
government stepped up its strategy of dis-integrating refugees from the rest of
the community by taking away the right to benefits for in-country asylum
applicants. It came as no surprise later when the attack was extended to all
With people about to become destitute, and the Refugee
Council not setting up the shelter they'd been funded for, an emergency shelter
was opened, called ARCH - the Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.
building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington High Street, which
had been empty and tempting squatters for ages. Bringing together local
squatters, church people and other community activists, and with the support of
some of the existing refugee community groups, ARCH was meant to house refugees
and be a centre for fighting this attack. The first mistake was taking the
place over before checking who owned it. We thought it belonged to the state
which both made it an appropriate target and legal proceedings more
predictable. In fact it had been bought by a cowboy building/security outfit
who tried 3 illegal evictions, repulsed with the help of the local Turks and
Kurds. This made everything stressful but the 24hour watch made it all more
like a camp than just another squat.
After only three weeks (seemed like a
lifetime) the place was evicted but work continued, with some asylum seekers
moving to a local church for awhile then to a squatted house.
mistake was thinking that we could organise the space and the refugees would
then just organise themselves. There were times when it did come together, but
between times a few people did a lot of unpaid social work. We started off
thinking in terms of an abstract collectivity called "refugees", who, from our
perspective automatically had common interests, when in fact we came to deal
with an amazing collection of individuals who had not chosen to come together
in this way. Eventually the refugees found their feet. Lawyers discovered a
loophole in some ancient Act that allowed help for destitute people (loophole
since closed) and people found their own communities and work. Some of us still
hear from some of them. Some of us still haven't recovered.
Refugee & Migrant Support Group continues to campaign and can be contacted
c/o Hackney Community Law Centre, 8 Lower Clapton Road, London E5]