Last Saturday, 17th June, saw the main events of Celebrating Sanctuary, Birmingham's version of Refugee Week. Throughout the day, Victoria Square was buzzing with events and activities, although significantly less than previous years. There was also an open-air concert in Chamberlain Square in the afternoon, with live refugee bands from different parts of the world.
Having postponed a guided tour of Birmingham's border regime that was supposed to take place on that same day, Birmingham NoBorders chose to do some leafleting to "tell people the truth about the event," as one of the activists put it. The leaflet, of which hundreds of copies were given away, exposed ‘The Angel Group’ and criticised Celebrating Sanctuary for, among other things, being funded by asylum profiteers.
There were 4 tents in Victoria Square: the Children's Tent, where face painting, clowning and badge-making managed to attract curious families and kids; the Umbrella Tent, where participating charities and community organisations celebrated their cultural heritage and work with refugees and asylum seekers and, outside, some live performances and workshops took place; the Little Tent, where information on some refugee- and asylum-related issues was provided to the public; and, of course, the Angel Tent, the housing providers who are the main sponsor of the event.
This last one, The Angel Group's tent, was where NoBorders activists were most interested. Typically, the tent was filled with blue and white balloons bearing the Angel Group's (far from) angelic logo, as well as a "visitor book", where people could leave their messages and "thank Angel for this wonderful event." Besides the usual corporate promotional video presentation, which basically showed happy, smiling refugees filmed at last years celebrating sanctuary and clean, shining houses, there was a photo exhibition by Argentinean photojournalist Justo Casal on life in Kenyan refugee camps and live craft demonstrations by artists Jafar Dabiri and Mimi Khine.
Armed with a video and a photo camera, two NoBorders activists walked in, so innocently, and asked the staff for an interview to explain about the event and the Angel Group. Hearing, however, that it was for Indymedia (revealing that was apparently a mistake!), the staff declined and said they were not allowed to give interviews because of their links to the Home Office. They also claimed they were not allowed to promote their company, which seemed a little contradictory considering their promotional video, branded balloons, and logo plastered all over the Celebrating Sanctuary event. Polite at first, but increasingly uncomfortable with the arguments, they eventually asked the activists to leave the tent and stop filming. Not only that, but one of the staff also took out a camera and attempted to take photos of the two activists!
Having 'failed' in their first mission, the activists took out their leaflets and began handing them to onlookers and passers-by, starting, of course, with the Angel Group staff. A lot of people seemed interested, some indeed shocked, with what they were reading.
Soon afterwards, the activists were approached by Council security guards, instructed by Celebrating Sanctuary officials, and asked to "please stop leafleting" because they were "upsetting some people." Activists responded by pointing out that none of the leaflet's content was offensive and that they were well within their legal rights to distribute the leaflets. One security guard, who also claimed they did not have the right to film him, was now saying that this was not actually a public space but a closed one when there is an event going on. Not getting anywhere fast, however, he eventually went off "to call the police."
A bit later, the "leafleters" were approached by Celebrating Sanctuary's secretary, Shari Brown. Very kindly, she said "they would like them to stop leafleting." After some discussion, however, she went to talk to the Angel Group people. She came back a while later and conceded that the leafleters were practising their legal rights and they could go on doing what they were doing, although she wished they would stop and, instead, write to them formally about their concerns. Although she acknowledged that she was aware of the controversy surrounding the Angel Group, she added that Angel were "hosting the event." She said Celebrating Sanctuary were going to discuss this matter and were ready to formally respond, and even meet with activists. Of course, she, too, was given a leaflet and told that they, Celebrating Sanctuary, should be ashamed of being funded by the Angel Group and how it was at odds with their alleged aims.
It is worth mentioning that other people, apparently with less worrying literature, were also leafleting there but none of them was approached or harassed by 'Angel' or the security.
A BBC reporter was given a copy of the leaflet and asked whether she would be interested in reporting on this important issue (the Angel Group profiteering from asylum seekers, the scandals surrounding the company and the Home Office investigations into them, using the event as a cheap promotional and PR exercise etc.). Quite surprisingly, the reporter seemed to have heard of "this stuff about the Angel group" before. Of course, she said she "would see" and "need to get a balanced account, both sides of the argument" but didn’t really appear to be willing to pursue this.
Later, the activists had a chat with the Argentinean photojournalist, Justo N. Casal, who had lived in Kenya for 5 years and worked with refugees and on human rights issues in its refugee camps. The photos were quite moving, with no less emotional captions, capturing some intimate human instants of the experience of living in a refugee camp. It turned out that he didn’t know anything about the Angel Group’s role in exploiting vulnerable refugees and had not been paid for showing his work because, as he put it, he was "doing it for refugees, not for Angel" and would have never thought of "making money out of it."
Some more leaflets were distributed among the concert's audience later in the afternoon and the day came to an end with the tents being packed and the two “Noborderers”, now joined by other fellow activists, going for a drink to fight off the day’s sweltering heat.