STAR - Welcoming Refugees to the UK Since 1994

STAR - Welcoming Refugees to the UK Since 1994

STAR (Student Action for Refugees) is the movement of students at universities and colleges building a society where refugees are welcomed and supported as equal members of our community.

I’m the Deputy Director at STAR and I’m part of the staff team that runs the charity and supports the network of STAR student groups across the UK and Ireland.

As Refugee Week turns 20, at STAR we’re busy planning our 25th birthday next year. As with any important milestone, we’re looking back at how we got where we are today.

The decade STAR was born saw huge upheaval in the world, forcing many to flee their homes - the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars, genocide in Rwanda, and war in Afghanistan.

In 1992, a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, Andy Davies, now a successful journalist and Home Affairs Correspondent for Channel 4 News, came across a copy of a UNHCR magazine:  

“I was simply staggered by the extraordinary catalogue of human displacement. I was equally staggered, I suppose, to recall that during my three years at university, I hadn’t at any stage come across a student group specific to this issue. So that was when the idea of STAR evolved” (Andy Davies, STAR founder).

And evolve it did - Andy wrote to UNHCR in Geneva suggesting they should set up a network of student groups and, to his surprise, the Public Information Chief Sylvana Foa responded with ‘We like your idea. A lot’.  They asked him to set up a pilot group.

So, in 1994, Andy set up a stall at the Nottingham University freshers fair and started recruiting members. He clearly wasn’t the only student who thought that taking action to support refugees was important, because 100 people showed up at the first meeting he held to introduce the society. The next step was to work out how lots of dedicated, enthusiastic and friendly students could make a difference. The answer seemed obvious – they gave a practical welcome to people seeking sanctuary in Nottingham by volunteering with local refugee charities, helping refugees to learn English and to get to know their new home. They also started organising events to educate fellow students about the situation of refugees globally and in the UK; but it didn’t stop there.

One of the first members, Elly Hargreaves, who had quickly stepped in to help Andy make the society a success, took it upon herself to make the original idea of a network of groups a reality. She set up a group in London, then Edinburgh, and by 1998 STAR had six student groups and had held its first annual conference. The Refugee Council gave Ellie a desk in their offices and, together with UNHCR, it continued to support STAR’s development.  In 2000 STAR registered as a charity and it has continued to grow and thrive ever since.

The recent increase in refugees coming to Europe has been matched by an increased number of students getting involved in STAR. The magnitude of the global refugee crisis left many people unsure of what they could do to help but with STAR, students see that they really can make a difference. Our membership has doubled since 2015 and today there are 46 university and college groups in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and over 27,000 students are involved.

STAR students continue to volunteer in their local communities welcoming refugees in many different ways including running English Conversation Clubs, drop ins and homework clubs for kids - last year 1,500 students powered 84 projects to deliver vital services to over 4,000 refugees.   

“I love the conversation club, it is like my home, my friends are here…it makes a big, big difference to the English of the people who come here.”

Many STAR volunteer projects have their own legacy.  Several organisations can trace themselves back to a STAR group, for example Caras and Love to Learn in London, the Conversation Club in Sheffield and the North Glasgow Community Initiative.

STAR also continues with its educational work: students put on talks, plays and concerts so that people can learn about the experiences of refugees and join the movement to create a welcoming society. Over 30,000 people attend STAR events each year.

Campaigning for change is also a key activity of STAR, but this came a bit later. At the same time as STAR was getting going, the UK was changing its approach to asylum and introducing increasingly harsh immigration and asylum policies, with the aim of deterring people from coming here. These policies included removing the right to work or to choose where to live, increasing the use of detention, and implementing successive cuts to asylum support. The team at STAR realised that it had the potential not only to educate people about refugees and provide practical help, but to change the system too. In 2002 STAR launched its first campaign – “Asylum Policy is Pants” – and we continue to fight for the rights of refugees today.

Over the years STAR has been instrumental in many successful campaigns. These have included ending the practice of holding children in immigration detention centres, creating scholarships for asylum seekers and refugees with our Equal Access campaign at 58 British universities, and persuading the government to change the status of the 20,000 Syrian refugees being resettled in the UK, to allow them immediate access to universities.

However, there is a lot that still needs to change if the UK is to be a truly welcoming society for refugees. Today, we carry on campaigning for better access to university for refugees and for the expansion of refugee family reunion rights. STAR is also just about to launch a campaign to end the detention of asylum seekers with #TheseWallsMustFall.

We are hugely proud of what STAR has achieved over the past 24 years and of the many students who have made it all happen. We are particularly proud of the very warm welcome these students have given to so many refugees.

“To see [STAR] thriving now is a credit to every single STAR recruit who’s bothered to care enough to get involved. What has it taught me? If you have an idea, however simple, don’t always assume someone else will do it.” (Andy Davies)

If you want to join STAR visit our website to find out if there is a group at your college or university. If there isn’t a group why not start one? Check out the website for a simple step by step guide.

As part of our 25th birthday celebrations we’d love to get back in touch with anyone who has been involved in STAR over the past 24 years and to hear about what STAR meant to you and what you’re doing now - so please get in touch at emily@star-network.org.uk.

Supporting Asylum Seekers and Refugees for Two Decades: Initiatives by the University of East London and Refugee Council Archive

Supporting Asylum Seekers and Refugees for Two Decades: Initiatives by the University of East London and Refugee Council Archive

The Aquarius and its historic precedents: rescue at sea and the politics of disembarkation

The Aquarius and its historic precedents: rescue at sea and the politics of disembarkation