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

Paul Dudman and Rumana Hashem


On the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week, we would like to reflect on the activities that University of East London has undertaken to support asylum seekers and refugees.  University of East London (UEL) has over two decades of commitment to supporting refugees. Colleagues at UEL have been undertaking a range of initiatives for asylum seekers and refugees including the setting up of an MA in Refugee Studies programme in 1997, the establishment of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging, the running of life writing courses in the Calais Jungle to supporting refugees in higher education in 2016, and the development of an ongoing Erasmus+ funded programme, called the Open Learning Initiative (OLIve) course for asylum seekers and refugees in higher education, in 2017.    

UEL has also been home to the archives of the Refugee Council for almost 16 years. Since November 2002, it has been hosting the Refugee Council Archive. The Refugee Council Archive is one of the largest collections in the UK, specifically focusing on the history of refugee movements and migration in Britain. To date in excess of 35,000 items have been catalogued. It’s a treasure trove of information on displacement, flight and exile and on refugee community life. However, we have been aware for a long time that whilst the Archive provides a crucial insight into the refugee experience, it is still very much text heavy, favouring the "institutional" voice over the often overlooked voices of those directly impacted by the "hostile environment" and the longer term ramifications of changes to refugee policy over time. 

Therefore, recently the archives have conducted a number of civic engagement projects in conjunction with the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging, and colleagues in Cass School and Communities. Over the past three years, we have been looking to explore ways in which we can use the Archive as a springboard for undertaking collaborative engagement and outreach projects as a means of raising awareness of the collections that we hold beyond the walls of the academy, and just as importantly, to help develop new collaborative interdisciplinary partnerships with academic colleagues; communities, and third sector organisations and policy makers. Through the UEL civic engagement agenda, we have been able to lead and partner on a range of projects. 

In 2015, we undertook our first civic engagement project, entitled "Demographic Access or Privileged Exclusion", in order to document life narratives of refugees. The project has enabled the development of a Living Refugee Archive which is a digital outlet and open access archive through which we have been making available narratives of displacement and rich histories of London-based asylum-seekers and irregular migrants. We have utilised a bottom-up oral history methodology to document the life narratives of refugees which have been preserved on the Living Refugee Archive.   

In 2016, we partnered with academic colleagues at the School of Psychology on another civic engagement project which has enabled us to establish a Refugee Mental Health and Wellbeing Online Portal for Refugees and Practitioners. This was undertaken to create an online portal facilitating free online access to resources for both refugees and mental health practitioners.  In April 2017, we conducted a project for “Supporting Refugees into Higher Education: A Research Hub for London”, with colleagues at the school of social science. This was done as part of the OLIve programme, an Erasmus+ funded short course for asylum-seekers and refugees, which provides great opportunities for students to access free higher education.  

UEL has continued to host various events and programmes to welcome refugees. Earlier this year, we hosted a three-day exhibition and two half-day workshops with different generations of Chilean political prisoners, entitled “Crafting Resistance”, displaying the art of detained Chilean refugees and demonstrating how resistance can be crafted despite the oppression of immigration detention. Through this work, we have made meaningful connections with the Chilean community and learnt about the power of Chilean artwork.   

Colleagues at Cass School of Communities and the department of Social Sciences and Social Work, in collaboration with the Refugee Council Archive, hosted a series of events for Refugee Week 2018. Students at OLIve started the week by telling their stories and forming resistance through photography.

19th June then saw the launch of the Refugee and Migration Network at the University of Brighton, with the support of Radical Futures. We also facilitated workshop on mental health and wellbeing of women refugees at the conference “Inspiration and Resilience: Voices of Refugee Women”, hosted by the Evelyn Oldfield Unit in London.  

On World Refugee Day (20th June) the department of psychology and the refugee mental health and well-being team at UEL hosted a highly stimulating one-day conference to launch the British Psychological Society’s Guidelines for Psychologists, Working with Asylum-seekers and Refugees in the UK. The 21st June saw the launch of UEL STAR (Student Action for Refugees) network.   

UEL is committed to continue its support activities for asylum-seekers, refugees and irregular migrants. Our OLIve programme will continue next year. However, resources for supporting the cause are limited. We have been doing what we can do and what we should be doing as universities to help refugees for overcoming barriers. As a nation of emigrants and immigrants we should be doing more. Other universities and third sector organisations across the UK should come forward with meaningful support.

4 Periods in the UK’s History of Voluntary Refugee Support

4 Periods in the UK’s History of Voluntary Refugee Support

STAR - Welcoming Refugees to the UK Since 1994

STAR - Welcoming Refugees to the UK Since 1994