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Thousands in London unite in solidarity with refugees, as U.N. General Assembly meets for historic summit

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Thousands in London unite in solidarity with refugees, as U.N. General Assembly meets for historic summit

Thousands in the UK's capital came out in support of refugees ahead of the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.
22 September 2016
Refugees Welcome London UNHCR
Members of UNHCR's UK office promote the #WithRefugees campaign during the Refugees Welcome march in London on Saturday 17 September. UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

LONDON // Thousands took to the streets of London on Saturday in solidarity with refugees and with a message to governments across the world that more needs to be done to support the millions who have been displaced from their homes.

The Refugees Welcome demonstration – which involved some 50 organisations, including the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – came ahead of Monday’s first ever summit at the UN’s General Assembly on refugees and migrants.

The New York Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants affirmed that refugee rights are irrefutable and approved a document aimed at unifying member states behind a better coordinated global response to refugees and migrants. 

UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2015, there were 65.3 million people worldwide – including 21.3 million refugees – who had been forced to flee their homes.

The New York summit also asked richer countries to do more to help host countries and in support of humanitarian organisations – a political commitment which was made tangible at the Leader’s Summit on Tuesday, where 50 pledged to increase their humanitarian appeals by $4.5 billion [£3.5 billion] in 2016.

On the day of the summit, refugees and charities, supported by UNHCR, created a lifejacket graveyard outside Westminster, the UK parliament, to remind British lawmakers about the risks families have taken to reach safety. 

The lifejackets used in the display – organised by Snappin’ Turtle Productions – had all been worn by refugees on the dangerous crossing between Turkey and the Greek Island of Chios.

2,500 lifejackets were displayed in Parliament Square on Monday, reminding world leaders of the risks faced by refugees on the day of the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. ©Snappin' Turtle Producations (@snappint)

In all, 2,500 lifejackets – for adults and children – were displayed on Westminster Square on Monday as a reminder of the need for concerted international response. 

Certainly, among the 20,000 or more at Saturday’s protest – a crowd that included politicians, faith leaders, celebrities, activists and refugees – one common theme was a sense that the UK government should be doing more and quicker.

“Our government is absolutely not doing enough,” said Mary Owen, a retiree who had come to London from Somerset with her husband Malcolm to express their support for refugees. “This is a global crisis and we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg.”

Saturday’s turnout showed that “people care, people are good”, said Fares Fares, one of over 100 refugees who were themselves taking part in the protest. 

Fares came to the UK earlier this year via Turkey after fleeing his hometown of Aleppo in 2013. The 26-year-old left behind his family and law studies and said he hoped that the strength of public opinion would ensure that countries like the UK would take in more people like him. 

In 2015, the UK committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Earlier this year, Britain’s parliament passed the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act, compelling the country to take in unaccompanied child refugees from Europe. 

The man behind that amendment, Lord Alf Dubs, spoke to protestors after they had assembled outside Westminster. He urged them to continue to make their voices heard on refugees and to remember that, “one thing sways government: Public opinion. You.”

The Labour peer, who was himself a child refugee from the former Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport, a concerted British effort in 1938-40 to bring Jewish children from Nazi Germany to the UK, later said the protest showed the “strength of feeling” among British people over the issue. 

Last year, a Refugees Welcome demonstration – which took place a week after images of young Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on shore in Turkey hit the front pages -- attracted some 90,000 people. But Lord Dubs rejected a suggestion that there was “compassion fatigue”, and Ros Ereira, the organiser of this year’s and last year’s demonstration, said she was very happy with a turnout she feared might have been much smaller in a “noisy political environment”.  

“It would have been worth it no matter what” as a way to send a message to New York for Monday’s summit, but “this shows that there is a groundswell of public support for helping refugees” Ereira said. 

Marchers at Saturday's Refugees Welcome event in London wear UNHCR's With Refugees stickers. Reported attendance for the march was around 20,000. UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Veteran activist and screen great Vanessa Redgrave, actors Juliet Stevenson, David Morrissey and Douglas Booth were among the many who addressed Saturday’s crowd. 

Morrissey read out Refugee Blues, a WH Auden poem about displacement – the poem speaks of a city of “ten million souls” but with “no place for us”. The actor, who has travelled with UNHCR to Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan and spent time with refugees arriving in Greece said he was constantly trying to convey the things he had experienced on these trips to those he meets. 

“I think when you hear directly about these terrible journeys that people have undertaken to reach safety, it is clear that we need to help.” 

Booth said his generation largely understood that supporting refugees was a “shared responsibility” a message he hoped would be heard in New York.  On stage, the 24-year-od actor directly addressed the young people in the crowd.

“Youth,” he said, “stand in solidarity with refugees all over the world. We expect our governments to stand with us.”



United Kingdom. Thousands march in solidarity with refugees
Actor David Morrissey gives a speech to thousands of people in London's Parliament Square at the Refugees Welcome march on 17 September 2016.