This year’s World Refugee Day, on June 20, was marked in London with a reception hosted by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in the State Rooms of the Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster.
David Morrissey explained why it was important to celebrate World Refugee Day in Parliament: “We need to keep working all the time with the general public and with our Members of Parliament to make sure they are focusing on a situation that many think has gone away.”
The event marked the first time that the monologue from Act 2, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s ‘Book of Sir Thomas More’, written in 1593, had been performed in Parliament. Blanchett read the extraordinary speech given by Henry VIII's chancellor, Sir Thomas More, as he sought to quell race riots in London on May Day, 1517.
“Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?”
'The Book of Sir Thomas More', William Shakespeare
“It’s a call for compassion and empathy towards the plight of immigrants and refugees,” Blanchett said. “The sentiment and call for empathy and compassion is as relevant now as it was then when this speech was written.”
Introduced by comedian Matthew Horne, the performances included a reading of Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘Concerning the Label Emigrant’ by the actor Colin Firth.
JJ Bola, who arrived in the UK as child with his family seeking asylum from Congo, performed his poem ‘Refuge’, which was also read the following day in the House of Commons by SNP MP Angus MacNeil during his debate on refugee family reunion.
The original sketches and songs by writers Jenifer Toksvig and Phil Porter were performed by a cast from the National Theatre and taken from a collection of new works, entitled ‘Moving Stories’, which forms part of a community theatre project for Refugee Week 2018. As part of the project, theatre groups and schools from across the UK have been performing the pieces to raise funds for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
‘Moving Stories’ producer Emma Manton joined the actors Blanchett, Firth, Morrissey, Theo James Ruth Kearney and Lord Alf Dubs for a recital of Toksvig’s rhythmic poem ‘What They Took With Them’, based on the items that refugees told UNHCR took with them when they fled their homes.
Lord Dubs, a Labour peer, came to the UK on the eve of the Second World War as a six year-old refugee on the Kindertransport. “Solidarity with refugees is crucial,” he said. “They are vulnerable people. They are suffering. They are victimised in many parts of the world. It’s vital that we know what the situation is, understand it, so we can take action.”
Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, explained how the British government is providing much-need funding for humanitarian emergencies as well as working with UNHCR to resettle refugees via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme: “The pressure on refugees is so great that the disruption involved in being a refugee is beyond the comprehension of most people in the UK,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve resettled 11,000 vulnerable refugees from Syria, over half of whom are children.”
Shadow Secretary of State Kate Osamor MP explained why it was so important for politicians from across the House to celebrate the courage and resilience of refugees: “On World Refugee Day, it shouldn’t be us and them, there should be no separation.”
Closing the event, Speaker of the House, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, made an impassioned plea in support of refugees, stressing that the issue should transcend party politics.
For Syrian refugee Maya Ghazal, the event on World Refugee Day provided the opportunity to tell MPs: “We are just like you. We are like anyone else. It’s just bad events and occasions happened to us and we can’t really help it.”