Exhibition challenges negative perceptions of refugees in Europe
LONDON, Feb. 4 (UNHCR) - An exhibition that brings together the works of award-winning photographer Carl Cordonnier and testimonies of young asylum seekers and Europeans is challenging the negative perceptions of refugees in Europe. The show in the London stage of a European run comes at a critical time as the European Union debates a common asylum policy.
The Mayor of London opened on Monday the exhibition of the British Council, called "New Young Europeans," at the City Hall and will go on until Feb. 27. It is about young people: some who have never questioned their right to call Europe their home, others who are asylum seekers or refugees from all over the world.
Michael Kingsley-Nyinah, deputy representative of UNHCR's London office, has welcomed the project as a timely initiative: "By working with young people from both refugee and host communities, it is a powerful reminder to the wider European community that the hopes and dreams of young people can transcend culture and nationality. It conveys a strong message that it is in Europe's own interest to harness the positive energy of young people to break down barriers of misunderstanding."
The exhibition displays personal testimonies alongside portraits by Cordonnier. However, visitors cannot immediately tell who is an asylum seeker and who isn't. In presenting the images and stories of both communities as an indistinguishable whole, the project hopes to reflect the reality of an ever-changing face of Europe, in which thousands of young refugees are seeking to rebuild their lives.
The exhibition shows young people overcoming many tragedies while bringing much strength and diversity to their new communities. As Bali, a 25-year-old British Asian, says: "These young people can teach you how to survive alone, how to form friendships when you don't even speak the same language, and how to hold on to the highest possible morals and values despite your circumstances. That is quite a big contribution to make to a country, isn't it?"
Since its launch in Brussels in March 2003, New Young Europeans has toured Cardiff, Helsinki and Edinburgh, giving residents a chance to explore issues of cultural difference, European integration and citizenship. Each city involved hosts a seminar, enabling young people to take part in what has become a highly controversial issue in many Western European countries.
Adds UNHCR's Kingsley-Nyinah: "Given all the heat and debate that currently surrounds asylum, there is often little consideration for the thoughts and ideas of young people - even less for those of young refugees. This project meets the pressing need to counter negative and hostile attitudes by giving young people not only a voice but a face as well."
Its arrival in London coincides with intense debate on what the future will hold for the UK's young refugees. Parliament is currently considering the fifth piece of asylum legislation in 10 years. Refugee and children charities hoped the bill would be an opportunity for the government to respond to concerns raised by the UK's Chief Inspector of Prisons about the current policy of detaining children. However, instead, charities feel that risks are increasing for refugee children. The bill includes proposals to restrict asylum appeal rights, to withdraw support from families whose claims have failed and to introduce harsher penalties for those travelling without valid documents.
The young people involved in 'New Young Europeans' will be able to discuss these and other issues raised by the project later this month. On 26th February they will take part in a seminar at City Hall, along with visitors and policy makers, including António Vitorino, European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, and Lee Jaspar, Greater London's Policy Director on Equalities and Policing.
After London, New Young Europeans will go on to Cork, Krakow, Milan, Rome and Madrid, before returning to Brussels. The project will end in early 2005 with a publication documenting this journey.