Before working at BIHR, I worked and volunteered in asylum support casework, providing advice and advocacy to people navigating the UK asylum system. Refugee Week, which always take place on the run up to World Refugee Day on the 20th June, was always a highlight. Refugee Week is a week celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. Over the years I have been to gigs, attended talks, took part in cookery classes, and watched film screenings. But this year, I had one of my favourite Refugee Week experiences so far.

Our Refugee Week Session with Bomoko NI

As part of our 10 Free Sessions programme, last Friday I co-delivered (with BIHR Director, Sanchita) a session on human rights for the members at BOMOKO NI, the Northern Ireland Refugees and Asylum Seekers Women Association. BOMOKO NI is the only refugees and asylum seekers women (RASW) led organisation in Northern Ireland (NI). It was set up in April 2019, to represent the voice, and improve the lives of RASW by providing face-to-face advice and advocacy support services to relieve poverty and empower members, providing social integration and cultural activities, and educational opportunities for RASW. Bomoko NI connects and empowers RASW in NI to claim their rights and improve our lives through self-determination and public participation.

During the session today we talked about human rights, how they are protected by the Human Rights Act and how all of us can use our human rights to create positive change in our lives. Anyone in the UK can use human rights, human rights belong to all of us, it doesn’t matter where you were born. During the session, we shared the story of Lola.

Lola's Story

Lola, was a pregnant woman and had just been refused asylum. She was living in government arranged accommodation and was issued a ‘termination of support’ notice while she was giving birth in hospital, telling her she would no longer be receiving housing support from the Home Office. She was a lone parent, and this was her second child.

The notice period expired while she was still in hospital and on returning home, she and her children would have to leave their flat. Lola got some support from a local charity who said to the housing provider that evicting the family in these circumstances might breach their right not to be treated in an inhuman and degrading way (Article 3, Human Rights Act).

The provider decided to amend the status of the notice, giving Lola and the charity time to apply for accommodation support for the family. The application was successful and housing for the family was secured.

The Importance of Knowing our Rights

The Human Rights Act, is essentially a rule book for the State (which in the UK extends to public services and charities, companies and not for profits that are “preforming public functions”). This means that when we interact with a public service, we can expect to be treated with dignity, treated with respect, treated fairly and if this doesn’t happen, we can use our human rights. We can:

  • Speak up because we have human rights which should be respected and protected.
  • Talk to your service about whether they are meeting their legal duty to respect and protect our human rights.
  • Work with services to find better solutions without the need to go to court or use a lawyer.

There are so many areas where the Human Rights Act can be important for all of our everyday live and we had a rich discussion about the kinds of situations women are facing on a regular basis. For example, together we talked about how discussion whether authorities are meeting women’s human rights in the Human Rights Act could be useful in challenging poor housing issues, helping to move the conversation from what is fair, to one which is about the law.

In this BIHR briefing from a few years ago, you can read about some of the ways that refugees and people seeking asylum have used the Human Rights Act to create positive change in their lives: https://www.bihr.org.uk/hrarefugeesasylum.

We know at BIHR, that human rights are not a magic wand, they do not always provide a simple solution to problems. Especially when the barriers faced are really complex, as they often are for refugees and people going through the asylum system. But what human rights, and the Human Rights Act, mean is that any one of us, regardless of our immigration status can expect a basic standard of treatment when we interact with public services in the UK, and we can use the language of human rights when that does not happen.