Newport charity supporting asylum seekers says Rwanda policy is 'unlawful and unpleasant'

A Newport charity that supports refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into their new lives in Wales says more people are feeling a sense of fear following the UK Government's recent announcements on changes to the immigration system.

The Gap Wales runs a project called 'The Sanctuary', which has developed a bike repair scheme where volunteers can learn new skills, practise English and socialise. 

Mark Seymour, the project manager of The Sanctuary, said policy announcements about relocating people who have arrived illegally into the UK since January this year to Rwanda have contributed to a growing unease.

"It's created a lot of fear in communities," he told me.

"It's really counterproductive to the great work that's going on around community cohesion around welcoming people and people integrating into cities.

"Deporting people to Rwanda, giving people short-term refugee status, deporting people. There's a lot of fear around that."

In a statement, the Home Office said anyone who arrives illegally in the UK from a safe country since January this year will be considered for relocation.

"This world-leading Migration Partnership will overhaul our broken asylum system, which is currently costing the UK taxpayer £1.5bn a year – the highest amount in two decades," it said.

"It means those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily can be relocated to have their asylum claims considered and, if recognised as refugees, build their lives there.

"There is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention, which prevents removal to a safe country. Under this agreement, Rwanda will process claims in accordance with national and international human rights laws."

The Gap Centre helps refugees and asylum seekers with free English classes.

But there is intense political disagreement on this issue. In the Senedd on Tuesday, the Welsh Government, supported by Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, condemned the UK Government for their assault on human rights.

Some of the UK Government's proposed immigration legislation was described as "callous, unconstitutional and in complete opposition to Welsh values and the founding principles of the Senedd" by Welsh ministers.

The Welsh Government says it plans to explore a Welsh Bill of Rights, something the Gap Wales would support.

"The Westminster Government's Nationality and Borders act is unworkable, unlawful and unpleasant," Mark Seymour told ITV Cymru Wales.

"It does nothing to create safe and legal routes. I welcome the Welsh Government's proposal. This more accurately reflects who we are in Wales. We are warm and welcoming to all who seek sanctuary from war and conflict here with us in Wales".

Refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world use the Gap Centre as a base to help them with the practical and emotional challenges of fleeing persecution or war in their homelands.

One of the volunteers, Abdul, has picked up the skills of fixing bikes very quickly. That's unsurprising perhaps, because he has already had a career as an aeroplane engineer in his home country of Ethiopia and then in the United Arab Emirates.

"I'm one of the volunteers. We're happy to fix bikes so that people can use them," he told me.

"And we are being environmentally friendly!", he added with a smile.

Abdul is one of thousands on a waiting list for the Home Office to grant him the right to do full time work in the UK. Only then can he return to using his skills on more complex machines.

He arrived in the UK in December last year with his family, after civil war in Ethiopia made it impossible for him to stay.

"It is meaningful to be here. In one way you're doing a good job, and also you're communicating. You're learning new cultures. You see people from different walks of life. So that by itself it gives you hope, and it gives you purpose for your life."

Bikes in need of some TLC are regularly donated to the project before they are fixed up and given to refugees and asylum seekers to use.

"New asylum seekers live on 39 pounds a week", the project's manager Mark Seymour said, "which is not a lot of money to travel so it's quite important for essential transport, as well as exercise and well-being."

Refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world use the Gap Centre as a base to help them.

The effects of the physical and mental trauma of what many people at the centre have been through before they arrived in Wales is never far from the surface.

"A common thing that's said to us is: 'When I come to the Gap Centre, I forget my problems'. So we want to give people a bit of respite from from their experiences back home, whatever caused them to have to leave their home country as a refugee".

The Gap Centre also helps refugees and asylum seekers with free English classes. In one class I witnessed, everyone's first language was Arabic.

"Isolation has been a huge factor that has affected people's well-being and for those that have arrived during the pandemic that's been even worse," Sarah Croft, the charity's Advocacy Lead, said.

"The classes are an opportunity for people to come together to practice their English with one another. Just seeing people flourish and starting work, being able to find some way that they can call home and rebuild is certainly very rewarding."

Back in the workshop, Abakar has already secured his legal right to live and work here. He arrived in 2014 after escaping the growing horror in his homeland of Darfur in Sudan, where there was a genocide in 2003.

The Gap Centre has helped him achieve a college qualification and find a job.

"Five years gone on I had a bad life, after two years ago until today, [I have a] good life. I think a good way, I work a good job."

In Newport, the Gap project has plans to extend its bike repair and donation scheme, with more refugees and asylum seekers set to benefit.

Beyond that, their futures remain uncertain.