The demonstration came in response to the increasingly frenzied media coverage of the asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from Calais in recent weeks.
The BBC News and Sky News faced criticism for the use of a video of journalists pursuing asylum seekers to ask their country of origin. The video was perceived as detached and objectifying.
The small but enthusiastic crowd who gathered chanted “say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”, and many held signs that stated
“refugees are welcome here”.
Others held signs that said: “no one risks their life for £37 a week”; referencing the government’s allowance of £37.75 per person per week that asylum seekers are eligible for. Where asylum seekers are prohibited from working, this is their only form of financial support.
Speakers also drew attention to the case of Mercy Baguma, a refugee from Uganda who was found dead beside her young son as a direct result of malnutrition. Refugee charity Positive Action in Housing claimed that Mercy Baguma lived in ‘extreme poverty’.
The Labour MP Zarah Sultana said of the situation: “We should ensure people don’t drown crossing the Channel, not film them as if it were some grotesque reality TV show”. On social media, viewers condemned the broadcasting as ‘utterly sick’.
The misconceptions surrounding refugees and the mischaracterisation of those claiming asylum as economic migrants were the main reasons for attending the protest on Tuesday.
Angie Tjahjadi, a volunteer at North East Solidarity and Teaching (NEST), highlighted the misconception that refugees are required to seek asylum in the first country they arrive in. Contrary to popular opinion, the UN Refugee Convention does not make this requirement of refugees, and UK case law supports this interpretation.
For many refugees, the journey from Calais to Britain is one motivated by a desire to reunite with family members already residing here.
On the subject of the media, Tjahjadi said: “I think the common barrier to empathising with refugees and asylum seekers is the fact that people cannot fathom the fact that they could be very well in the same situation that they are”.
Featured image: Stand Against Racism North East (Oana Clarke-Wills)