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City of Sanctuary

January 28, 2010

After work today, a few colleagues and I walked over to the Winter Gardens to a ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day. Holocaust Memorial Day is marked every year on the 27th January to highlight the liberation of Auschwitz on this day in 1945.

It was a generally secular ‘service’ despite being compered by the Sheffield City Council Chaplain. There was a large presence from the Sheffield Jewish community, and a number of moving performances by the Sheffield Young Singers and Out Aloud, Sheffield’s LGBT choir. There was a (politically questionable) speech from the chair of the Sheffield BME Committee, and a typically vague one from Paul Scriven. I was impressed to see a wide range of ages at the event, many of whom were the descendants of Holocaust survivors, but many (like myself) were perhaps just looking for a place to reflect on the sometimes unreal things that history repeats, in light of Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Burma and so many more.

At work with the Equal Opportunities Committee we have been trying to use the poignancy of the day to promote a positive outlook, and for staff to challenge their own conceptions of others around them. Even now, racist, homophobic, transphobic and other discriminatory language and behaviour is common in casual talk. Sheffield has always been known for being forward thinking and Socialist, but fascism still lurks, and we must educate and discuss why these prejudices come about – not just demonise those whose views offend us.

The ceremony also highlighted the fact that Sheffield was the UKs first ‘City of Sanctuary’ – an admittedly wishy-washy term that nonetheless strives to promote a positive attitude towards asylum and refugees in the city. The city has a very strong network of third-sector organisations that support the local refugee and asylum-seeker community, but as the government (as it is, and the government as it may well become – Tory) increasingly demonises immigration, these labels are pure hypocrisy. The City of Sanctuary scheme is not funded by the government but does have some involvement with local councils, and (unsurprisingly) with faith organisations. In general, as far as I can see, anything that promotes an inclusive attitude towards asylum is sorely needed in this country.

For me, what is important is unity between workers, whatever their background. Political borders mean nothing when we share so much in our struggle across them. We attended the above meeting as a Trade Union, and I only hope that in Sheffield and elsewhere the workers’ movement continues to highlight the plight of migrant workers and refugees in this country, and that they are often treated as if coming at the bottom of the pile is a force of nature. Last year a campaign at SOAS university in London to stop the deportation of migrant workers who were being exploited as low-paid cleaners by University management only further highlighted how common this is in our workplaces.

I am glad that the event was put on, and the tone was fitting – to move onwards and promote equality, stamp out fascism, and educate ourselves about those around us. However, we must not forget that an event, or any campaign, organised by a liberal democrat council cannot do this for us – their policies, alongside the Tories and New Labour, fuel the problems that breed hatred. Only a united workers’ front can begin to scratch the surface of such problems.

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