Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is a national charity made up of 34,000 students across the UK, who collectively campaign for a more inclusive environment for refugees. STAR is comprised of 50 groups at universities and colleges across the UK as well as a national team which co-ordinates and supports these groups. This academic year, a group of Durham students, headed up by Ella Turney (President) and Bella Malvaso (Vice President), set up a STAR group here in Durham. Interview Editors Claudia Jacob and Aimee Dickinson speak to Ella and Bella about their previous involvement with refugees and asylum seekers, STAR’s initiatives for the year and the problematic media discourse which enshrouds the subject.
Ella tells us that her interest in STAR’s work was sparked when she worked with a refugee organisation in Amman as part of her year abroad, which got her thinking that she “wanted to make more of an impact regarding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers back in Durham.” She explains: “I completely recognise my huge privilege to be able to attend a university in a safe country, where I don’t need to worry about persecution, and I wanted to try and use this privilege for good”; after all, “it’s purely out of luck where you’re born in the world.”
Both Ella and Bella highlight the problematic media portrayal of the refugee plight, emphasising “I think people forget that refugees are real human beings, with real families and real-life goals. They aren’t people coming to ‘steal our jobs’; they’ve been forcibly displaced for reasons such as persecution and violence and are forced to seek safety elsewhere. No one wants to leave their homes forcibly, and I think we would all benefit if we held a more tolerant attitude to people whom we perceived as different. In reality we are all much more similar that we realise, prioritising our family, friends and safety.”
She adds that the media doesn’t focus nearly enough on the positives of migration in today’s society: “through this forced migration, we learn about other cultures and can bring about diversity and multiculturalism, which for me is a huge benefit in any society.” Bella also alludes to the tendency for the media to create a negative bias around migratory discourses: “semantics matter here. Using the words ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ interchangeably causes problems for both populations. It can have real consequences for the safety of refugees, as blurring these lines obscures the importance of legal protection that countries should by law ensure to refugees.”
Bella explains that “one of the biggest misconceptions that people believe is that most refugees flee to Europe. We see this in media coverage that regularly shows refugees arriving in Greece or Italy. However, figures show that at the end of 2019, 73% of people displaced were registered in countries neighbouring the one they fled.” The group hopes to break down some of these fallacies through their work this year.
Ella picks up specifically on the tendency of big news corporations to dehumanise refugees through their choice of images which often show people packed into boats, hence the thinking behind STAR’s Michaelmas term ‘SafeRoutesSaveLives’ campaign. The idea is that “STAR members take pictures of origami boats (to raise awareness of the unsafe routes asylum seekers are forced to use in order to reach the UK to claim asylum) around Durham and upload these to their Instagram accounts. We’re going to make a collage of all the boats with mythbusting facts about why asylum seekers are forced to risk their lives daily through crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in Europe.”
Ella concludes that “everyone is invited to come to our meetings (every Tuesday at 5:30pm) and to follow our social media.” The importance of STAR’s work can’t be over-emphasised; after all, for those who find themselves in the position of seeking asylum, it really can be a situation of life or death.
Illustration: Sophie Draper