Speaking out, while we still can…

Photos by the author

Reaching out across the seas

Hold out our hands to refugees

Make the world a better place

To put a smile on everyone’s face

Stop the bombing, join together

International friends forever

This poem by primary school children, read by Exeter’s Pete the Poet, opened a rally organised by Stop the War Coalition.

More than 100 protesters attended the event in Bedford Square, Exeter on March 5. They were joined by representatives of groups including Amnesty International, Extinction Rebellion, Stand Up To Racism Exeter, Refugee Support Devon and Exeter City of Sanctuary.

The aim of the rally was to demonstrate resistance to the implications of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, currently in “ping pong” between the Commons and the Lords, and the Nationality and Borders Bill (NABB), which is at report stage in the Lords.  Pointedly, every speaker linked both pieces of legislation firmly and directly to the Tory government’s response to the unfolding human tragedy in Ukraine.

NABB is of deep concern with its proposals to reform the asylum system. At a time when, more than ever, we must make those fleeing conflict feel welcome and protected, our leaders seem intent on the very opposite, of hardening further the “hostile environment”. And while our European friends have been opening their borders, the government here has dithered while pushing ahead with this legislation.

Clare, speaking for Exeter City of Sanctuary, claimed that the bill does three things.

  • First, it is designed to prevent asylum seekers from coming to the UK: any that do get here will be liable to prosecution and criminalisation;
  • Second, the bill offers no new routes of safety for asylum seekers;
  • And third, it gives the UK government power to revoke citizenship without notice

The Lords are currently trying to amend the legislation. Those who oppose the bill were asked to contact their MP urgently and ask them to support the Lords’ amendments.

Jenny Langford, from Refugee Support Devon, added:

“The United Nations High Commission for Refugees believes that this bill would undermine and not promote the Government’s stated goal of improving the protection for those at risk of persecution. It seems to be aimed at deterring refugees, but there is no evidence that would be the result. It would break international law, damaging refugees and international co-operation.”

Steve, from Stand up to Racism Exeter, neatly moved the talk on to the PCSC Bill by stating that the protest today, and the demonstration of support for refugees, might not be allowed under the new bill.

The policing bill, if it enters legislation, will dramatically expand the conditions that can be placed by the police on demonstrations.  It’s of particular concern that these could result in demonstrations being stopped for simply being too noisy, causing “serious disruption” to an organisation’s activities or, in very vague terms, having a “relevant impact” on nearby people.

The policing bill also increases the penalty for breaches of conditions set by the police from three months imprisonment to up to 11 months plus an increased fine for individuals attending. This may impact on people’s willingness to attend demonstrations.

Peace activist and XR supporter Bex Flintham, speaking of her experience as an LGBTQ queer person, reminded the crowd of the power of protest. Bex said:

“People like me have rights in this country because we went out on the streets in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and all the decades since’ to protest for our right to exist, to love who we love.”

In the simplest terms, freedoms are hard won, and the right to protest is an absolute bedrock of a free and democratic society. And today in Russia we are seeing what the crushing of freedom looks and feels like. Let’s not drop our guard here, and let’s do what’s in our power to make our voices heard while we still can.

During the protest we also heard from: Richard Bradbury, Stand Up to Racism; Mike Gurney, National Education Union; Nelida Montes de Oca, Refugee Support Devon; and Mary Ann MacFarlane, Exeter Amnesty International. A huge thumbs up as well for the Exeter Extinction Rebellion Samba Band and Red Rebels for adding rhythm and colour to the proceedings. And, of course, many thanks to all the organisers. The rally was followed by a People’s Assembly on the Cost of Living Crisis.