Last Saturday marked a historic day in Britain as the largest ever demonstration in solidarity with refugees took place in central London. The march was called by Ros Eriera and Abdulaziz Almashi, a co-founder of the Syria Solidarity Movement. Its aim was to pressure the government to accept more refugees, and create safe routes for refugees through Europe. It took place ahead of an EU wide meeting of heads of state on Monday 14th, held in order to attempt to work out a solution to the crisis.
The march was enormous as over 50,000 people turned up at the assembly point, spanning both sides of Park Lane. There were hundreds of home made placards in evidence as people brought their own message of solidarity with refugees. Syria Solidarity activists were central to the organising of the march, providing stewards from the Syrian community, and arranging the logistics. One of the main points we insisted on was that refugees themselves lead the march, and that most speakers be refugees, or those directly working to aid them.
Refugees from many different communities were invited to participate, with Afghan, Gambian, Bosnian refugees, and even Chilean refugees from the Pinochet regime taking part. Representatives of Southall Black Sisters and Women for Refugee Women took part as well. One hundred refugees marched at the head of the march holding the “Refugees Welcome Here” banner while wearing t-shirts saying “I’m a refugee”. The majority of the refugees present were Syrian and Eritrean, reflecting the fact they make up the largest number of refugees arriving in Europe at present. The Syrian community had mobilised from across the UK to show their support, and hundreds of Free Syrian flags were distributed and could be seen throughout the march.
Hundreds of placards with welcome messages were also distributed, alongside 20,000 leaflets laying out our demands on the government. The demands were agreed by all participating groups, and a website has been set up to coordinate campaigning efforts over the coming weeks and months so we can continue to keep the pressure on the government.
When the march arrived at Parliament it easily filled the square and the air rang to chants of “say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!”. The socialist musician Billy Bragg stared the show with songs, before making way for speakers. Newly elected leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn attended, and called for a humane policy towards refugees, and for changes to foreign policy to tackle the causes of the refugee crisis; war and poverty.
Dr Rola Hallam, Medical Director for Hand in Hand for Syria gave a powerful speech, full of the passion and bravery typical of a doctor who has repeatedly returned to Syria to carry out vital medical relief work, placing herself in great danger to help others. Dr Hallam harshly criticised the government for failing to act when dozens of bombs were being dropped everyday across Syria, bombs which murder hundreds and smash lives and dreams to pieces. She called for the bombs to be stopped “by any means necessary” and for the governments of the world to enforce UN resolution 2139 which called for the halting of barrel bomb attacks.
One of the last speakers was Clara Connolly from the Syria Solidarity Movement. Connolly’s message was a simple plea, that governments and activists “listen to Syrians!”. Having ignored Syrians for four and a half years, the only way lasting solutions to the crisis will be found is by listening to those who participated in the struggle for freedom in Syria. Only by listening to the activists who make up Syrian civil society; the Civil Defence activists and Planet Syria calling for a No-Fly Zone to stop the barrel bombs and protect civilians, those non-violent activists who continue to struggle for a democratic civil state in Syria despite the chaos and destruction of the war. Only by listening to them will solutions be found which can stop Assad, and end the conflict in favour of the Syrian people, and not the regime or its myriad international backers.
The march was an amazing success and will be remembered for years after. It sets the tone for what will be a long period of campaigning and struggle to force governments to adopt humane policies towards refugees to ensure they do not suffer more than they already have in their attempts to find sanctuary.
To aid campaigning efforts, the activists who organised the demonstration are forming a campaign group Solidarity With Refugees, to coordinate campaigns for all refugees over the coming months. While the demonstration hope to pressure Cameron into allowing more refugees into Britain, his Monday morning visit to Lebanon and focus on Britain’s aid efforts overseas shows the intention is still to try and keep the refugees stuck in camps in countries far away from Europe's shores.
The determination of Syria’s refugees has shown this approach will not work. It is now our task to bring our governments to acknowledge this and do all they can to rescue more refugees before they feel forced to take the dangerous journey to Europe by war, poverty and their human desire for freedom and a future.