Interview with Beth Molyneux, SolidariTee Head Rep for Oxford
Beth Molyneux tells us about the work of SolidariTee, a student-led charity looking for long term solutions to problems faced by refugees.
Can you give us an introduction to the charity?
SolidariTee is an international student-led charity. We are a grant-giving organisation, so we don’t actually provide legal aid services but fund NGOs that are doing that. The NGOs that we fund are selected each year based on where we can make the most impact, and also how sustainable we think that the work they are doing is. It tends to be small, regionally-focused and community-based NGOs and within each funding cycle a certain number of NGOs apply and we select the eight. The main two things that we do are to raise awareness, so inform and educate people about the injustices faced by refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people worldwide, and also to fundraise for these NGOs. Our main fundraising method is t-shirt sales. We have teams of student reps at unis across the UK, each managed by a head rep. Reps sell t-shirts and work with events co-ordinators to organise events on campus which aim to either fundraise or awareness-raise or both. In terms of what we are fundraising for, it’s primarily legal aid for refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people, but also we have now branched out into some other forms of empowering aid – so one NGO, for example, helps refugees who are passing through the West Balkans to document their stories so that they’ve got evidence for when they do get to the asylum interview. The idea behind legal aid is that it is a more long-term, sustainable solution to the refugee ‘crisis’, because rather than just putting a plaster on a ‘crisis’, it allows people to better negotiate the asylum system, so that they can move on with their lives rather than just being trapped in a camp.
What makes SolidariTee unique – is it that long-term focus?
I’d say there are at least three things which make SolidariTee unique. One of them is definitely the focus on long-term solutions, so that includes the way that we talk about the refugee ‘crisis’, the way we do our educational content, but also the actual NGOs that we fund and the area of aid that we focus on. The other distinguishing factor between SolidariTee and other charities is that we are entirely student-led (there is a non-student board of trustees, though this is made up of the founder and former student directors) and entirely volunteer-led with no paid staff, so our admin costs are incredibly low, and we really do maximise the money that we are raising. The third thing that distinguishes SolidariTee is that alongside the very concrete awareness-raising and fundraising that we do, we are also empowering a generation of young activists, so we’re also thinking long-term in that sense – it’s not just volunteer here-and-there and educating the public, it’s educating our own members. Lots of people come to SolidariTee not knowing that much about it, but the charity equips us with the skills to then go and effect change elsewhere, so that’s another long-term aspect.
You’ve mentioned the language of the refugee ‘crisis’ – what do you mean?
As an educational charity, and one which is concerned with raising awareness about refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people, we are obviously careful not to stereotype or reproduce harmful prejudices against these people – not talking about them as ‘waves’, ‘invasions’, or this kind of thing you hear about in the media. It’s being careful with our terminology, so knowing when we are talking about a refugee versus talking about a migrant versus about an asylum seeker or a displaced person, because they’re not all the same. We try to be nuanced in our descriptions of people, but equally not presenting them as exceptionally vulnerable – we don’t show faces of refugees in any of our photographs, instead we try to focus on infographics. This is something that a lot of journalists who align with the work that we do have to be aware of – there’s these issues of ‘trauma porn’ and issues of people not consenting to photos, or if they are going to be potentially put in danger by their faces being shown. So we try not to focus too much on very emotional or evocative stories – sometimes they’re necessary but generally we won’t use someone’s account in order to ask someone to donate, we’d rather present someone with the facts and then they can make a decision, rather than being emotionally manipulated. We also try to avoid playing into the ‘good immigrant’ narrative. We want to celebrate refugees – all our t-shirts are designed by refugee artists – and we are all about empowering displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees, but if we talk about them too much in terms of ‘look what they are bringing to our country’, that plays into a narrative that suggests that they somehow need to ‘prove themselves worthy of protection’, when actually, protection against persecution by the state or someone in your home country is a fundamental right that is protected by international law.
Do you think that falling into stereotypes, tropes and use of overtly-traumatic imagery is an issue that is prevalent among charitable organisations?
I mean, if you think back to when you used to see charity adverts on TV, a lot of them do play on this ‘vulnerability’, this kind of emotional manipulation, and often though the aid is going to very good causes you can see this. Even newspapers like the Guardian, who tend to be more nuanced in their representation of refugees, still sometimes fall into these issues. So you’ll see articles where they use terms interchangeably that aren’t interchangeable, you will still see instances where they’re presenting this horrific traumatic story. Obviously it’s quite a fine line to tread – because you know when you’re talking about people drowning in the channel, it’s hard not to be emotive, and you do have to be emotive to introduce the human side, but we tend to err on the more neutral side of the information and the facts.
You’ve recently been expanding on what you as a charity do, could you tell us a bit more about the charity’s journey so far and where you’re headed in the future?
I think our founding story is quite iconic. It started with one girl in Cambridge called Tiara Sahar Ataii, who had worked as an interpreter in a refugee camp one summer – I recommend her Ted Talk for more information on sustainable solutions to the refugee ‘crisis’. She spent her student loan on a bunch of tshirts and delivered them by bike around Cambridge. Originally the charity was just in Cambridge, but it later expanded to have regional teams across the country. We are now at more than 60 universities across 6 countries, and that’s been a real increase over the last four or five years. Last year was our biggest year yet in terms of how much we were able to give, and we’ve been able to pledge even more this year – this year we pledged £142,000. Over time we’ve also increased the number of NGOs that we are able to support, it’s now at eight. In terms of projections for the future, I think it will be expanding along this trajectory, so spreading the word a lot more, while keeping it student-led. It’s an issue that isn’t going away, so we’re always just looking to adapt to the needs on the ground.
You’ve talked about a specific focus that SolidariTee has with ‘legal aid’ – why have you taken this direction?
Legal aid is really at the heart of what we work at. The NGOs we work with – traditionally we have worked primarily with ones in Greece, we have expanded this year into the West Balkans – are countries on Europe’s borders which play a central role with refugee movement, and have larger numbers entering, and thus have a larger caseload of people applying for asylum. We look at the initial point of arrival and what often happens is that people arriving in Europe are in refugee camps, and they don’t have access to information about the asylum process. The asylum process is a complex legal process, and people often go into it with very little information. There’s also other problems, like how long people have to wait for asylum decisions and how long they’re waiting for interviews, but often during this time they’re unable to access information, or the information that they can access might have misconceptions in it. So we provide, through NGOs, this legal advice, lawyers and case workers who can sit with people and explain their process more clearly, as well as funding interpreters and translators. One of the organisations we fund is ‘Mobile Info Team’, who provide information and educational content about the asylum process via social media and Whatsapp etc. We also fund Fenix, which has a focus on ‘holistic’ legal aid, which is form of aid which takes into account the trauma and psychological circumstances of what many refugees have been through – asylum interviews are often confrontational, which can be re-traumatising, and also doesn’t take into account that when you have trauma, there are certain things that you might not be able to remember, or are willing to talk about, especially in that context. So we want asylum seekers to be able to tell their story in a way they’re comfortable with as part of empowering aid.
What are the main sources of ignorance around this?
I think the media lacks nuance in its presentation of immigrants and is sometimes actively hostile, which creates misunderstandings and prejudices. So for example the term ‘illegal asylum seeker’ can’t exist, because if you come to a country to claim asylum, international law says that you can’t be persecuted for the way that you’ve arrived. If you arrive by ‘irregular route’ AKA ‘illegal without a VISA’, then if you then turn yourself into the authorities when you arrive you haven’t committed a crime. I don’t think people understand this. I also think people lack understanding when it comes to people coming to work – whether this is actually something we want to stop or whether that is also a form of, if not forced migration, not the most free choice they’ve been able to take. If we do have this ignorance about the nuances of refugee asylum law, I also think there is also active hostility on the part of governments, which you see in what has been called ‘the fortification of Europe’ in recent years, which seeks increasingly to ‘protect’ Europe’s external borders by excluding certain populations. So we see things like Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment policy’ and then follow this through various home secretaries to Priti Patel and Boris Johnson’s ‘Nationality and Borders Bill’, in which some aspects actually actively contravene the international law which grants protections to refugees and asylum seekers. In Europe, we are seeing a scary trend towards diminishing refugee rights, which manifests itself in hostile immigration policy, and the complexity, bureaucracy and hostility within the asylum process across Europe is a reflection of that policy.
In the context of recent events in Ukraine, how are you looking to address recent upheavals and developments in addressing refugee rights?
I think the fact of what is happening in Ukraine just shows that this is not an issue which is going to go away, in Europe and globally. What is significant about recent events is, I think, that it has shown that Europe does very much have capacity to take on refugees, and so though it is bleak, the capacity is there: it is a matter of political will. And so I think what SolidariTee wants to do is change minds – inform people, educate people. Because as soon as you tell people a humanising story about refugees, then various governmental policies seem inhumane. People’s reaction towards a ‘nicer’ media campaign towards refugees shows there is an intuitive human response to people fleeing conflict, which is ‘we need to do what we can to help these people’, so I guess what the humanitarian sector needs to do is to inform people. So broaden our perspective on who is someone who ‘deserves’ protection and health, which has been incredibly minimised by the British press and government, and also how they can best help these people. I think some recent initiatives about Ukraine are useful in terms of short-term solutions, but we need to look long-term.
How can people become involved, and how/why should they buy a t-shirt?
There are many ways you can support SolidariTee. If you go on our website there is a donations page, so you can always donate financially and there is an option to set up a ‘coffee cup’ donation of £3 per month. You can also volunteer with us – if you’re based in Oxford, you can get involved with the Oxford regional team by becoming a rep. You’ll do a quick interview, get a pack of t-shirts to sell, and would help with arranging events. If you would like to be involved regionally but can’t commit to being a rep, you can attend our events – like our social media page, which has details of all of the events that we put on. We have free educational events, as well as fundraising events. You can also get involved by buying a t-shirt. We have some designs which are like £10, some which are £12 (the price increase being because we have moved in recent years toward more ‘ethical production’) -. Our production costs are minimal, and everything that isn’t production costs goes directly to the NGOs that we fund. If you want to give to charity I think this is one of the most sustainable ways to do it – you get a visual marker of solidarity with displaced people worldwide, you get a beautiful t-shirt which is designed by refugee artists, and you know that your money is providing legal aid and empowering forms of assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. Message the Facebook page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to buy a tee or get involved with the Oxford team!
image description: the SolidariTee Oxford team standing outside, wearing matching t-shirts.