Big Leaf Foundation, in partnership with Surrey University, Lawyers Against Poverty and Surrey Police, ran a session for local displaced young people to increase their understanding of crime, legal process and law enforcement in the UK and build greater trust in the police by providing an opportunity to meet officers face to face in an informal, non-challenging setting.
Our core aim is to support displaced young people soon after their arrival in Surrey - to help them find confidence and hope in a safe, meaningful and happy future. We want to combat the social isolation that so many of these young people experience and create opportunities for them to build their own positive outcomes. Living safely is an integral part of this...
Our projects give us the chance to get to know each young person as an individual and understand how they’re managing in their new environment. It’s through this that we come to recognise the aspects of their experience here that cause anxiety, fear and distress. A major daily stressor, expressed by nearly everyone we support, stems from traumatic experiences of law enforcement and, in particular, policing.
Before arriving here, experiences of law enforcement can be brutal. Immediate imprisonment without trial, violence or torture, bribery and racial harassment by people in uniform are not uncommon. Use of batons, dogs and pava spray in, say, Calais can be harsh and often seen as a kind of “European experience”. As a result, many displaced young people arrive here with poor understanding of their rights and responsibilities within the UK legal process, and a genuine fear of the police. Many describe feeling stress and upset at the sound of sirens and seeing uniformed officers in public, and worrying about surveillance by a hostile “secret police”.
During a 2018 research session with 45 displaced young people in a local FE college, 43 said they would not go to the police for help under any circumstances. When asked if they would report a crime, 40 said they definitely wouldn’t and 5 said they probably wouldn’t - for fear of being accused or beaten themselves. 39 said that if a police officer ever asked to speak to them they would immediately run away. Clearly, none of this is ideal for anyone and we wanted to address it.
As part of our Summer Programme, we ran a full day workshop - hosted by the Widening Participation and Outreach team at Surrey University and supported by the School of Law, Lawyers Against Poverty and Surrey Police - focusing on law and law enforcement in the UK, creating a space for positive interactions with police officers and lawyers, and building understanding and confidence in UK law.
Most of the young people were initially wary. M asked if the police would take photos of them. K stood a good way off from the breakfast table and asked where their guns were. He was almost suspicious to hear that no one in the room had a gun on them. “How do they shoot people then?” he asked. “How do they shoot us with no gun?”
Our first activity was about introducing yourself in 30 second bursts in two revolving lines, with everyone speaking at once. It was noisy and chaotic. But everyone joined in on an equal level and their wariness started to dissipate. As M strolled past after the activity he whispered “They are smiling. Like, friendly…”
Once in groups, we encouraged everyone to get to know the officer sitting with them at their table. “Ask anything you want” was the only direction and the questions came: “Why do you do this job?” “Do you like it?” “Do you like refugees?” and then, less formally, “Do you like football?” “Pizza?” and “Did you see India out for 78?! Very good!”
We wanted to avoid triggering past traumas. So rather than come in full uniform, the officers brought their kit in bags, which were laid out on the table for everyone to touch. “Just don’t press the red button” Phil said, handing his radio to N, who immediately pretended to push it, and was delighted when Phil laughed. “In my country, police don’t like joke” he told us afterwards. Emmie told M he could try her uniform on if he liked, and once he was assured she meant it, there was no holding him or anyone else back from a half hour of enthusiastic dressing up.
L showed us a scar behind his ear, courtesy of a police beating back home. He picked up Laura’s baton and turned it over in his hands thoughtfully. “How many times they beat people?” he asked us, not wanting to put this directly to Laura. “I don’t beat people,” she answered. “Not in 20 years. I do sometimes use it for breaking windows.” L looked astonished. “It’s different. Very different”. The same question went round the other groups, with similar surprise at the answers. S once told us that police encounters at one stage of his journey involved “Mace for breakfast, mace for lunch, and mace for tea, with many beatings for snacks”. “It was like fun for them” he said “but for us it was very bad”. And though we were shocked to hear this, the rest of the group nodded in recognition. It’s hardly any wonder that when asked what they would do if a police officer wanted to speak to them on the street, most of them said “run”.
The different laws encountered when moving to another country can be a minefield for anyone, and so our second activity was to sort images into categories of “legal”, “illegal” and “it depends", and to discuss the possible consequences of being caught. It turned out that very few of us were clear on the law around cannabis or downloading certain materials; several thought protesting against the government could get you an immediate prison sentence; and everyone was surprised to learn that yes, it IS a criminal offence for someone to yell racial abuse at you (and you can and should report it).
“We’re here to help you”, Dave stressed at the start of his presentation. “And so if you need help, you should come to us - we will listen.” Immediately the room relaxed, and question after question took the session well into the lunch break. Afterwards, a couple of boys went to tell Dave of their own experiences of hate crime, which they had until then simply accepted as part of UK life.
In the afternoon, Liz Williams and Dr Tehmina Khan from Lawyers Against Poverty and the School of Law took the room through the many stages of the legal process, culminating in a case study of a man who had shot someone dead in an attempt to protect his property. “Freedom? Or jail? What do YOU think should have happened?” Liz asked them, having shown them a reenactment of the crime. The cards held aloft in response showed a room evenly split between two judgements and energetic debate ensued.
The day ended on a wonderful high with a visit from the High Sheriff of Surrey, Dr Julie Llewellyn. The room was transfixed by her uniform and that she was the 800th High Sheriff ever, in a post dating back to 1066; there was equal delight at the idea that she was “helping the Queen” by attending the day. But it was her message to the room that had the biggest impact. “I’m here to say that YOU matter,” she said. “You are an inspiration. You are important.” This is exactly the message at the core of our ethos and to hear it spoken with conviction by someone outside of Big Leaf, and in such a position as High Sheriff, was truly powerful. It is not a message that these young people always hear and the silence in the room as it sank in was telling.
Everyone was delighted to receive their certificates outlining their participation in the summer school and acknowledging so many achievements, (“It’s my first certificate! Where is frame?!”) and the cheerful buzz in the room at the end of the day as people took photos with the High Sheriff, the university team and the police officers was in complete contrast to the nervous quiet with which the day had started. And this says it all.
We know that the day itself was unique - this was somewhat uncharted ground for all of us. We didn’t take it on lightly, and when misgivings were expressed ahead of time, we gave them serious consideration. We understand that our own experiences as UK citizens do not reflect those of refugee communities and so we were careful to speak at length to those with lived experience of displacement. We were clear that the point of the day was not to suggest that every British police officer is inherently “good” and every legal decision will be “fair”. We understand that we can’t promise that the law or the police will always treat them well and indeed, we know several who have had terrible experiences. However, we do want them to know that they have as much right to police service and to legal process as anyone else. We want them to know that if they are treated badly, they have recourse to support. But we also want them to know that, as Dave said, there are plenty of decent police officers out there whose main aim is to keep everyone safe, and they don’t always need to be afraid.
It’s clear that everyone involved in the day agreed on this - that a better understanding of your right to assistance, knowledge of how and when to ask for it and improved assurance of ethical and equal treatment, should go a long way towards building confidence that a safe and productive life is possible. And this is a good thing for everyone.
We couldn’t have done this without the generosity, openness and commitment of the Surrey police officers, both in the planning and the delivery of the day. Our biggest thanks to Inspector Dave Bentley, Sgt Emmie Harris, PC Phil Jebb, PC Laura Magdwick-Smith and PCSO Dublin-Cumberbatch for their support, compassion and humour throughout the day. It made such a difference and we are so grateful.
And also to Liz Williams, Director of Clinical Legal Education, and Dr Tehmina Khan from the School of Law and Lawyers Against Poverty for joining us for the entire day and leading the legal confidence session with such empathy and cheerfulness.
Thanks as well to Rob, Katy and the brilliant student ambassadors from Surrey University WPO team for being such calm and excellent hosts.
Our gratitude also to Dr Llewellyn, the High Sheriff of Surrey, for understanding exactly what it is these young people need to hear and for delivering that message with such impact.
And finally of course thanks to all the young people who trusted us enough to come along, and brought such energy and enthusiasm with them.
In the words of A, “At first, I was not sure, but in the end it was my best day. I am very happy.”