Rocio Cifuentes’ family fled the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile when she was still an infant. The family were resettled in Wales in the 1970s, where Cifuentes grew up feeling welcomed by the Welsh community and inspired by fellow Chilean exiles.
Several decades later, Cifuentes is now a leading figure in the movement to support refugees and promote tolerance in Wales. She is director of the Ethnic Youth Support Team (EYST), a Swansea-based charity working with young people from minority communities, including asylum seekers and refugees. In 2012, the charity launched the Think Project, an education program for youth at risk of far-right extremism.
Cifuentes was made chair of the Welsh Refugee Coalition in 2016. The coalition of more than 40 refugee support organizations is advocating for Wales to become the world’s first “Nation of Sanctuary,” and use the powers devolved to the Welsh parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, to ensure asylum seekers receive adequate support in Wales.
Refugees Deeply: How did growing up in a family that had sought refuge in the U.K. influence your choice of career?
Rocio Cifuentes: I guess it’s inevitably shaped who I am. My parents came to Wales with me when I was 1 year old, so I grew up in Swansea. At the time there was quite a large Chilean community who had come over in the same wave. I would always hear political discussions and so on. I suppose I took on their quest for social justice. I saw the injustice that had been done and I really wanted to make it right, make it better. Even as a very small child one of my burning desires was that the dictator in Chile should die, I used to have that as my birthday wish quite often. That burning desire for social justice never really went away.
Refugees Deeply: How did your family’s experience of integration influence how you see public debates in the U.K. today about refugee integration?
Cifuentes: I suppose we had a really positive experience. I had a really happy childhood and felt welcomed and integrated. My parents had good jobs, we lived in a nice house. I can see, in terms of the way that refugees and immigration are discussed today, that there is a better way and that it can be a success. It very much depends both on public attitudes and discussions around what refugees can offer.
“The Chilean refugee example, and others, show that with the right support, immigrant and refugee communities can make a real contribution, socially and economically, as well as in many other ways.”
It also depends on the resources that they’re given to rebuild their lives. I know that in our case we were given not too much, but enough to get on with life. We were supported by different charities like the World University Service and UNHCR. When asylum seekers who come here now are given below poverty-line level wages to live on, we are just setting them up to fail and fighting against them. That’s part of the wider narrative around “us” and “them” and asylum seekers as scroungers.
I think it’s really sad to see this narrative because I know that integration doesn’t have to be this way. The Chilean refugee example, and others, show that with the right support, immigrant and refugee communities can make a real contribution, socially and economically, as well as in many other ways.
Refugees Deeply: Could you describe how the Think Project came about? When developing the program, did you draw from any personal experiences with far-right extremism, or from moments when a personal encounter counteracted prejudice?
Cifuentes: Prior to my work with now, I was working with young, white, working-class homeless people. I got to know a group of people that previously I would have feared and would have had negative stereotypes about myself. I became quite endeared to that community and could see why they felt certain things.
I haven’t had personal experience of far-right extremism or even racism. It’s more that I’ve got to know white working-class communities quite well, as well as Muslim communities, and so I feel that I can understand both of them and see their commonalities.
My colleagues at the Ethnic Youth Support Team, many of whom are black or refugees, are really good at working with young people and building relationships and rapport. I could see that anybody who met them could never be a racist. People can override the negative media narrative and stereotypes.
Refugees Deeply: What are some of the greatest challenges for refugees and asylum seekers today in the U.K., and in Wales specifically?
Cifuentes: They’re demonized. They have very little to live on, particularly asylum seekers. They suffer horrendously in terms of how long their cases take to be processed. And then, if and when they receive refugee status, their legal status is very precarious and indefinite. That real sense of vulnerability creates emotional insecurity, which can have a huge effect on children. Young people don’t know if they can go to university or not. They can’t really put roots down. They don’t know if they’re welcome. It’s very deep and existential challenge that they face to figure out who they are, especially for young people growing up. Often people have problems as adults because they have this never-ending worry.
“This hostile environment extends to anyone who might be thought of as a refugee by the way they look or speak.”
In Wales there is a different context. Some Welsh policy is devolved, such as education and housing. But the immigration system isn’t and so they have to adhere to the U.K. immigration law. This can complicate things. The public can become confused because most of the news they receive about asylum seekers and refugees comes from London-based media so it doesn’t necessarily apply in Wales. In Wales, asylum seekers have the same right to health care as anyone else but that’s not the case in the U.K. Many health providers and front-line service providers are confused.
Recently we’ve heard about the hostile environment, which has certainly trickled down to public services that deal with asylum seekers and refugees. This hostile environment extends to anyone who might be thought of as a refugee by the way they look or speak. There isn’t enough public education about who asylum seekers and refugees are and what they aren’t, or public education campaigns to combat the negativity.
Refugees Deeply: How has your family’s and your own experience of displacement influenced your policy priorities at both EYST and Welsh Refugee Coalition?
Cifuentes: Because my family came at a time when public attitudes and public support seemed to be better than it is now, this has led me emphasize the need for public education and public awareness, as much as the need for action and support. Even though we’ve had a wave of public sympathy for refugees after the Aylan Kurdi photograph, I would rather people are seen as individuals and humans and not just as victims who need our help. It’s not just about them, it’s about us as well and how we as the public understand and see the “other.” I encourage that scrutiny – looking at both sides rather than just looking at others and how we can help them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.