Former Refugee Robert Welcomes Engagement Project

4th July 2016

Robert Muza, 46, has been sharing his experiences as an asylum seeker and of working on the ground with Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in Gwent to inform the project which aims to improve trust and confidence between the Police and some of the hardest to reach and least engaged communities in the region, including emerging communities.

Mr Muza was forced to leave behind his home and family in Zimbabwe after the ruling ZANU-PF party led by Mugabe persecuted him when he became politically active in championing human rights and democratic change. When his friends started 'disappearing' and when heavies, apparently from Mugabe's government, threatened his life and that of his loved ones, Robert had no choice but to escape from his beloved homeland in fear of his life and came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2002.

After seven long years of not being able to work or access education as an asylum seeker, Robert was eventually granted asylum in 2009 and graduated from the University of South Wales with a BA (Hons) in Youth and Community Work (Sport) in 2013 and a Postgraduate PGCE in Teaching in 2014. He is now employed as a Youth Worker and Sports Coach in Newport across a range of projects and is currently studying for an MSc in Youth Sports Coaching. He volunteers his spare time in the community working on various sport projects with refugees and asylum seekers to help them integrate into Newport society.

He has been sharing some of his experience of working with these communities to highlight some of the challenges hard to reach groups have when it comes to engaging with the Police and how these barriers can be broken down.

According to Robert, one of the barriers which can often stop refugees or asylum seekers from engaging with the Police is their pre-conceived ideas that the police are as brutal as they are in the countries they fled from.

"I think people who come here are suspicious of the police, especially if the police are cruel where they have come from and use brutal tactics and physical force like they do in Zimbabwe," explained Robert, who started volunteering in the community in 2004 despite not having a settled place to live or any paid employment.

"In Zimbabwe, people are scared of the police and the police believe that if they beat you enough, you will confess and say everything. I was beaten twice at a football match and I suffered back and head injuries. I was just picked at random to be made an example of. The more you tried to explain that you had done nothing wrong, the more they beat you. I just thought the police were the same all over the world until I came here."

According to Robert, an asylum seeker's immigration status can often prevent them from engaging with the police, especially if they haven't been granted asylum yet or are in the process of appealing a rejection decision.

"Sometimes, asylum seekers won't report a crime to the police because of their immigration status," explained Robert, who has won awards for his work engaging young people in sport and in recognition of his contribution to his local community.

"If you fail your asylum, you become vulnerable and I have been in that position. One evening, I was walking in the city centre in Newport and as I was passing one of the nightclubs, this guy just walked up to me and punched me in the face for no reason. I fell to the ground and the police saw what happened, arrested the guy and immediately wanted me to press charges and take my details. However, because I was appealing my asylum rejection at that time, I did not want to be known and I didn't want to give them the information even though they were trying to help. You will find a lot of people who are seeking asylum will not report crimes against them because of their immigration status and they don't want their records tarnished."

The use of Stop and Search powers can also be a barrier for engaging with the BAME communities according to Robert.

"Some communities feel they are targeted more than others and the use of these powers can sometimes cause a rift," he says.

"However, when I run football evenings, I have invited police round to explain the use of stop and search and the young people are more receptive once they are presented with the facts. The young people liked it because most of them didn't know their rights and didn't know why they were being stopped and searched."

Although he clarifies that things are getting better, Robert believes that more information needs to filter through to various BAME communities about the police and how they can play a part and take advantage of potential opportunities. He hopes that this project will help identify some of those communities.
"Things are definitely getting better but I would like to see even more partnership working with our BAME communities in Gwent across the board," says Robert.

"It would definitely help enhance contact with new refugees coming in and dissipate that lack of trust or fear they have of law enforcement from their own countries of origin."

Robert has been running the annual Newport Refugee Football Tournament for the last eight years and Gwent Police now has a regular team. This has helped build relationships according to Mr Muza and young refugees are now getting used to playing against the police and some of their pre-conceptions about the police have been removed.

"I hope this project will help highlight the difference and different needs of our BAME communities in Gwent," says Robert.

"Sometimes the media paints all the communities with the same brush but they are all different. I hope this work will highlight different problems and issues and raise awareness about where these communities are with the police."