Refugees find their voice – will we listen?

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The Independent Culture

In the debate on immigration, "refugee" is a term we hear little of now. Yet these are often the most vulnerable arrivals. Forced from their homes, they might well have undergone long-term persecution as well as the trauma of dislocation.

Understandably, they tend to keep their heads down, suffering ignorance or bigotry in silence rather than rock the boat. An exception might be the Tamils, currently protesting in Parliament Square against the Sri Lankan government, who have established strong communities here.

Even so, they have yet to make a similar cultural impact to that achieved by immigrants elsewhere. Rock music would be very different without the Irish heritage that brought not only Celtic flavours to folk music, but influenced the output of The Smiths, Waterboys and Oasis. Club culture has been irrevocably changed by the influx of West Indians since the Fifties, giving us homegrown reggae and influencing hip-hop and dance music.

In recent years, Asian communities have begun to make a mark, particularly since Talvin Singh won the Mercury Music Prize in 1999. Nitin Sawhney has also been nominated while Jay Sean has seen success as a mainstream R'n'B vocalist. Such fame brings kudos for those with similar backgrounds.

Yet it is those settlers with refugee status that would benefit the most from having artists mirroring their own experiences and putting them on the cultural map – showing they are not here simply to gain shelter, but to contribute. Having never knowingly met anyone with an Iranian background, I am grateful to comedians Shappi Khorsandi and Omid Djalili for confirming the suspicion they are not all humourless killjoys obsessed with the US – aka Great Satan.

The Refugee Council makes culture a vital part of its annual Refugee Week. Indeed, this year, its Celebrating Sanctuary festival celebrates its 10th anniversary. The day of music and culture on London's South Bank focuses on creativity from marginalised communities – and speaking of Sri Lanka, Tooting's Academy of Tamil Arts is on hand to demonstrate their elegant and ancient dance form bharatanatayam.

Such events can often be dismissed as victories for box-ticking tokenism, where po-faced demonstrations of inclusiveness replace organic celebrations of life-affirming joy. Thankfully, Sanctuary's organisers Rita Ray and Max Reinhardt seek only the latter, having this year recruited the gorgeous voice of Bosnian refugee, Tea Hodzic. She performs alongside hi-octane gypsy thrills from Serbia's Kal while snappy wordsmith Laura "Dockers MC" Dockrill recites her street-savvy poetry. Celebrating Sanctuary is hosted by Coin Street Community Builders, a social enterprise that has developed that area for the benefit of local residents. In a statement of its aims and objectives, top of the list is that it "recognises the multicultural character of London", so no danger, then, of the festival being made unwelcome. Yet the challenge remains for organisations such as the Refugee Council to ensure they reach out to the most vulnerable newcomers.

London can be dangerous, especially for male youths, but at least they can find support from their communities. It is families dumped in random parts of the UK and already facing social and economic challenges that desperately seek an anchor. At the end of the last month, Love Music Hate Racism, the political descendent of the Rock Against Racism campaigns of the Seventies, instigated its biggest event outside London – a music festival hosted by Stoke City football club.

After successful carnivals in the capital, the organisation was warmly welcomed in an area with nine BNP councillors. For Sanctuary to make a meaningful impact, it too needs to leave its comfort zone.

Celebrating Sanctuary, South Bank, London SE1, 14 June