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The Smiley Charity Film Awards present — a powerful minute against immigration misconceptions

Four individuals from the Welsh Refugee Council pose together at the Charity Film Awards, standing in front of a backdrop featuring sponsor logos. From left to right: a jubilant woman holding an award, raising her arm in celebration; a woman with a short hairstyle, dressed in a black outfit with a printed scarf; a smiling man in a tweed jacket and glasses; and a man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a blazer over a casual shirt. All look thrilled to have just won an award.

The team from the Welsh Refugee Council (Alabora on the right) celebrate their win at the Smiley Charity Film Awards 2023

A shopper stands at a bus stop, plastic bag in her hand. A woman reads a book on her sofa. A poet performs into his microphone. Then, one by one, each disappears. The shopping falls to the ground, the microphone drops. There is only a gap left behind.

This is the Welsh Refugee Council’s stark representation of the fallout from current government policy on immigration. Every one of those people is a refugee or asylum seeker at risk of vanishing from their community. Created as a campaign against the Nationality and Borders Bill, in just one minute, this powerful film drives home the human cost of decisions made at Westminster.

“We started thinking about the human side of things,” says the film’s director, Memet Ali Alabora, “because when you add the plural after anything – refugees, immigrants – it becomes statistics. But they will take your friend, or the person you shop from… they will just disappear.”

Last year, Wales is a Nation of Sanctuary beat 400 entries to take home the Grand Prix at the Smiley Charity Film Awards 2023. As voting opens to decide the winners of 2024’s awards – in which more than 500 films have been in contention – last year’s victorious films, from Barnardo’s and the Canal & River Trust to Martlets Hospice in Brighton and the Harry Kane Foundation, are a potent reminder of the power of positive storytelling.

Click here to watch Wales is a National Sanctuary and the other 2023 winners.

This year, The Big Issue has joined the mission to bring these films to an even wider audience, as media partners of the awards. For Alabora, the project with the Welsh Refugee Council was very personal. A successful star of TV, film and theatre in his native Turkey, he was forced to flee in 2013 after his human rights activism saw him targeted by the government. “I feared for my life,” he says.

When he most needed a safe haven, Wales welcomed him with open arms. “I have never felt like a stranger, not for one day, in Wales,” Alabora says. “Literally Wales is home for me.” He now runs an award-winning, campaigning, creative agency, bak, from Cardiff. He’s even been one of the leads in a Welsh-language TV series.

In 2019, the Welsh government said they would become the world’s first ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ in a plan endorsed by the United Nations. The declaration allowed this small nation to do things differently, says Welsh Refugee Council CEO Andrea Cleaver. “Being a Nation of Sanctuary is really about enabling people to become their best selves, by helping them to integrate from day one of arrival,” she explains.

Wales is a Nation of Sanctuary was a way to communicate why that goal matters, and to counter negative narratives coming from Westminster. Cleaver points to research by Hope Not Hate showing far-right engagement on migration increased as the UK government ramped up its ‘stop the boats’ campaign. As the far right continues its rise across the UK, the mission of the Welsh Refugee Council could not be more vital.

In the last year, that work has been significantly amplified by their big win at the Smiley Charity Film Awards. “Our donations did go up as a result of winning this award,” says Cleaver, “because it boosts our profile, as well as people’s trust in our work and what we’re trying to achieve. It affirms that refugees matter.” The recognition also helped change the minds of organisations who have traditionally been cautious about funding campaigns in Wales.

“In the past, we’ve been told by funders, ‘we don’t need to fund influencing work in Wales, because migration isn’t devolved’. But they forget about the devolved powers that we have in Wales around things like employment or education, or health, and how also our Welsh government can influence the UK government,” she adds.

Wales is a Nation of Sanctuary is just one of the films whose impact has been boosted by the Smiley Charity Film Awards. This year will see the seventhannual awards, presented by Smiley Movement, the multimedia platform for changemakers and positive news and backed by The Smiley Company, the licensing company that owns the iconic Smiley brand. The awards are now the world’s largest campaign promoting cause-based films.

Since their creation, more than 3,000 charities and social enterprises have benefitted. In fact, The Big Issue was a finalist back in 2022 for our short about the London memorial to Street Cat Bob. That film has since been viewed almost 200,000 times. Last year, across the 400 entries, the awards generated 35.5 million additional views of the entered films, driving donations and social engagement, attracting volunteers, and spreading a positive, empowering message about the ways all of us can change our world for the better.

It’s not just the charities that benefit, however. Everyone who engages with the awards – by watching the films and voting for their favourites – has the opportunity to be uplifted and empowered, says Smiley Company CEO Nicolas Loufrani. They will help you get informed and

find out how to “be part of the change”. And of course, by voting, you can decide some of the winners of this year’s Smiley Charity Film Awards.

The Welsh Refugee Council campaign wasn’t able to stop Westminster passing the Nationality and Borders Bill. But that is not a reason to give up, Alabora argues. Referencing Noam Chomsky’s analysis that “Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below,” Alabora says we cannot afford to stop fighting for what’s right. “One campaign may not solve everything. But believe me, there is a butterfly effect. These things add up. We change the world. That is why it’s important.”

See 2024’s finalists and vote for your favourite.

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