Author: Posted: 9/3/2017
The Guardian
Theresa May is under pressure to increase the number of Syrian refugees offered asylum in Britain as local authorities say they can take in more than the government’s offer of 20,000 spaces.
Local councils have pledged enough homes to accommodate almost 22,000 Syrian refugees, according to a comprehensive Guardian tally. The government originally committed to providing places for 20,000 Syrians in September 2015, at the height of the European migration crisis.
Councils have been overwhelmed by community support for the scheme to resettle Syrian refugees, with many local authorities increasing their pledges after campaigns from local charities and citizens’ groups.
“The mission has been fulfilled,” said David Simmonds, chair of the asylum and refugee task group for the Local Government Association (LGA). “The response from councils around the country has been really positive. They have shown they are willing to provide homes to refugees.”
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This grassroots activism suggests British communities may be more enthusiastic about hosting refugees than central government believes. Last month, the immigration minister blamed lack of capacity at the local authority level for its decision to cut back drastically on the numbers of unaccompanied children who would be offered refuge in the UK.
According to responses to freedom of information requests (FOIs) by the Guardian, local district and borough councils have pledged homes for approximately 21,650 Syrian refugees, with many councils saying they will make more properties available as the need arises.
The LGA says having a higher number of pledges is part of a strategy to ensure that appropriate homes are found for refugees and does not mean more than 20,000 refugees will be allowed to enter the country. But community groups say the pledges show local authorities are willing to provide homes to more refugees and have the capacity to do so. These groups say they are ready to take in more refugees if May were to increase the government’s pledge.
David Cameron committed to the UK taking 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan in September 2015, days after pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who died during the journey to Europe, emerged and caused a public outcry.
The Guardian can reveal that more than 6,000 Syrian refugees have so far been settled in the UK under the progamme and almost 260 authorities, roughly two-thirds of councils, have agreed to participate in the scheme, with some pledging to take fewer than 10 refugees, and others as many as 1,000. Other local authorities are participating as part of county council offers.
Scotland, whose councils have pledged homes for more than 3,600 Syrian refugees, has promised to take the largest share of Syrians of any region (16.8% of the total number pledged). Every Scottish local authority has agreed to participate in the resettlement programme, with the exception of the Shetland Islands, which said it could not commit because of the limitations of the location.
Five local authorities have pledged to take more than 500 asylum seekers – Glasgow (1,000), Coventry (625), Gateshead (550), Birmingham (550), and Edinburgh (500).
“There has been a remarkable offering of support from local communities,” said Dave Brown, head of Migration Yorkshire, who coordinated the resettlement programme for the region, which originally committed to taking 1,500 refugees but had offers from local authorities totalling almost 1,900.
“One of the things we’re pleased about and proud of is how everyone is working together as a region. Every single local authority is taking part.”
Staffordshire county council pledged to resettle 50 refugees during 2016. It received pledges from local district and borough councils of homes for almost triple this number – roughly 150 refugees. The county council said the fact that total pledges from local authorities exceeded the county pledge “was a conscious decision to ensure the safe and effective resettlement of families within the county”.
Compared to the asylum dispersal system, which sees poorer areas in the north of England and in Wales take the majority of asylum seekers, the Syrian resettlement scheme has seen a much more even spread of refugees across the country. The regions with the largest number of local authorities not participating in the Syrian resettlement scheme are the East Midlands and the North West. No local authorities in Greater Manchester are participating in the Syrian resettlement scheme, due to the large number of asylum seekers supported by the region under another programme.
In other areas, pressure from community groups has caused councils to increase their pledges. Birmingham city council originally pledged to resettle 50 refugees, but after a campaign from the Birmingham Mail and local community groups, particularly Citizens UK, it committed to taking 550 refugees through the scheme.
“[The campaign] was backed by people from all walks of life,” said Waseem Zaffar, Birmingham Labour councillor. “When you get the synagogues and the Methodist churches leading a campaign in your city to provide support for refugees predominantly from a Muslim faith background it does help pull the city together.”
Similarly, Milton Keynes council originally pledged to take 80 refugees under the programme, which it said represented its “fair share”, but after talking with Welcome Refugees Milton Keynes, an offshoot of Citizens UK, the council agreed to double its pledge.
David Wolfson, chairman of Welcome Refugee Milton Keynes, said his group would “absolutely, categorically” be supportive of any moves from the Home Office to increase the number of Syrian refugees being welcomed into Britain.
“If you think about 30 people [the number of Syrian refugees settled in Milton Keynes as of December 2016] in a population of 250,000, what is the difference if it’s 60 out of 250,000, or even 200 out of 250,000? The numbers are minute compared to the help we could provide,” he said.
Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK, said the fact the scheme had been taken up by so many local authorities was a sign of the widespread community support for refugees from Syria.
Citizens UK set up 93 local welcome groups after Cameron’s commitment that the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees, and believes these groups “played a significant part” in meeting this target. The welcome groups received training about how to lobby their councils to accept refugees as part of the scheme.
“It was helpful in areas that don’t have any refugees to have a group of people saying: ‘We would welcome these people, councillors.’ They were involved in lobbying councils and finding houses, which councils were frightened there would be a backlash against,” said Jameson.
The FOIs also reveal how integral charities and faith groups have been in securing housing for the project, with roughly 30 local authorities saying housing was obtained partly or primarily through charities and faith groups making property available.
Bristol city council, which has pledged spaces for approximately 450 Syrian refugees, said 60% of its housing leads for the the resettlement programme had come from charities and the voluntary sector. Hampshire county council said most of the offers of housing in the area had come through church groups, with four properties owned by churches pledged as homes for refugees and many more coming from offers from members of church congregations.
Simmonds says one of the reasons the scheme has been so successful is that it is well organised and relatively well funded, with local authorities receiving just over £20,000 for the five-year period for every person accepted.
Jameson hopes many more refugees will be allowed to resettle in Britain once the target of 20,000 people is met, a number he called “nowhere near as generous as other countries”. Citizens UK is proposing that the government allow more refugees to come to Britain under the community sponsorship model, which sees local communities, faith groups, and businesses adopt a refugee family and commit to providing them with a house and support.
“If we can get to 20,000 together, I think our groups will say: ‘That’s great. Where are the next people coming from?’ There has been such enthusiasm for this among civil society,” said Jameson.
The Home Office said the Syrian resettlement scheme was one of the largest such schemes in the nation’s history and they would continue to work hard to turn pledges from local authorities into firm offers of homes for them.
This project is funded by the European Journalism Centre via a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation