I have long been convinced of the need to celebrate the way our country is enriched by the refugees who seek sanctuary here. So, it was a particular privilege to welcome the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians to the Brighton Dome at their Brighton Festival performance in May.
Brighton and Hove is a more vibrant, welcoming place thanks to the Syrian shop owners, drivers, doctors, building contractors – and musicians – who have sought sanctuary here.
Sadly, in the last couple of years there have been many other conflicts that have forced people to flee from their homes – including those in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and now Ukraine.
Across the country, councils have collectively supported and provided refuge for 46,500 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in the UK via the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
But the work of organisations such as the City of Sanctuary Network, the Refugee Council, and, more locally, Voices in Exile, the Hummingbird Project and Thousand 4 £1000, is increasingly at odds with the rhetoric of the Conservative government.
This government set up the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme – intended to focus on the most vulnerable of those left behind following the military withdrawal – but has failed to give a start date for the pathway for those still in Afghanistan.
It set up the Homes for Ukraine scheme – which has been beset by safeguarding problems – and failed to get it to work. (Essentially, local authorities have stepped into the breach here.)
Most recently it has introduced a scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda that fails to respect the right to have their claim for refugee status examined.
Instead, the decision to deport is based not on the merits of the claim but on how the individual reached the UK in the first place.
And to add a lack of financial probity to a moral vacuum, the government has failed to demonstrate that the scheme even represents value for money.
This schism is less to do with who we are welcoming (or rather, not welcoming) and more with who we think we are, or strive to become.
Are we a country that lives up to the norms and values it espouses? Or are we content to turn our backs on those in hardship?
Last week, during World Refugee Week, I became one of a group of local councillors from across the country to sign an open letter to the Home Secretary calling on her to:
- Ensure that councils are provided with appropriate funding to support those Ukrainian refugees presenting as homeless to local authorities
- Urgently improve the Home Office’s communication and data sharing with councils to ensure that refugees from Ukraine can be resettled safely as soon as possible
- Uplift local housing allowance (LHA) to enable local authorities to procure private rented sector accommodation for refugees
- Accelerate the Home Office’s processing times for asylum claims and implement measures to improve the wellbeing of asylum claimants during their time in initial, dispersal and contingency accommodation
- Take forward local authorities’ submissions to government’s consultation on the full dispersal model and implement a long-term plan for the resettlement of refugees that integrates them into communities and in residential accommodation, with the involvement of local communities and the third sector
- Undertake a fundamental rehaul of the UK’s asylum system to ensure that it is fair, humane and treats refugees with the compassion they deserve
If we are a fair, humane society, why would we settle for anything less?
Councillor Siriol Hugh-Jones is the Green deputy leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.
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