COMMENT: Give refugees a real future

(10 September, 2015)

Local authorities have a moral duty to help those fleeing death and persecuti

5122Children in Zaatari camp credit Sam Tarling/ Oxfam

Council Leader Peter John is right to throw his hat into the ring of authorities across the country vowing to give a safe haven to Syrian refugees, but it is essential that the cold hard costs of this promise are looked into, in order to ensure their lives here do not breed resentment.

It is our moral duty as a first world nation to help those fleeing death and persecution.

As a civilised nation that enjoys the luxuries of being placed in the west and in one of the richest nations on earth we cannot stand by and wash our hands of the largest refugee crisis since WWII.

However, as these desperate people arrive they need to be given a clear line on what the future will hold. It is vital that the Prime Minister defines what funding will be available to councils across the country that must all share this humanitarian burden.

Local authorities are given extra funding from the government for the first twelve months that a refugee is in the country, after which time councils must find ways of paying for them out of their own budgets. And these budgets are being cut dramatically by Government year on year – with future cuts on way in November.

The Government’s own Local Government Association (LGA) has urged David Cameron to take into account the impact on schools, housing and GPs’ surgeries, as well as prioritise the legal basis of the refugees.

David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA’s asylum, migration and refugee task force, which manages how newcomers are assimilated by councils, said: “If the government wants a new approach, where a temporary safe haven is offered but people are clearly not going to be able to stay in the UK beyond the point at which it is safe for them to return to their own country, then they need to set out and implement that in policy and law from the start.”

The truth is that the war in Syria and problems in the Middle East and Africa are not expected to be resolved in a year – perhaps never. An immediate and then long-term strategy to allow councils help these people is vital.

Simmonds, who is also the deputy leader of Conservative-run Hillingdon Council, says local authorities in England are already taking 2,000 unaccompanied refugee children a year at a cost of £50,000 per child. A further £150 million per year is spent supporting destitute families whose asylum applications have been turned down.

While everyone is impressed by the generosity of local people eager to help the refugees, with some following Bob Geldof’s example of offering to put refugees in their homes, Simmonds asks: “Are those people who are opening those homes genuinely willing to have a stranger from a worntorn country living in their house potentially for three or four years while a decision is made whether they will be allowed to stay?”

To process an asylum application can take several years and that person is not allowed to work. With Cameron agreeing to take 20,000 over the next five years and the leader of our council vowing 20 to 50 immediately, the rules on asylum, funding and whether or not they can work must now be looked at.

The groundswell of public support in places like Herne Hill and at Dulwich Hamlet show the rise in our own moral purpose to help our fellow man. This must be matched by a Government willing to give these people a future that makes them welcome in the long-run and dare we say ensures that future numbers over and above the 20,000 agreed are brought in to make our lives and theirs all the richer.

A pro-refugee banner at Dulwich Hamlet FC.

A pro-refugee banner at Dulwich Hamlet FC.

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