Southwark Council has been criticised for housing less than half the number of Syrian refugee households it promised to five years ago.
The Labour council said in December 2016 that it would house 25 Syrian households by the end of 2021 – but has admitted it has taken in just nine over the period. Another family is set to arrive in Southwark soon, council housing chief Stephanie Cryan said.
Southwark said the housing crisis is to blame for not being able to meet the target. As we have reported, there are more than 16,000 households on Southwark’s waiting list.
Cllr Cryan said: “We have housed nine Syrian refugee households in Southwark, not individuals, with a further household arriving in the borough soon. This still falls short of our 2016 target of 25, but we can only provide housing as it becomes available. As we have been in the midst of a housing crisis in central London for many years, it can take time for the right kind of housing to suit the needs of families to become available. We continue to welcome and support all those seeking refuge in Southwark, and to do our utmost to house them as quickly as we can.”
The borough’s Liberal Democrat opposition criticised Labour for the missed target, comparing it to council home and cycle hangar targets.
Cllr Victor Chamberlain, the Lib Dem leader in the borough, said: “However, missing this rehousing target is particularly shameful due to the humanitarian plight that these unfortunate Syrian refugees were escaping.
“What concerns me with that pledge is that, not only did Labour conveniently forget about asylum seekers who are no longer covered by the media, but we are in the midst of another dreadful war that is causing large numbers of people to flee abroad. I put forward on behalf of the Southwark Liberal Democrat group a cross-party motion in March that called on the council to support Ukrainian refugees. I hope Southwark Labour takes that pledge more seriously and that it uses every power in its capacity to help all refugees whether they are fleeing dreadful conditions in Syria or Ukraine.”
Millions of people have fled Syria since the civil war began there in 2011. The UK has taken in about 20,000 Syrian refugees since 2015, according to the UN.
Southwark Council has supported more than 260 people coming into the UK from Afghanistan since the situation there escalated last year, although the numbers who have been permanently housed are unclear. Since the Ukraine conflict began in February this year, 100 more people have been supported by the council through the homes for Ukraine scheme.
The process for rehousing Syrian refugees in the UK is complicated. Peter John, the former Labour leader of the council, said in 2020 that the government works with the UN’s high commission for refugees (UNHCR) to identify the people most in need – often women and children and people who have suffered violence and torture, or who need medical care – who are living in refugee camps in the Middle East.
Local authorities like Southwark are allowed not to accept possible incoming refugees because of security concerns.
The council said when it first made the pledge in 2016 that it wanted to “ensure that we help to play our part in providing safe refuge to some of those most in need.” But it warned that it could be hard to find the right houses because of the state of the affordable housing market in London.
According to a council report at the time, it would cost about £32,000 to accommodate a family for five years in private rented accommodation. With Home Office funding, the council would actually make about £61,000 from putting up a family in council home over the same period.