Neil Merrick 10 December 2019

Providing sanctuary for refugees

It is four years since the first Syrian refugees arrived in Birmingham as part of a flagship Government scheme. By early next year, the number could well reach 550 - a number the city council promised to accept after former prime minister David Cameron said the UK would take 20,000 refugees by the end of this decade through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

Nationally, it is a target that may well be achieved. By July, just over 17,000 people affected by the Syrian conflict had arrived in the UK since 2015. More than 300 local authorities are offering housing, education and other support.

Natasha Bhandal, senior commissioning officer for resettlement in Birmingham’s adult social care directorate, is encouraged by the way Syrians have integrated, with three having started their own businesses as barbers or tailors. ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of welcome in the city,’ she says.

Local agencies work with the Home Office to ensure school places and homes let by private landlords are ready as soon as refugees arrive. No social housing is used for the scheme, she stresses.

On arrival, refugees are helped to register with GPs and offered intensive support by the charity Refugee Action. ‘They’re constantly grateful to the Home Office and the city council for allowing them to come here,’ adds Ms Bhandal.

The VPRS involves councils all over the UK, though relatively few in London and the Southeast due to high housing costs. It runs alongside three smaller programmes, including the Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme (VCRS), aimed at children and their parents.

Funding is relatively generous, with councils typically receiving between £20,000 and £25,000 per refugee over five years. Not all are placed in urban areas, and it is quite common to find Syrians in parts of Staffordshire, Shropshire and Lancashire, where responsibility may be split between the county council and districts.

Up to 1,500 are in Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2018, a video emerged of a Syrian boy being attacked in a school in Huddersfield, but such incidents are rare. Across North Yorkshire, says county council leader Carl Les, the scheme has been a success, though it is noticeable that Syrians initially placed in smaller towns tend to migrate towards Leeds, where there is an established Muslim community.

In Harrogate, a ‘district of sanctuary’ was set up by residents to welcome Syrian families and bolster local services. This included agreeing a safeguarding strategy between the council and community groups to protect vulnerable individuals.

Families come from Iraq and South Sudan as well as Syria and are generally offered social housing. ‘A lot of private landlords don’t like people on benefits,’ says Jenny Travena, a former Harrogate councillor and chair of the district of sanctuary.

While children learn English at school, some parents were concerned they needed to also improve their Arabic and set up a weekend school with a refugee as teacher.

While some Syrians travel to Leeds occasionally to visit a mosque or buy halal meat, they seem happier living in the town. ‘They feel they get more support in Harrogate,’ says Ms Travena.

About 850 refugees from the VPRS or VCRS are in the Liverpool city region, which covers six local authorities. Children and parents who arrive through the children’s scheme are just as likely to be from Afghanistan or Sudan as Syria, says refugee programme manager Julie Kashirahamwe.

Most families live in furnished homes owned by social landlords, but that does not mean they are given luxury items such as TVs. ‘It’s essential white goods, a bed, a sofa and a chair,’ she says. Money from the Home Office is pooled, helping to cover the higher cost of educating older teenagers.

Each family is allocated a caseworker for 12 months, during which delayed trauma may emerge. When a refugee first arrives in the UK, he or she may be running on adrenaline and any trauma is depressed, says ms Kashirahamwe.

Incidents of hate crime are rare, but community development workers are ready to dispel myths where necessary. ‘We’re constantly having to raise awareness through community cohesion work,’ she says.

The Government pledged to take 20,000 refugees through the VPRS after a public outpouring of sympathy in 2015. Those offered places are flown directly to the UK, sometimes from United Nations camps in the Middle East.

Charities and others point to the stark contrast between the treatment of refugees in government schemes and asylum seekers who arrive in the UK independently. It is not uncommon for those who come independently to wait months or years for a Home Office decision, during which time they may face destitution, partly due to the ‘hostile environment’ introduced when Theresa May was home secretary.

In Liverpool, the council uses money from the VPRS and the controlling migration fund, run by the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government, to improve wider services for asylum seekers. This includes classes in English for speakers of other languages (Esol), an area that has suffered from government cuts.

In Birmingham, says Natasha Bhandal, money from the VPRS has a knock-on effect that benefits other refugees and migrants, such as more interpreters in languages such as Arabic, and raised awareness of mental health issues among practitioners.

During the next few months, councils must decide whether to participate in a new ‘global’ resettlement scheme, incorporating existing resettlement schemes and likely to include more people from other Middle Eastern countries and north Africa.

To date, the Government has only said that a further 5,000 refugees will be accepted in 2020/21, leading to fears some councils could opt out. Stevenage, which took five families under the VPRS is happy to take more providing the Home Office covers the cost of private rented accommodation, says council leader Sharon Taylor.

Pressure on housing could also affect the number places offered in Liverpool, says Julie Kashirahamwe, but councils remain committed to accepting more refugees.

Birmingham should decide in January how many refugees to accept in 2020/21, with an assumption that funding will again be for five years. ‘Five years is necessary to support people in terms of integration,’ says Bhandal.

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