The first three questions newly arrived Syrian refugees ask when they arrive in Britain are: “When can I learn English? When can I work?” And, “when can my child go to school?”
One family, who have been resettled in Kent under the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme after fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria, have an answer to the third. Their daughter is six years old – she’s been at school in Ashford for just two days, but she proudly says she’s already made a friend and learned how to write ‘dog’ and ‘cat’. Her parents say they only wish her sister could be there too. She died in a refugee camp last year, of a lung infection.
Theirs’ is just one story, but throughout our history – from the French Huguenots in the 18th Century, to the Kindertransport, to the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, to the recent Gateway programme which resettles 750 refugees each year from North Africa and the Middle East, and now to 20,000 Syrians – Britain has offered a safe haven to the world’s most vulnerable people.
But recent stories about asylum seekers being identified by wrist bands and red doors remind us that we don’t always get it right. Too many people end up living in ghettos, isolated from the surrounding community and feeling victimised by a culture they don’t understand.
The compassion we all felt at seeing those pictures of little Alan Kurdi dead on a beach will be betrayed if we let that happen to the 20,000 Syrians the Government has committed to resettling.
That’s why I called a debate in Parliament today to discuss the practicalities of fulfilling the Government’s pledge. After all the talk last year about the numbers we should take, I thought it was time to reflect on how it has gone for the 1,000 people who have come to Britain so far, and to share ideas about how to make this resettlement a success.
The scheme is being administered on a voluntary basis, so local authorities come forward to say how many families or individuals they have the capacity to care for. Both councils in my constituency plan to take part, with Swale Borough Council taking in ten families and Maidstone taking six individuals. They will get around £8,250 per person from the International Development budget in their first year here. While this is a generous settlement, other resources are a problem. In Kent we have a shortage of council housing and private rents are high.
Other parts of the country have a better stock of available housing but there may be fewer jobs. To have a secure future in Britain, refugees need to work. I have seen for myself in a refugee camp in Turkey the frustration and demoralisation from enforced idleness. Unlike those refugees, we will give refugees the legal right to work. There are countless examples of refugees from other conflicts who have been doctors, teachers or engineers in their home country, now cleaning offices or driving minicabs because their qualifications don't count in the UK. The Refugee Council suggest speeding up the process of getting foreign qualifications recognised in the UK – which currently takes about two years. That might also enable some matching of individuals to areas where their skills are needed.
In the rush to welcome people into our communities some things are easy to overlook. For example in rural parts of my constituency it’s difficult to get hold of halal meat, which Swale Council is taking into account as they work out where to house refugees. I’ve heard that in Syria authority figures are often seen as a threat, and so a policeman on the street is someone to run away from. Support with things like that, and understanding British culture in general, is an important part of helping refugees settle in.
This is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to harness the good will of the British people, thousands of whom offered to take refugees into their homes. Though that’s not practical, there are other invaluable things volunteers can do, like showing refugees around, inviting them for tea, getting children to play together.
These things make all the difference, because integration is a two-way process. The onus isn’t all on the refugees; its vital communities receiving them play their part. This could be a great success story if we get it right.
Britain has a reputation as a compassionate country, and a place of opportunity – let’s make that a reality for 20,000 Syrians.
Helen Whately is the Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent.
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