Welcoming Refugees: UK People vs. Government

Media, Writing

Last night, international stage and film actor Benedict Cumberbatch delivered a message which surely Shakespeare would have appreciated for its dramatic and tragic undertone.

Stepping away from his curtain bow as Hamlet, the actor stunned the audience by praising Europeans for showing their support for refugees. He was also critical of the slow government response to the unfolding horror on our shores, becoming known as Death in the Med.

A few days earlier, musician and rights campaigner Bob Geldof offered to house four Syrian refugee families in his own properties. During an interview on Irish radio he said: “I’m prepared — I’m lucky, I’ve a place in Kent and a flat in London — me and (partner) Jeanne would be prepared to take three families immediately in our place in Kent and a family in our flat in London, immediately, and put them up until such time as they can get going and get a purchase on their future.”

Has Geldof caught the public mood or is this gesture politics, pitting the good hearts in our towns, villages, and cities against those who are scared and angry about “immigrants” and the threat to what Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, calls “Christian Europe”?

Not In My Back Yard

David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) Asylum, Migration, and Refugee Task Group, was the first politician quoted in response to Geldof’s offer. Its tone left a lot to be desired. “Unfortunately I think it is a bit pie in the sky,” he said.

“If Bob Geldof is willing to make that offer I’m sure his local council, which will already have a lot of people on its housing waiting list, will be very happy to bring them around this afternoon.”

It may have missed Mr. Simmonds notice, but the sight of 3 year-old Syrian toddler Aylan’s lifeless body on the Turkish shoreline has galvanized a vast swathe of Europe’s population and many major leaders into swift action. Well, if you can call anything “swift” after four years of conflict and more than 12 million displaced Syrian refugees.

Let’s be clear.

Any “immediate” response is still years too late for the millions of Syrians who have been left to wander the train tracks of Eastern Europe or risk the deadly sea crossing which separates the war torn of this planet from the mainstream investors in war.

Up until Jan. 29, 2014, the UK Government’s policy was to send humanitarian aid to Syria’s neighbors rather than accept refugees for resettlement back at home. A classic Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) response.

Under pressure at home and on the international stage, the UK Government now has its “vulnerable persons relocation scheme.” This gives priority to victims of sexual violence and torture, along with the elderly and disabled. Resettled refugees are to be given five years Humanitarian Protection status, which allows permission to work and access to public funds.

So far just 216 people have been resettled in the UK under the scheme (as at the end of June 2015). A further 5,000 Syrians have been granted asylum after arrival in the UK since the start of the humanitarian crisis.

Now, more than ever, aid agencies, unable to cope in the growing number of makeshift European beach and border camps, are urging leaders to do more. But will it be the public within the Euro-zone who leads the way in compassion politics?

People: Step Ahead?

“Are those people who are opening those homes genuinely willing to have a stranger from a war-torn country living in their house potentially for three or four years while a decision is made about whether they will be allowed to stay?” Simmonds said.

The answer from charities across the UK, appears to be a resounding: “Yes!”

Positive Action in Housing (PAH) is a registered charity in Scotland. It has 1,200 householders across the UK ready to take in Syrian refugees, immediately.

Robina Qureshi, director of PAH, wants to know the reason for the delay with receiving refugees, when aid agencies are clearly overwhelmed.

“Our message to the David Cameron and the UK government is: Where are the Syrians?”

Like many in the charity sector with experience working with asylum seekers and refugees she is frustrated by the UK response.

“The UK government has abjectly failed to meet a target of even 500 refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Initiative in the last two years. The Germans are set to bring in 800,000 this year, then 500,000 a year for several years after, with an efficient Mercedes style aid operation,” she says.

The situation in Syria is at a breaking point with aid agencies running out of money to feed or shelter 4 million refugees displaced outside Syria. A further 7.5 million are displaced inside Syria. Men, women, and children realize they could starve to death by staying put. They risk instead being displaced forever.

As Cumberbatch told his London audience, using a touching line from British-Somali poet Warsan Shire:

“You have to understand … No one puts their children in a boat … Unless the water is safer than the land.”

Hence, so many will be suffering the painful walk to Germany as you read this.

Meanwhile, the PAH website and many like it have been inundated with British families comprehensively willing to throw their doors open to Syrians in need. The responses have overwhelmed and overjoyed the small charity and range from the pertly practical to the heart moving.

It is Time

The public were asked: Will you offer a room in your home to a refugee and why?

This is what the public said:

“In the world we live in, it seems people are out for themselves most of the time in my experience. I am in a position where I can help because everyone deserves to be treated with respect and have a safe place to stay. Aberdeen.”

“We were moved by the plight of the refugees in the news in the past few weeks and as we have room to spare feel the need to share with those less fortunate. Abingdon.”

“We have a spare bedroom available with a queen sized bed and chest of drawers. There is space for a cot at a squeeze. I think this room would accommodate 1 adult and up to 2 small children. England.”

The new leader of the British Labor Party is Jeremy Corbyn. His first act as leader was to attend a rally in London offering a welcome to refugees.

The MP has won the hearts of young and old with his empathy-led approach to politics and his understanding of the post-materialistic zeitgeist. It is time for governments to take heed of the changing tide. As thousands of refugees risk death at sea, fleeing the terror and hardship of war, they can be greeted by a system that is both humanitarian and practical.

If only the current mood is respected and harnessed rather than quashed under endless delays or demotivating rhetoric.