Hope for Syrian refugees to be housed in Malvern

Amnesty International UK

When members of a local Amnesty International group tabled a proposal to house 12 Syrian families in the English spa town of Malvern, the district council voted unanimously to investigate it. But when the initiative reached Worcestershire County Council the answer was a clear ‘No’.

They were to be resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme (VPRS), which offers the most vulnerable Syrian refugees a safe passage to and protection in the UK. So far the UK has admitted just 216 refugees, thus trailing a long way behind other European countries; Germany alone has taken in 35,000 on a similar scheme.

When Malvern applied almost a year ago they were the only rural area to do so. The council claimed the scheme was supposed to bring refugees to urban areas and that Malvern didn’t have the infrastructure, such as an already established refugee community, to act as a support network. But the council’s biggest concern was money.

At the time of voting, the terms of the scheme stipulated that funding would be provided by central government for the first year, after which it would be over to local authorities to support the families. It was this second clause that turned out to be problematic for Worcestershire Council leaders who said local taxpayers expected their money to be spent on local residents.

Two reports, commissioned by the county council and the district council, weighed up the financial cost of bringing these families over. “These reports were bogus,” says Ruth Forecast a member of the steering group Malvern Welcomes Syrian Refugees, which was formed after Amnesty’s initiative began to grow. “[The reports were] full of figures about how much it was going to cost for a year and they weren’t attributed to anyone and they weren’t substantiated. It painted the very worst-case scenario.”

The reports concluded it would cost around £150,000 a year to cover the cost of the 12 families, who would need 50 houses, a budget for English language lessons, food and clothing, and much more. Should one of the children be taken into care it would cost an extra £45,000, the reports said.

Forecast believes that after a year many of the families would be back on their own feet, working and paying taxes themselves. Malvern Welcomes Syrian Refugees have also been inundated with offers to help, which ultimately means less would be needed from the council: “We felt we’d got a lot of goodwill... people with real expertise and skills who would support in many, many ways,” says Forecast. “Our whole pitch all along has been that we've got a whole bank of people who would do that for free.”

Right from the beginning Forecast reached out to local residents and encouraged people with skills to volunteer. It wasn’t long before she had a long list of people willing to help. “I’m worried we’re going to drive these poor people mad with all these offers of help,” she says, laughing. “The emails are coming all the time, the messages are coming all the time, and people are coming to us to sign our petition.”

Still, it wasn’t enough: “All the Conservatives voted against and everybody else voted for, including UKIP,” says Forecast adding later: “I just refuse to believe they couldn’t afford it. That’s just lack of wanting to and fear of being unpopular and making assumptions that everybody is against taking in some people from overseas.”

That so many people in Malvern have offered their services reflects a growing empathy across the country that has seen people fill up clothes banks, join convoys of vans laden with aid to deliver it to camps in Calais and offer their spare rooms for refugees to sleep in. The more apathetic politicians become, the more people have offered to help.

Last week, a photograph of drowned three year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey after attempting to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, prompted a wave of (long overdue) public outrage at the refugee crisis and put the UK government’s response firmly into the spotlight. Celebrities and politicians joined in to pledge their support to refugees and put pressure on the UK to accept more, uniting behind the hashtag #refugeeswelcome. Finally it seems the UK government is moving on the issue.

A petition addressed to David Cameron claiming that “Britain needs to take in its fair share of refugees” gathered over 300,000 signatures, well over the limit needed to be brought to debate in parliament; it finally prompting Cameron to agree to accept up to 20,000 refugees over the next five years. The government has said there will be a “rethink” of how the UK’s £12 billion international aid budget is spent to extend the resettlement budget beyond a year.

This interest seems to have been reflected locally. On 9 September, MP for West Worcestershire Harriet Baldwin wrote a column for the Malvern Observer in which she said that she “will continue to work with local authorities and the Home Office to see how big-hearted local people can best offer the hand of friendship to those in most need, fleeing the horrors of war.” It’s a positive sign, but Forecast has her reservations: “It’s rather irksome that she will now step in and be so supportive when up to now she hasn’t backed anything. I just think it’s not on her list of priorities.”

That said, Forecast says she is “cautiously optimistic” that this new wave of attention could be just what Malvern needs to get a commitment from the council. “This issue is not going to go away but the coverage will probably go away soon. I’ve been feeling really desperate this last week that we have to capitalise on this and get as much commitment as we can from the council before it all dies down.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor