IT IS TIME to step up to our international and domestic responsibilities – and make fundamental changes to how we handle asylum seekers and refugees.
During the remarkable last few days – when one story has completely dominated the media – I have reflected long and hard on what it all tells us about the UK, our place in the world, and how our government deals with asylum seekers and our own communities.
Images of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi finally began to shake politicians and people across the world from a collective state of apathy on September 2.
His mother and five-year-old brother also drowned when their boat capsized as they tried to make a 13-mile journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. It instantly became the iconic depiction of the true impact of what is probably the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
I am both ashamed and embarrassed at this country’s continuing failure to show leadership and play its part in giving safe refuge to people fleeing such unimaginable danger.
I also have to be honest and say I’m equally frustrated by the fact that tens of thousands of other men, women and children who have already lost their lives in current conflicts haven’t had the same attention as Aylan’s story. How many thousands of equally harrowing images of refugees don’t go viral?
However, every now and then in history a certain photograph captures the spotlight, makes the world think or leads to social changes – and we must seize this moment because, while we cannot bring that little boy back, we can do much more to ensure others don’t die while the world watches on.
A picture paints a thousand words and like many others I was haunted and distressed at the images of Aylan face down in the water. I simply couldn’t get it out of my head and, on reflection, that is not a bad thing.
You cannot look away or be distracted by rubble, bombed out buildings or explain it away through the complexities of war and politics. And when public reaction becomes so strong, politicians pay attention.
I’m sure we can all agree that we need to work to find a better solution but while the international community continues to squabble the human cost – more senseless deaths – it’s one we cannot afford.
David Cameron was initially right to say that unless we deal with the conflict which is putting lives at risk we won’t solve the problem which leads to people fleeing their homeland. But he is also wrong to ignore the calls for us to step up and do what’s needed now.
On Monday the Prime Minister finally announced the UK will accept up to 20,000 people from camps surrounding Syria over the next five years, with priority given to vulnerable children.
Yet an estimated 340,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Europe so far this year – most having taken that awful sea journey from North Africa and Turkey.
What about those refugees already here in Europe? Do we not have a moral responsibility to help out partners like Germany who have committed to taking in far more? To put it in context, around 18,000 new asylum seekers arrived in Munich last weekend alone.
The German Government says it will spend an extra £4.4bn to cope with this year’s record influx and – as part of that settlement state and local governments will get £3bn to help them house the 800,000 people expected to arrive there in 2015 and deal with the impacts of this.
The contrast with our own position could not be greater.
Our country and my town has a long and proud history of helping those escaping their own homeland in search of safe refuge. Those who came to Britain generations ago are now just as much part of Britain as the Prime Minister himself and contribute to our economic and social wellbeing.
But in stepping up and playing our part more actively in the international efforts we should also ensure the management and coordination of refugee and asylum seeker placements in the UK are done in an equitable way.
Serco is a private company with its own financial pressures and, as a result, it looks to place asylum seekers in the cheapest available housing.
Little or no regard is given to the impact from the moment new arrivals move in – in terms of ongoing costs to vital local support services, like schools and GPs – or the impact on the neighbourhood.
We know that when unmanaged and not properly understood, community change of any kind can lead to tensions which affect both the area hosting the new arrivals and those seeking safe refuge themselves. If government fails, they fail us all.
The current system is now broken. The Home Office and Serco are either incompetent, indifferent – or both – and they’ve lost the confidence of many local authorities they deal with.
It’s clear that the Prime Minister is being heavily influenced by concerns that ‘Britain can’t take any more’ but frankly I’d be amazed if the senior civil servants, Home Secretary or Mr Cameron himself have any understanding of the real situation on the ground.
The prime concern of the bean counters is to get this done as cheaply as possible and housing costs represent a significant part of the bill from accepting asylum seekers.
So when costs come ahead of community cohesion it is the case that Serco – aided and supported by the Home Office – simply focusses on areas with low housing costs.
This isn’t just about the national differences in rent levels because we are a diverse economy – it’s because demand is low, wages are low and those with choice opt to live in other areas.
The UK is not distributing asylum seekers evenly or fairly.
Some regions take far more than others and some take almost none.
Within regions some cities and towns take far more than others and again some will take almost none.
And within cities and towns some wards take more than other wards in the same city or town – bear with me…
And within wards some communities take far more than other parts of the same ward.
The reality is that the concentration of placements is neither evenly distributed nor does it take any account of pre-existing community tensions. For example, these same areas will already be changing because of economic migration, the changing face of the employment market and inherent low skills and low wages.
That’s why the North West is far more likely than the South East to take asylum seekers. Within the North West some cities take far more than others, and within those cities placements will be concentrated in a small part of the community.
But how can it seriously be justified that Oldham and Rochdale with a combined population of around 450,000 accommodate more asylum seekers than the whole of London and the South East combined, which is home to more than 17 million people?
As the world looks on to Britain’s response to this crisis it is important that we are seen to be part of the international community and filling a role as a moral and social conscience. And when we do that it is vital that we then implement it in a fair, equitable and competent way.
Local councils across the country know their communities best and can do more, but only if they are allowed to by government.
So to summarise there are – to me – five key lessons to learn here:
1). People, not numbers
It shouldn’t take a public campaign, event or movement for the UK to be humane. Every country in Europe should take its fair share and we should step up.
We should ensure that applications for asylum are dealt with in a timely way and that they are properly considered the first time round, not refused for little reason only for the applicant to secure leave to remain on appeal.
2). Region, Town or City doing their bit
Every town and city in every region of the UK should take its fair share of asylum seeker placements to ensure these are evenly distributed.
3). Local accountability
Local councils should be given the responsibility to place their allocation of asylum seekers. The funding currently given to Serco should be handed over direct to local authorities to cover the additional staff and services needed.
Councils should also be open and transparent about the number and distribution of asylum seekers they have – and be clear about the support provided to both asylum seekers and local communities where they are placed.
4). Fair Funding
We’ve been clear that Oldham will play its part but adequate funding should be provided to ensure every region can afford to place its share of asylum seekers.
The true cost of support, education and healthcare should be covered by Government.
Housing costs in some areas will be much higher than others, but that is the reality of our unbalanced national economy and the failure to build enough homes, particularly social housing, over decades. Government should ensure that the budget for housing asylum seekers allows for all areas to play their part.
5). A long term solution
The use of temporary accommodation such as hotels and former care homes should be a last resort and only used when there is a genuine and unforeseen large intake of asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers should be given ongoing support, advice and guidance to help them to settle into the local community and see through their asylum application. We cannot just dump them here and abandon them until that process is complete.
My call is clear: Let’s fix the broken system which undermines community confidence.
Let’s remember the needs of people and communities should be central to decision making, not an afterthought.
And let us step up and be a good international neighbour.
Thanks for listening,