It seemed to have all gone quiet on the refugee front – at least from a Southwark council perspective.
When the desperate plight of refugees was splashed across the nation’s media last summer, Peter John, leader of Southwark council, issued a clarion call to residents by declaring that: 'Southwark was among the first councils to publicly state that we will welcome refugees to our borough.'
But the months ticked by with seemingly little being done by Southwark to honour their promises.
This looks like it's about to change – On the 13th of December Southwark Council’s Cabinet agreed to proposals that will potentially see five Syrian Refugee families per year resettled in Southwark over the next five years.
Southwark's decision coincides with harrowing reports coming out of Aleppo in recent days and appears to be more timely than ever.
It seems that central Government was the culprit behind Southwark not being able to take in any refugee families to date – at least according to Cllr John in the cabinet report. He argues that due to the high cost of housing in the capital, efforts have been made to prioritise housing refugees away from London.
As the Syrian crisis gets ever deeper, there is ongoing pressure for the UK to accept more Syrian refugees. After all, Syrians now constitute the largest refugee population in the world.
In September 2015 the Government declared that the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme, introduced in January 2014, would be expanded so that the UK would resettle up to 20,000 refugees during 2015 to 2020.
The costs of resettlement for the first year would be met from the international aid budget, in order to ease the pressure on local authorities.
As of September 2016, 2,898 Syrians have been resettled in the UK since the conflict began, although mainly outside of London. Last summer saw a swathe of Local Authorities, including Southwark, make political commitments to resettle households but, due to huge demand on affordable housing, coupled with high private rents, many have struggled to do so.
Now it seems that Southwark is on course to do its bit, even if five families a year seems like a drop in the ocean.
Children in Zaatari camp credit Sam Tarling/Oxfam
As it turns out, Southwark council have been working behind the scenes in order to make good on its commitment to rehouse Syrian refugee families.
In November this year the Salvation Army offered to accommodate up to five households in their own accommodation portfolio. This comprises four 3-bed properties, and a separate private rental sector property. All five properties have been offered to the council on a five year basis.
How much Southwark has to pay for these is still up for negotiation, although it is likely that they will be at or close to Local Housing Allowance (LHA) levels. The housing costs will be covered by the LHA and Home Office funding, so this will therefore be cost neutral to the council. The Home Office has committed to providing every local authority with funding to cover the costs of resettling individuals. This equates to £20,250 per person over the five years and is on top of housing benefit and other welfare benefit.
Whilst Southwark council will have the use of the Salvation Army’s portfolio initially, they will have to identify other accommodation if they are to honour their commitment to settle five families per year for the next five years. They effectively have two options: utilise their own portfolio of council homes or turn to the private rented sector. As you will be able to see via the graph below – the former option is much cheaper to the council. But at what cost to existing Southwark residents? When thousands are on the council’s housing list, will those already waiting be frustrated that council homes are potentially being given to refugee families over Southwark residents?
Potential cost of housing refugee families
The devil is in the detail
It is worth pointing out that as part of the Government's Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement (VPR) Programme, all resettled refugees are granted five years humanitarian protection status and access to public funds (including Local Housing Allowance) and the labour market. The government has indicated that at the end of the five years, the households will be eligible to apply for permanent settlement in the UK.
So what must local authorities provide as part of their resettlement offer?
Southwark not only has to provide housing, but also a range of other services when settling refugee families. These include:
A meet and greet service at the airport and escorted transport back
A resettlement service
One year’s secure furnished accommodation in the private or social sector
Assistance and support in accessing welfare benefits
An initial welcome pack containing basic food and a cash payment of £200 per person
A case worker for one year, responsible for signposting and coordinating education, employment and other integration services as set out in a “personalised support plan”.
So we now have a better handle on what Southwark council has to do to honour their end of the bargain, but what about refugee organisations that are already working in the borough, and have been doing for a number of years?
A Southwark Response
Eltayeb Hassan, Project Manager of the Southwark Refugee Communities Forum, points out that whilst many assume that once the 'promised land' has been reached everything will be fine, refugees have to tackle a myriad of challenges once in the UK.
'The main challenges that new arrivals face is the language barrier and the lack of familiarity of the society around them. They will be unfamiliar with the culture and they will not be supported by the usual network of friends and family that they were used to back in Syria.'
'It is very important that we draw from the experience of existing refugee communities and families in the borough and use it to benefit the new arrivals.'
The Forum helps and supports refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world and is keen to offer its support to the families, as and when they arrive.
'As soon as they come we need to be able to offer support and information, guidance and advice that is required. We can play a significant role in linking the families with existing refugee communities, which will be integral to the new arrivals integrating successfully.
'The most important thing is that we link up with these families as soon as they arrive so that they are not left in isolation, dealing with people that, whilst trying to help, might not necessarily have the knowledge about what kind of challenges will be faced in the coming months and years.'
Eltayab is keen to stress how pleased the forum is with the actions of Southwark council – they may be small steps but they are steps in the right direction. He also extends his gratitude to residents of Southwark who have stood in solidarity with refugees since the crisis first broke.
However, the picture isn't quite as rosy as it may seem. Austerity-driven cuts to refugee organisations - mirrored across other services - has made working with refugee communities even more challenging than it traditionally has been.
'Funding cuts have affected us enormously. They've impacted staffing levels – we used to have five paid workers and now we've only got one. The Southwark Refugee Migrant project is running entirely by volunteers which is extremely challenging. The Day Centre for Asylum Seekers have had their budget slashed as well. All in all the budgets have been slashed by around 90%. In the past their used to be some funding for the various communities but this seems to have dried up now.'
'Apart from us and the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, no other refugee organisations are receiving funding from the council.'
This apparent dearth in funding has had a knock-on effect on smaller community groups.
'The refugee communities are now forced to rely predominantly on the SRCF in terms of running activities, representing the diverse refugee communities in general, enabling the voices of refugees to be heard, influencing decision making and attending strategic meetings in the borough.
'It is getting very difficult and the cuts have affected our capacity drastically. We've had to rethink how we work and take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other organisations such as universities and the voluntary sector.'
Eltayeb, and his colleagues in other refugee and migrant organisations, have been forced to turn to volunteers to try and fill some of the gaps left by funding cuts.
Whilst all help and support is welcome, the three main refugee organisations in Southwark are crying out for volunteers with knowledge or an interest in fundraising. If you are the person for the job then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the challenges faced by organisations such as the Forum, they will play an integral role in helping the Syrian families to settle once they have arrived.
So what happens now?
Whilst Southwark council has agreed to work with the Salvation Army and Southwark Citizens to initially house five refugee families, their proposals still need to be agreed by the Home Office.
Cabinet has instructed officers to create the Syrian Refugee Multi Agency Working Group (including representatives from housing, health, education, social care, community safety, benefits, DWP, any procured resettlement services, and other third sector agencies). This group will oversee that Southwark's commitment to resettle five families becomes a reality.
Once the offer has been finalised they will contact the Home Office within the next year. We will have to wait and see as to what kind of response they receive.
Recent events in Aleppo have dragged the Syrian conflict back into the media spotlight. The toll it has taken on the county's people is beyond comprehension, whilst world leaders take it in turn to condemn but do little more.
Five families per year might well seem like a trivial number but, as Eltayeb stated, it is a step in the right direction. However, the question remains to be asked: what more could we be doing?
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