Kent councils still yet to welcome Syrian refugees - but charity insists David Cameron’s 20,000 target ‘achievable’
PUBLISHED: 13:22 27 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:44 27 July 2017
Gravesham and Thanet haven’t settled any under the scheme so far, but have committed to do so by 2020
Plans to welcome 20,000 refugees from the Middle East by 2020 are still “achievable”, a charity claims, despite some councils in Kent having not settled any almost two years after the scheme was launched.
David Cameron announced an extension of the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS) in September 2015, insisting the country had to “live up to its moral responsibility”, as thousands were forced out of their homes in the midst of a bitter civil war.
Local authorities were encouraged to volunteer to take some of the refugees over a five year period to help meet that target, but a Home Affairs Select Committee report published last year insisted more town halls needed to “pull their weight” and suggested there was “scant evidence” that the government would be able meet its commitment.
Kent, which is comprised of 13 district and borough councils, as well as the county council, has been largely praised for its response to the migrant crisis which saw hundreds of unaccompanied asylum seeking children arrive in Folkestone and Dover from the Calais camp known as ‘the Jungle’.
Indeed, KCC’s children’s services were rated ‘good’ in an Ofsted report published last month - a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when its services were deemed ‘inadequate’.
However, in terms of Syrian refugees under the resettlement scheme, the latest figures released by the Home Office, up to March 2017, show that two councils are yet to take any, despite commitments to do so.
Gravesham Borough Council told us it had committed to house five families over the five years, and while bosses confirmed they fully intended to resettle them at some stage before the deadline, it could not confirm exactly when that would be.
Meanwhile, Lin Fairbrass, deputy leader of Thanet District Council and cabinet member for community services said: “It is still Thanet District Council’s position that we want to assist with the programme.
“We have had great difficulty in securing suitable accommodation which is why things are taking a long time, but we have committed to resettle up to eight households.”
Despite the seemingly slow progress being made in Gravesham and Thanet, the Refugee Action charity is generally pleased by the reaction of local authorities and is confident the programme is on track to meet the former prime minister’s target.
Head of resettlement, Louise Calvey, said: “The government’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 is achievable and we’re seeing good progress being made.
“It’s great to see communities all over the country choosing to welcome refugees to their areas.
“However, there is no end in sight to the war in Syria or the long-running conflicts and chronic instability affecting people in many other parts of the world.
“In the middle of the worst refugee crisis on record, we have a moral and a legal duty to protect more people from Syrian and other war-torn countries.”
Sevenoaks District Council said from the outset it would not be taking any, due to a lack of suitable resources, but council chiefs did agree in March to work with West Kent Housing Association to let a six bedroom adapted property to a refugee family in Eynsford.
Meanwhile, Medway Council has stuck to its agreed position of not taking refugees as part of the scheme.
Ashford Borough Council, however, has taken the lead on the project, pledging to take in some 250 people by 2020, with dozens already having arrived since the start of the scheme, the most recent of which being a family of five who were housed near Pluckley last month.
A council spokesperson told us: “Ashford has now proudly welcomed 13 families to the borough totalling 62 people of which 29 are children.
“The families have been housed in private rented accommodation across the borough. More families will arrive as suitable properties are identified to provide them with homes.
“We are proud to be in a position where we can offer assistance to those who have experienced significant and extreme trauma as a result of the conflict in Syria.
“We want to welcome these vulnerable families to our borough and integrate them into our communities quickly, offering them support so that they settle and become part of their new communities as quickly as possible.”
Elsewhere in the county, Canterbury and Dartford have taken seven refugees each, Dover has taken ten, Maidstone six, Shepway 15, Tonbridge five and Tunbridge Wells 23, according to the Home Office.
This week, a petition was put to Swale Borough Council calling on the local authority to “offer more help to refugees living in awful conditions on our doorstop in Calais and Dunkirk”.
Faversham and Villages Refugee Solidarity Group added it believes Swale’s current offer to help only ten Syrian refugee families in five years is “totally inadequate”.
A report presented to councillors clarified that the resettlement schemes do not operate in Calais and Dunkirk, but rather neighbouring countries to Syria, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.
Therefore, bosses said, any pledge to increase Swale’s commitment to Syrian families on the SVPRS programme would have no impact on the situation in Calais and Dunkirk.
The report confirmed the council had housed two Syrian families and added: “We are continuously searching for affordable properties within Swale to meet our commitment, however this search is difficult as can be evidenced by the number of Swale families who are in temporary accommodation as there is a shortage of affordable rental accommodation within Swale.
“We are in ongoing discussions with landlords concerning appropriate properties that may become available and would urge any landlord with such a property to contact us urgently.”
Last week, the government announced a £1m funding pot to help community groups support refugees - 12 months after the sponsorship scheme was launched by home secretary Amber Rudd and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby - over which 53 refugees have been welcomed by 10 groups.
Sponsors, including charities, faith groups and churches, provide housing for the refugee families, as well as helping them to integrate into life in the UK, access medical and social services, arranging English language tuition and supporting them towards employment and self-sufficiency.
The archbishop said: “Last year we welcomed a family of Syrian refugees to live with us here at Lambeth Palace through the community sponsorship scheme.
“It has been an absolute privilege and joy to get to know this special family over the last year as we’ve supported them to start a new life in the UK. They have been a blessing to us in so many ways.
“It’s amazing to think that we are celebrating the one year anniversary of the scheme.
“In whatever way you can, I would encourage everyone to get involved with community sponsorship and support refugees. It is truly a life-changing experience.”
Requests by Kent News to speak to some of the refugees housed by local councils were declined.