The half-forgotten crisis close to home
2nd September 2015 was the day when refugee issues finally forced their way onto the front pages of the world’s media, and for the saddest of reasons: the body of little Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean beach, gave newsdesks the picture that spoke a thousand words.
But words aplenty there have been too, over the past year: words of welcome, as refugees arrived by train in Germany; words of hatred and rejection, as fences went up on other borders; weasel-words of peace and hope voiced by politicians but too seldom followed by action. Still the death-count mounts in Syria and still the victims of war and oppression are on the move, hoping against hope to find a better future in Europe.
After hovering around 20-25,000 each year for the past decade, the number of asylum applications in Britain rose to 32,000 in 2015, with over 20,000 of those in the second half of the year. A tiny fraction of the European total but the kind of rising trend that starts to frighten politicians, especially with a referendum around the corner. And, of course, the story of those seeking refuge from countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea is often deliberately confused with the issue of migration within the EU.
While the UK Government has been criticised by many for not doing enough, it does deserve credit for being one of the main financial contributors to the “in region” work of looking after refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and it has been pushed gradually into making a bigger commitment to allowing refugees into the UK.
In November 2015 we saw the first arrivals towards the stated policy of 20,000 to be resettled from the camps by 2020. By April 2016 a reported 1,337 Syrians had been brought in but only 43 had been settled in London, substantiating rumours that many local authorities are failing to come forward with offers of accommodation. Local pressure in Birmingham has now generated a commitment by that city to take 500, showing what “citizen power” can achieve.
Most recently, at the time of writing, the UK Government has announced plans to take 3,000 “at risk” children, again direct from the Middle East and has even backed down from its previous refusal to allow in unaccompanied minors already in Europe. But the political campaign will and must go on, aimed at getting those in power to do much more.
Meanwhile, with the spotlight on the borders of Europe and the plight of those knocking on the door, the half-forgotten story is that of those already here: those who have arrived by one means or another, are waiting for their application to be determined or their appeal to be heard, and many of whom drop through the cracks in the system and fall into destitution. Unlike the “lucky” ones in the resettlement programme, they receive neither Housing Benefit nor JSA. Instead, they can be trapped in a dark place of poverty and failed hopes, from which it is hugely difficult to escape without the sort of professional and caring support which is certainly lacking in the official “system”.
In London and elsewhere, some wonderful front line agencies and charities are working to alleviate the poverty and suffering of refugees and asylum seekers living here. Whether it is through drop-in centres, self-help groups, legal support, help with accommodation, bus passes, bicycles or simply food and hygiene packs, charities in many boroughs are on the front line, day in and day out. One way of supporting them is through the London Churches Refugee Fund (LCRF) which acts as a channel for donations from churches and individuals to projects needing small amounts of money to make a big difference to the lives of destitute individuals. Last year, LCRF was able to make grants totalling some £22,000 to 23 different agencies, with money for fares, food and toiletries being the most common request.
As a small charity, all the work of LCRF is delivered by the trustees themselves: we have no staff and virtually nothing is spent on administration. If you feel you could contribute to the Fund or our work, perhaps by taking up a special collection at church or running a fundraising event, you can read more at www.help4refugees.co.uk where you’ll also find links to our online donations page.
Huge thanks for not forgetting those in need in our capital city.