Belper Meeting on The Syrian Crisis and Refugees

‘The Syrian and Refugee Crisis’ Meeting was held at St Peter’s Church on Friday 12 February from 2.00 – 4.00 (during work hours and the school run).

The speakers were:

  • Richard Harrington MP – Minister with responsibility for Syrian Refugees
  • Pauline Latham MP
  • Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, Bishop of Derby

The meeting was advertised as “an excellent opportunity if you would like to learn more about the Syrian Crisis and how the Government intends to deal with the re-locating of the 20,000 refugees coming to Britain over the next five years.”

Pauline Latham, Conservative MP for Mid-Derbyshire chaired the meeting, which was strongly attended by the local community, despite its awkward time slot.  Ms. Latham stated that she had arranged the meeting because, “I wanted Richard to come and tell you the TRUTH about the situation.”

She requested that questions be posited politely and not angrily, “Be Christian about it.”

First to speak was the Right Reverend Alastair Redfern, Bishop of Derby, who is a director of Christian Aid. He wants the community “to think about what it is to be a good citizen and what it is to be a world citizen” and spoke about the reality of civil war, with no negotiated end in sight.

The Bishop offered some statistics:
Syrian population (was) – 21 million

Refugees – 4.3 million

In need of humanitarian aid (within Syria) – 13 million

He stated that the people who are getting out are middle class with energy and imagination and spoke of the danger of leaving people lacking indigenous leadership. He asked “How do we encourage people to rebuild their culture and world?” which includes the suggestion that we should be encouraging people to stay in Syria and  presents a naive perspective of the conditions in which they would be mired.  “Balance the heart, reaching out to help and how do we do that to safeguard the future of Syria?”

The Bishop was effusive with praise for the government’s way of dealing with the crises and referenced God and Christianity often, which is within his remit but not necessarily pertinent to the crisis.

He pointed out that most refugees are not in camps, yet 100% of funding goes to camps.  The Bishop applauded the government prioritising the needy and persecuted and mentioned the enormous resources needed and suggested that all power lay with government.

He then detailed how local regions are involved with handling refugees, informing us that local councils can opt to take refugees and asked “Are they opting to take as many as they could?” Derby City has admitted they are not. He asked us as a community to consider what moves we can take to ensure they take the maximum.

Practically, the Bishop of Derby wanted us to think about what we can do as a community. How do we make people feel welcome, nourished and make a new start? How can we offer cultural and psychological support? He did suggest keeping refugees together to support each other, which on a larger scale might present an issue of segregation and a lack of social inclusivity.  He emphasised that we must coordinate official channels with voluntary and faith groups.  “Many want to go home eventually but we need to make sure they feel welcome.”

Speaking mainly to the religious community he stated that we can make a difference and highlighted welcome boxes to make them feel part of the community.  There is an issue with religious organisations offering what amounts to a conversion debt, especially as charity is seen as akin to begging on the street by refugees, with such church centric actions but this was not touched on.

Rt. Revd. Redfern touched on ways that the government could go forward with communities, proposing a community sponsorship scheme where the community offers ALL support and infrastructure for refugees, thereby allowing for more refugees to be admitted to the UK. He emphasised that communities need to work with local authorities.

IMG_1017

Richard Harrington, MP with Syrian responsibility, spoke next.

He started by highlighting the diversity of opinions across Britain, telling of how people come up in the street and say “We’re full.” and “Are you inhumane?” at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The Home Office Minister appeared to operate beyond party politics.

He talked about DFID (Department for International Development) which selects who we are going to bring here. Deflecting potential Nazi comparison for selection criteria, he stated,  “They can’t all come here – there are millions.”

He informed us that fewer than 30% of all refugees are in camps and there is a broad variety of camps across Europe, the best camps being steel huts with electricity and told us of a refugee camp in Jordan which has places of worship, a hospital, schools, shops and is now the biggest town in Jordan.

He suggested that the current system for entry to the UK was preferable to farmers losing fields to camps or refugees getting ripped off by greedy landlords.  The current system being that refugees must register with UNHCR and undergo a complex process of assessment.  Regional authorities (such as Turkish) do the paperwork but it is not government or military officials guiding people through the system, but volunteers and employees from humanitarian sources. The refugees are catalogued by way of eye tests, which is considered to be more accurate in preventing impersonation than fingerprinting. If the refugees who have applied satisfy one of seven vulnerability criteria, they are eligible to go on our resettlement program, although there are only 20,000 places available. There is a refugees registry – meet the criteria, apply for the program, then there are health checks (“this doesn’t mean we won’t take sick people”) for communicable diseases like TB, if they are infected then they are treated in situ, there is a 6 month wait, then a recheck and finally security checks to weed out potential terrorists.

Mr. Harrington referenced the common, yet largely unfounded, concern of people trying to pretend to be from Syria. Eg. Sudan.  He passionately declared that in their situation he would try the same and that he was not placing a value judgement upon them but declared that we have to take the most needy.

He stated that the main focus of the resettlement program is not to bring everyone in but to deal with those who are in the region (Derbyshire in our case).

He explained that the role of the Home Office is to issue visas.  Refugees get a 5 year humanitarian protection and are eligible to work immediately. The Home Office also charters aircraft to bring people in. No-one leaves the camps or other areas without a home to go to here. It is however voluntary for local authorities to accept refugees as the government focus is upon there being no stress caused in local communities. Mr. Harrington spends a lot of time selling the scheme to local authorities to convince them to adopt it.

This is all organised from central government, support and organisation does not come from local funding. Once everything is in place, then it is up to the councils.

Mr. Harrington emphatically stated, “This is NOT a political thing”  and told a story about one of our local councillors who met two families at the airport and took them to their homes,promptly breaking down in tears.

“These people get on their knees and can’t believe they are being treated with dignity and respect.”

This model is designed for the private rental system so as not to put. pressure on the welfare housing system. It was made clear that central government are not dictating or forcing. Mr. Harrington referenced American models using churches to help and mentor refugees, the model having worked in other countries but stated that they would prohibit churches from only taking Christian people.

Mr. Harrington set the target to get 1000 refugees into the UK by Christmas. He didn’t want to wait and took the most vulnerable. Mostly children, who are all in school now.

He is adamant that there be no temporary accommodation and no short term solutions. “They have had enough disruption in their lives already.”

He asked many questions: How can the good will of people who want to help be used?  How can the community coordinate with authorities? Can we organise a buddy system, mentoring to help people adapt? (Taking them to English lessons. Mentoring for work. registering with a doctor.) He hopes that jobs will come out of such a buddy system as expertise is gained.

He made effort to mention a variety of religions and religious organisation, both Christian and otherwise, with examples of how they are helping, such as Church of England landlords being encouraged by Justin Welby to take a lower rent within the resettlement program.

He explained that with issues like child protection, security, health, jobs and other bureaucracy, it is more complicated than communities saying that they want to help and it merely being accepted.

Mr. Harrington also expressed that none of the critics who are demanding the UK take more refugees are wrong; “we just need to do it properly. We have to have a model that works.”

Following Mr. Harrington’s speech, there was a question and answer session.

syria

Questions:

1) In the last six years, millions of religious people have condemned the inhumanity of this government towards refugees…  We are cutting support for them when we should be taking more.

Richard Harrington: What do people want us to do? Just let everyone in? I think it’s better than it really is.  If we can make sure they are genuine then we can have a more bespoke policy for them.

2) (from Father Michael of Our Lady)

(Father Michael attacked the government standing on the issue of refugees at length.)
“I am disappointed that you haven’t addressed the question as to why it is 20,000.  It seems that you are happy to let other countries deal with it whilst we deal with the ‘complications’.  How can we do the absolute minimum without attracting the criticism of doing nothing?”

Richard Harrington: “Government policy is…refugees is a small part of what we are doing in the region. ”

3) What can we do about deaths in the sea?

Richard Harrington: (Recited a list of people who’ve seen deaths and boats.) He detailed how boat refugees are treated.

“If we took 500k it wouldn’t stop the human traffickers. They sell it like holidays and they aren’t all trying to get here. We are policing, we are rescuing. “It is a stain on humanity.””

Alastair Redfern – “Asylum is getting muddled with migration. Both political parties are conservative about immigration. People on the ground are quite radical. We live in a world shaped by the Daily Mail.  The first challenge is – how can we help with the 20000?  People need to offer all the help, make it easy for the government to take more.  This is not just civil war in Syria. It is destabilising Europe.

4) The media are creating hatred. Can we have more leadership to condemn the press for taking this tack?

Richard Harrington: Immediately referenced Farage and made the naive suggestion that racists won’t change until they are faced by people and realise they are decent.

5)  (From Charlotte Craddock of Amber Valley Solidarity)  What more can the government do to help people in camps? To put pressure on other European authorities to deal with humanitarian issues?

Richard Harrington rejected further information from Amber Valley Solidarity about authorities stopping the deliveries for shelter, refusing to believe that it was true, despite the information coming directly from people on the ground in France (and being previously reported by Nailed).

The question was not answered and Mr. Harrington stated that refugees should be “encouraged” into camps (echoing the language of historical humanitarian mistakes and atrocities) and refocused on human traffickers, eventually stating, when pushed by members of Amber Valley Solidarity, that he didn’t have time to answer.

6) – As well as depoliticising our domestic policy, how do we re-engage with Europe to influence their policies because we cannot allow this to continue?

The Bishop spoke but did not answer the question.

Richard Harrington: a lot more is done through international frameworks than is realised.

7) (From a UKIP supporter) He stated that he thought that security issues were the most important issue of all and suggested that refugees meant that terrorists were getting into the UK.

A community member shouted “SHAME!”

Richard Harrington rambled about Russia, Donald Trump, Netflix and isolationism

8)  We need a martial plan akin to that of WW2. You need to demand it and defend it. You are being arrogant and complacent.

Bishop Redfern agrees. Followed by the first mention of ISIS during this meeting from the Bishop. “I think you are absolutely right.”

Richard Harrington: I make no excuses for our policy.

9) 20000 refugees amounts to 20 people per authority per year.  This is shameful.  I am horrified to be represented by people like you.

They all lost the thread at the end and began stating things that they thought were relevant to the general but not specific issues.

Pauline Latham made a statement about the British bombing of Syria, which she voted for. She said, “every plane must have a target, must have a plan, must be sanctioned. It is the Russian bombing which is indiscriminate.”

Clare Washbrook

Professional editor, journalist, writer. Lived in Belper for nearly 2 decades BA(Hons) English/Theatre, Post-grads in Journalism, Ethics and Law. First an editor in chief in 1995. Community affiliations: Poppy Installations for WWI Centenary, Belper Goes Green, formerly Amber Valley Solidarity for Refugees. No political party memberships.

7 thoughts on “Belper Meeting on The Syrian Crisis and Refugees

  • 14th February 2016 at 12:38 am
    Permalink

    Thanks for the detailed write-up of this. I bet there were so many people who would have been interested in attending, but it was at such an awkward time!

    Reply
    • 14th February 2016 at 10:20 am
      Permalink

      Although I did not attend the meeting I feel this is a fair, honest and informed article which I have appreciated being able to read. Thank you.

      Reply
  • 14th February 2016 at 2:17 pm
    Permalink

    Good summary but the reporting of the first question is wrong, probably because I tried to jam too much in. I referenced the fact that every Christian denomination, via their leaders, had condemned the last six years of cuts, which had viciously targetted the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. ( Ian Duncan Smith’s response was to mock the Church of England as it had falling congregations and could be ignored.) I also said that the Red Cross reports 9000 refugees driven to destitution in the UK last year alone and that the new Immigration Bill will make things worse. Lastly I asked how the councils could be expected to help when the Government was slashing council budgets. None of these points was addressed by the panel. The impression I gained was of retail care and concern, by the panel members towards the limited numbers of ‘deserving’ Syrian refugees, in the larger context of wholesale cruelty by the Tories in cutting the welfare state and withdrawing support for refugees already here. It’s a kind of disconnect in the Tory mindset between the small scale effects of their humanitarian minority and the devastation inflicted by the majority of neoliberal clones like Osborne, who think blood letting by leeches is a treatment which cures the patient.

    There was a great deal from the Under Secretary about councils being given the ‘option’ of participating in the Syrian programme. This is reminiscent of giving councils the ‘option’ of how to make cuts of 40% and then blaming them.

    The issue of media distortion about refugees andd migrants was powerfully raised – the response was to advise ‘push back’by contacting MPs. In the case of Pauline Latham: I wrote to her about the UN condemnation of Katie Hopkins and the Sun for her notoriously vile Nazi style description of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches ‘and a ‘virus’ My MP was not prepared to do anything whatsoever about this.

    Pauline Latham also made much of what she described as ultra careful decision making and precision targeting of ISIS in Syria. This is very naive indeed. Hundreds if not thousands of civilians have already been killed by allied bombing in Iraq. It is simply propaganda to pretend that our air war will miraculously be the first one in history which only kills the bad guys.

    Finally, the terrible situation in Calais and Dunkirk was raised. I remenber Jeremy Corbyn visiting and speaking with people he described as ‘our fellow human beings ‘ in the camps. This action was described by Cameron in PMQs the following day as ‘meeting with a bunch of migrants in Calais’ and duly cheered by his MPs. I’m afraid that this is the authentic voice of the Tory party, not the no doubt sincere words of a junior minister in St Peter’s on Friday.

    Reply
    • 14th February 2016 at 7:31 pm
      Permalink

      I apologise if you feel misrepresented. It wasn’t possible to write every word said and you said an awful lot very quickly so I included a paraphrasing of the question itself. I’m not a quick enough writer to get everything you said accurately enough I’m afraid. Everything exact is in speech marks, everything else is paraphrased. Thank you for clarifying your words.

      I was one of the people talking about camp conditions. I am one third of the Amber Valley Solidarity Organisers. We were basically told we spoke lies and silenced but there will be another piece on these issues as we near the next collection.

      Reply
      • 15th February 2016 at 11:12 am
        Permalink

        It was my fault Clare .. I should have been clearer . Your work is wonderful and I agree they didn’t want to hear what you were saying

        Reply
  • 14th February 2016 at 4:12 pm
    Permalink

    Fabulous write up always good to get detailed information about local meetings.

    Reply
  • 6th March 2016 at 11:28 am
    Permalink

    I’m sorry I missed the meeting and will try to get involved in Amber Valley solidarity. I would like to help with the collection and distribution of stuff needed, bedding food etc.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *