Refugee and aid charities across the country say they have been inundated with offers of support, after a shocking image of a drowned Syrian child focused the public’s attention of the grim reality of the refugee crisis.
Grassroots groups are springing up across the country as local activists arrange protests this weekend, call on local councils to welcome refugees and send aid to refugees across the Middle East and Mediterranean.
From support for a community group in Folkestone that has raised more than £3,000 to buy blankets for refugees and migrants in Calais in to pensioners in Dorset offering their spare rooms to refugees, the images of the young boy, whose family was trying to reach Canada, appear to have prompted a sea-change in the public’s attitude to how Prime Minister David Cameron was handling the crisis.
Campaign group Avaaz, which said it supported the Independent’s ‘welcome refugees’ campaign, said more than five hundred people have offered to “open their homes” to refugees. The group is working with landlords to find “good family homes” for refugees, while hundreds of professional counsellors, doctors and teachers have offered practical help.
Laura Padoan from the UNHCR said the organisation has seen a major spike in donations over the past week. “I’ve worked for the UNHCR for more than seven years and, to be honest, this is the most generous response I've seen in terms of the way it has touched people and their willingness to offer help on a very personal level. We have had pensioners in Dorset and in Tunbridge Wells saying that they have a spare room they could offer to Syrian refugees.
A string of demonstrations are being planned by local groups and shared on social media, where thousands of people are posing with ‘refugees welcomes’ placards. A major demonstration is planned in central London for 12 September, while on 5 September environmental campaigner Mark Lynas is organising a protest in Oxford to “reject the miserly and inhumane attitude in the UK government.”
He told the Independent: “I think these awful pictures have awakened the British people’s sense of empathy and I hope that means we will see the national debate moving away from a focus of keeping refugees out. We have been shamed by Germany’s commitment to take 800,000 refugees while we have only accepted a few hundred Syrians. As a nation, we must, and can, do better.”
Elsewhere grassroots groups are already raising funds and gathering donations to send to refugees and migrants in Calais, Greece and Macedonia, while in Scotland a new volunteer-led organisation Scotland Supporting Refugees was set up. It aims to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Europe, and raise funds for humanitarian relief. Candlelight vigils are planned in Edinburgh and Glasgow on 5 September.
In Birmingham, youth worker Shale Ahmed is organising a demonstration on 5 September to call on the local council to welcome up to 50 refugees from Syria and the Middle East. The youth worker said he got involved because he wanted to give the “the message that young people can take local direct action to bring about change.”
He said: “Our main drive is to send a message to David Cameron and to convince the Birmingham Council to agree to resettle 50 refugees in our city. Just image what would happen if every town city in the country did that.”
“Britain’s resettlement of refugees has been shambolic so far and we need to raise awareness, because if people don’t know, they don’t care. These images have hit a nerve though; we need to capture the moment.”
Working with charity Citizens UK, which is pushing for councils to welcome refugees, Mr Ahmed has secured support from local business and charities to house, feed and train up to support the 50 refuges and has enlisted the help of young Somali, Sudanese and Eritreans in Birmingham to help lobby local politicans, “We have the housing ready for them. We just need the political commitment now,” he said.
In Bristol, Evelyn Johnston, 68, a Baptist minister, is also part of a group calling on David Cameron to act. She said: “We all got involved for different reasons, but what unites us is that we don’t see these people as swarms, they are people living ordinary lives until suddenly they lost everything.
“Many of us are parents, and as a parent you can’t look at the images coming from the beaches and not be touched. It’s very parent’s worst nightmare not to be able to protect your child.”
In London TV presenter Dawn Porter is among those fundraising for supplies to send to migrants and refugees in Calais and beyond. She told the Independent: “That picture was too much… I’ll never forget that image… We need to quit this “them and us” mentality and help them. The least we can do is supply food and tents for them when they reach safety. I am disgusted by the lack of compassion in so many people, but so so warned by the kindness of others.
This newspaper has started a campaign for the UK to welcome a fair share of refugees.
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