‘Our children are safe now’: How refugees have been welcomed across Britain

But resettlement routes have been suspended since the start of the pandemic – and community groups are urging government to reopen them so they can help more refugees settle into safety

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 30 October 2020 07:14 GMT
Refugees describe new life in Britain after resettlement

“The generosity of the group has taken us aback,” says Hassan Al Shaabin, a Syrian resettled in south London. “Our children are safe now. Our papers are all done – we had help with the medical side. Everyone treats us like family.”    

Hassan is one of many refugees who have, along with their families, been transferred to the UK from war-torn countries to start a new life over the past five years under the UK’s community sponsorship programme.

Vicky Moller (centre) has a picnic at a beach in south Wales with the Alchik family, Muhaned, his wife Naheda, and their children (from left) Shadi, 8, Hadi, 1, and Sara, 9, who fled their home during the war in Syria (Andrew McConnel)

The scheme, which has been running since 2016, enables community groups to become directly involved in supporting refugee families resettled in the UK. It operates through the government’s main resettlement programme, which has settled nearly 20,000 refugees since it opened in 2015.

However, refugee resettlement to the UK has been suspended since it was temporarily paused at the start of the pandemic. Communities resettling refugees thought it would be a month or two before it resumed again – but seven months on, they are still waiting.

Syrian refugee Lutfi Al-Shaabin, who worked as a barber in Jordan where his family lived as refugees, cuts Tim Finch's hair at the Al-Shaabin home in south London (Andrew McConnel)

Other developed countries including Italy, France and Spain have resumed their refugee resettlement schemes after pausing them during the lockdown.

Charities are calling on ministers to reopen the scheme. "By sponsoring refugees, local people are able to draw on their local expertise to support newcomers to build fulfilling lives in their new communities,” says Dr Kate Brown, co-director of Reset, which helps to facilitate arrivals under the sponsorship scheme.  

“It’s clear that we urgently need these programmes to resume so that more refugees can reach safety."

James Lynch (in blue), his daughter, and Claire Tillotson (right), from the Peckham Sponsors Refugees local residents group, socialise with Mohammed Al-Shaabin (top-left), his daughter Celen, and his brother Islam – all of whom fled Syria in 2011 – outside their home in south London (Andrew McConnel)

And there are calls for the scheme to be expanded further when it does restart, particularly in light of the tragic death of a family who died while trying to cross the Channel to Britain on Tuesday.

“The generosity of people is both moving and breath-taking," says Vicky Moller, of the welcome group in Cardigan, Wales. "Community sponsorship is a lovely thing to do, it’s very rewarding, it’s a little kernel of affection but it’s too small in Britain."

Muhaned Alchik and his daughter Sara, 8, help Mayor John Adams-Lewis to prepare Syrian food, at a church hall in Cardigan, Wales (Andrew McConnel)

Echoing her remarks, Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s UK representative, says: “Community sponsorship is transformative. It provides refugee families with a support network to help them adapt, learn and become independent more quickly.

“But it also has a real effect on local volunteers, binding them together in a common cause and allowing them – in a small way - to be part of the global solution to forced displacement.

Amy Chapman plays with Adbul, 4, and Noor, 6, at the Arnout family home in Devon (Andrew McConnel)

“The tragic events in the Channel this week demonstrate again the need for concerted international efforts to address the complex root causes of displacement. 

"Re-opening and expanding legal pathways for more refugees to come to the UK in safety is one tangible way that this country can help.”

Last year, UNHCR travelled the UK chronicling the lives of five refugee families and their community supporters in West Wales, Devon, Liverpool, Greater Manchester and London. 

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor says the resulting photographs and videos demonstrate the enormous potential of the scheme if expanded. 

Sixteen-year-old Haitham Daour gives Ged Cavanagh a high five after a strike at a bowling alley in Bury (Andrew McConnel)

She adds: “We hope that resettlement to the UK will restart very soon – once reception capacity is confirmed and any remaining logistical issues related to Covid are overcome by the authorities.  

“The pandemic has presented new, acute hardships and uncertainties for refugees. Needs are greater than ever.”  

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has always provided sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny and the Home Secretary has been clear that we will fix the asylum system to make it firm and fair, compassionate to those who need help and welcoming people through safe and legal routes.

“Due to the unprecedented restrictions and pressures caused by the pandemic, the UK alongside many other countries had to temporarily pause the resettlement of refugees until it is safe for them to resume. We expect arrivals to restart as soon as conditions allow.”

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