I am extremely proud that in my constituency I have had thousands of emails from you about the plight of refugees. You have given me your support for my work as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees; you have joined local campaigning organisations; and you have come forward to ask me what more you can do to help refugees have a proper welcome and full support in Bristol.
I have recently blogged on suggestions for people who want to help refugees and I try to update this website regularly.
Last week was the final oral evidence session for the parliamentary inquiry I initiated for the All Party Group, entitled ‘Refugees Welcome?’. Again, you can read more on my blog as the work continues but I wanted to share some of what we have learnt so far and emerging themes.
Taking testimony from refugees who have been granted legal right to remain in the UK has been a moving experience, and often upsetting. Moving because these are people who have been through terrible suffering, sometimes tortured in the countries they have had to leave, usually escaping wars, frequently making horrific journeys to reach here, and are desperate to give back to the country which has given them sanctuary. Every single one of them said how much they wanted to work when they couldn’t, because of asylum rules, and those who are now working are so pleased to be able to. Upsetting because the way the immigration system works so often leaves people who have a legal right to asylum destitute and homeless for weeks, months and sometimes years, but frequently for reasons which are fixable.
When you are sent your notice of refugee status from the Home Office, you are also sent a letter giving you 28 days’ notice to leave the accommodation you are in. At that point, you also need three other documents, which you will typically have to wait for but without which you can’t work, claim benefits, get a bank account or somewhere to live. You need a National Insurance number, biometric residence permit and an official letter from the National Asylum Service about your change of status. Now would it not be simple and sensible to send all five together, at the same time, and to give people a bit longer than four weeks to find somewhere to live and money to live off? These are people who have had their right to be here confirmed, after all, and are keen to be integrated and to contribute. Yet the system lets them down, in an often incomprehensible series of failed bureaucratic processes.
Refugees spoke about their despair at being destitute or homeless or both. Some spoke about others they knew who had become vulnerable to sexual exploitation at this point in the process. Others had slept rough or on friends’ sofas. All of them spoke about the kindness of people in the host communities, but this just doesn’t seem right to me, and I am sure it won’t to you.
One recommendation from refugees therefore has been to bring all these processes together so no one is left destitute or homeless.
The inquiry panel will be visiting Bristol and Nottingham in December, to see how things work on the ground and to hear from more refugees. Our report will be published early in 2017 and we will be using it as a tool to lobby government for changes.
Also this week I met with one of the Ministers of State at the Department for International Development, to discuss the humanitarian situation for refugees in Syria and the bordering regions. You will be aware of the appalling suffering of Syrian people trapped in a seemingly intractable civil war, particularly in cities like Aleppo. The neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have taken millions of displaced Syrians. One in four of the population of Lebanon is Syrian. I am regularly updated by people who are at senior level in non-governmental organisations working in Syria and involved at high level in the peace processes.
I am pressing the government to get to grips urgently with the challenge of getting aid to Syrians stuck inside Syria and to those trapped in the no-mans-land between Syria and Jordan, known as the Berm. This situation is getting worse, and winter is coming fast. I know we have paid a lot of attention, and rightly so, to Calais. But there are other places like Calais, where refugees are gathered in awful situations. We need to keep in our minds all the Calais of the world, to help ease the suffering of refugees everywhere.