Birmingham’s clear message to Government: work with us, not against us, on asylum

Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety and Equalities, looks at how the Covid-19 crisis is impacting Birmingham’s ability to welcome more refugees and migrants.

We can be proud that Birmingham has welcomed and supported asylum seekers and refugees for over 20 years. In fact, our city is currently home to 1,599 asylum seekers and through our work with third sector partners we offer safety and a fresh start to people escaping persecution in places like Syria.

By the end of March, 524 refugees had been resettled in the city under the Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme since it began in 2015 – and Birmingham has already publicly pledged to welcome a further 110 refugees when the new UK Resettlement Scheme begins later this year.

Birmingham has an international reputation as a friendly city, proud of the warm welcome it offers to people from all corners of the globe seeking to settle and rebuild their lives here.

Not only do we live in the most ethnically diverse city in the UK, with a population made up of 187 nationalities, but Birmingham is also a City of Sanctuary, offering a place of safety to all – including refugees from war-torn areas.

We will continue to be a city of safety and sanctuary, but it is only fair to expect other towns and cities across the UK to also play their part in this humanitarian work - especially at a time when the challenges placed on local authorities and public services by the ongoing coronavirus crisis mean many frontline services are stretched to meet increasing demand.

As I write this, I know our adult social care, housing and refugee and migration teams, together with Birmingham’s brilliant voluntary and community sector, are continuing to work hard to ensure those who need our help are accommodated and supported. Since lockdown began in March, they have gone above and beyond to support vulnerable groups, including those with no access to public funds.

To give you some idea of the size of the challenge, the most recent Government asylum and resettlement data (for quarter ending 31 March 2020) reveals Birmingham welcomed around twice as many asylum seekers (1,599) as Leeds (852) and Manchester (850). Both cities have also resettled fewer refugees through government schemes – Leeds (356) and Manchester (4) – than Birmingham (524).

The challenges such vulnerable people face when arriving here puts them at risk of exploitation – so it’s vital that we can ensure their safety and that they can access necessary support services, to help them settle into their new neighbourhood.

However, as we gradually come out of lockdown, the arrival of more vulnerable people in Birmingham will put a massive strain on the limited support services available - and could have a detrimental effect on the positive work that has been achieved so far.

The Home Office recently wrote to local authorities informing them of the increased need for accommodation for asylum seekers but, in a separate communication, it was clear they intended to look beyond the UK’s big cities, where other pressures and the rates of Covid-19 are higher than elsewhere.

So I am very disappointed that, despite their assurances, the Government has chosen to place a second contingency and fourth overall accommodation centre for asylum seekers in Birmingham.

The lack of meaningful consultation with the council and the voluntary sector, also increases the risks around being able to properly support vulnerable people in our city even more.

Birmingham continues to be a City of Sanctuary, a Mi-Friendly City and host to asylum seekers in initial hostels as well as dispersed accommodation. We are proud to play our part in supporting people who need our help. However, opening a second contingency accommodation centre in the middle of the city – housing more than 200 vulnerable people – will add a huge amount of pressure to the wider support systems that are needed.

I am extremely concerned this additional demand will place further strain on already stretched resources including health services, community policing and mental health support, so we are urgently asking the Government to reconsider their plans.

June will mark Refugee Week, of which I am a proud and passionate supporter, not least because the work done in Birmingham to support asylum seekers, migrants and refugees serves as an inspiring national example of what can be achieved.

However, I do believe this move by the Home Office could do more harm than good, by undermining the great progress we’ve been making and ultimately placing new arrivals at risk as a result.

That’s why I urge the Government now to rethink these plans and to do the right thing by people who desperately need proper help and support. Birmingham will always play its part in full, but it’s vital that Government and others work with us to ensure that no-one is left vulnerable or at risk.

This blog was posted on 1 June 2020

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