Yesterday [28th Jan 2016] I spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on the Resettlement of Syrain Refugees. You can watch my speech here – http://goo.gl/D8ZD8P
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing a debate that will no doubt be followed closely by the many individuals and organisations around the UK who hold a relevant interest in this subject. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady, because I believe the debate today is an important opportunity for all Members to reflect on the process of resettling the Syrian refugees who will now be calling the UK home.
I also welcome the chance to discuss some of the measures being undertaken in my constituency of Inverclyde, and I hope we are able to share examples of best practice from all our local areas. I am aware that in some instances, there is a wide variation in the approach being taken to resettlement and we can improve the process by resolving the problems that have been identified as the first group of Syrian refugees are welcomed into our communities.
I am pleased to put on record that due to the efforts of the Scottish Government and Inverclyde council the resettlement program in my constituency has been an overall success. Inverclyde council’s previous experience in participating in the Afghan resettlement scheme has been invaluable in taking forward the practicalities of the Syrian resettlement. In that programme, Afghans fleeing persecution, including former British Army interpreters, have found a new home in Inverclyde. One Afghan couple was so delighted that their most recent child had been born in Scotland that they insisted on giving it a Scottish name—it may be the first Scots-Afghan baby born in my constituency.
Inverclyde Council has made an initial commitment to support 10 Syrian families over the five-year life of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Periodic reviews of the process will help to determine whether the council can make a further commitment to take more.
The first two families arrived in November 2015, and a third family arrived shortly afterwards. On arriving in Scotland, they were met at the airport by council staff and transported to Inverclyde, where they temporarily stayed in a hotel, before moving to permanent accommodation. Housing was provided by locally registered social landlords, and the three families now live within walking distance of each other. In placing the families in accommodation, the local authority felt that it was best to cluster them together, but not to concentrate them too much. That allows them to live within a comfortable distance of each other, but it also ensures that they can integrate more effectively with their neighbours.
Inverclyde Council has assisted the families by helping them to establish bank accounts and by registering them with local GPs and dental practices. I am pleased to report that, throughout the entire settlement process, there have been no major incidents or problems, and the Syrian families continue to settle into their new community.
I am proud of the people of Inverclyde, who have shown such generosity in offering clothing, food, cash and their time to support their new neighbours.
Despite the warm welcome offered by local residents and the range of services available from Inverclyde Council, however, challenges remain for the incoming Syrian families. Most notably, refugees may experience difficulties in seeking work, because of language difficulties or because their professional qualifications are not recognised in the UK. Furthermore, if refugees have been victims of torture, we must ensure that local authorities continue to have the necessary physical and mental health support services to enable them to settle and thrive.
I would like to turn briefly to the issue of asylum seeker dispersal areas. The UK Government have asked local authorities in Scotland whether they would like to become dispersal areas for incoming asylum seekers.
That is pertinent to the debate, because many of those fleeing Syria will have to make a claim for asylum before possibly being granted refugee status in the UK. As one of the few local authorities with a declining population, Inverclyde would usually give serious consideration to becoming a dispersal area, because that would be an opportunity to bring a younger population into our community.
The UK Government are, however, making their request without a commitment to provide funding to cover the cost of the additional support services that would be required. A properly thought-out and fully funded package of funding would likely see a number of Scottish councils willing to become dispersal areas, but authorities will be reluctant to risk the success they have already achieved in resettling Syrian refugees by taking on the many challenges of becoming an asylum seeker dispersal area without the required funding support. I hope the UK Government will consider those concerns as they move ahead with plans to establish more asylum seeker dispersal areas in Scotland.
In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent for securing the debate. I hope we will continue this discussion outside the Chamber over the next five years. In doing so, we will ensure that the resettlement program continues to build on the successes we have already achieved.