WHILE delegates at the UN summit debated how to tackle the refugee crisis, charities and politicians closer to home were also grappling with the problem.
A visual protest was set up in Parliament Square, in London, on Monday, when 2500 lifejackets discarded by refugees who had reached Europe were laid out on the grass opposite the Palace of Westminster.
Campaigners from World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, and other groups laid out the vests in lines to represent the thousands of people who had died making the perilous sea-crossing in recent years.
“Today is meant to represent the tragedy of the modern refugee,” the IRC’s director of policy and practice, Sanj Srikanthan, told The Independent. “If world leaders put their minds to it, they could almost halve the number of refugees displaced.”
Two days earlier, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, with the RC charities CAFOD and CSAN, gathered supporters to join a pre-summit rally declaring that refugees were welcome. After an ecumenical service at St James’s, Spanish Place, the demonstrators joined a larger march through central London with other activists and charities.
Speaking beforehand, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said: “This is a crisis that demands an urgent response from the international community. I believe that people in this country are instinctively generous, and, through the community sponsorship scheme, led by Churches and faith groups, pathways to ensure this generosity is channelled in the most helpful way are being established.”
The wider protest, organised by Solidarity with Refugees, marked one year since almost 100,000 people marched to demand that the Government take in more refugees, after news media published pictures of the dead Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Greek beach (News, 4 September).
Among the demonstrators were representatives from the charity Freedom from Torture, which cares for torture survivors who come to the UK. One unnamed survivor said: “We are so lucky to be able to come to this country and march without fear today. To be a refugee is not a choice; anyone could be a refugee in our lives. There is solidarity in the UK, and you have offered sanctuary to so many. We ask the Government to carry on the tradition.”
Despite pressure, the Government has not changed its target of resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.
Thousands of people live in the refugee camp known as “The Jungle”, in Calais. Charities, celebrities, and faith groups have been asking the Government to bring over hundreds of unaccompanied children who are stranded there, including a list of 387 young people who, they say, are already eligible for asylum as they have family connections in the UK.
The Labour peer Lord Dubs, who was a child refugee from the Nazis brought to England in the Kindertransport, led a debate in the House of Lords on Thursday of last week to ask the Government what it proposed to do for the Jungle’s children, now that the French authorities had decided to dismantle the camp.
Lord Dubs said that, as far as he knew, not a single child from the Jungle covered by his amendment to the Immigration Act — which allowed unaccompanied children to be offered safety in the UK — had yet come to Britain. “Would the Government please get a move on? It is the Government’s obligation, and I hope that they will act on it,” he said.
The Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said that the Government recognised its “moral responsibility to assist those who are suffering as a result of the conflicts in the world”.
A new scheme would resettle 3000 vulnerable children from the Middle East and North Africa by 2020; about half of the 2700 Syrians already brought in under the existing scheme were children, she said.
The UK was working with France to identify children in Calais who had a right to come to Britain, but, unlike Lord Dubs, she said that she did not necessarily think that it would be best for all the children in the Jungle to come to the UK.
Meanwhile, the community-sponsorship scheme for refugees, launched at Lambeth Palace in the summer (News, 19 July), has spread to the Midlands: the Birmingham district of the Methodist Church has signed up with the Home Office to take in and support a family of four.
The Revd David Butterworth, who leads the Birmingham Methodist Network, said: “To be able to provide a safe welcome to a refugee family is a wonderful privilege. We hope that this family will be the first of many fleeing wars and horrors abroad that the Church can provide with sanctuary and love.”