The severity of the Syrian refugee crisis has mobilised the residents of Oundle, with many members of the local community wondering what they can do locally to help the desperate situation of the Syrian refugees. To that end, the Vulnerable Migrants Project has been established to facilitate the placement of refugees in Oundle.
The British government declared in March that it would accept 20,000 refugees, however the Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) has decided that it is unable to take any Syrian refugees due to its current finances, after Northamptonshire was called upon by the British government to take 50 Syrian families over the next four years.
A spokesman for the NCC said: ‘Due to the ever-increasing demand for public services in Northamptonshire coupled with reduced funding from central Government, we have regrettably advised the Government that we’re unable to provide any resettlement opportunities for Syrian refugees.’
A large factor in the NCC’s decision was due to the strain on the council to provide 31 new schools in the county by 2020 to accommodate the increase in numbers of pupils. Coupled with this is the current responsibility to care for unattended asylum seeking children who are arriving in Northamptonshire on a very regular basis, with the number of refugee children rising by 62% in the past year.
At least 4,156 unaccompanied minors, (children aged 17 and under), were cared for by councils this year, compared to 2,569 in the previous year. Northamptonshire ranks fourth among all councils in assuming care for lone asylum-seeking children in England. Only Kent, Croydon and Surrey have taken more children, with Kent caring for a fifth of the unaccompanied children under 18.
According to figures released in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the Oundle Chronicle, 315 refugee children have entered the county of Northamptonshire in the last three years; 296 children were unaccompanied.
The number of unaccompanied asylum seeking minors is far greater in Northamptonshire than in its neighbouring counties. The NCC took responsibility for 50 refugee children in the 2015-2016 financial year compared to Cambridgeshire, which took just three children in the same year.
This is because a child claiming asylum in the UK becomes the legal responsibility of the local authority in which they are discovered. Upon their arrival in the UK, many of the refugee children secretly board lorries which proceed up the A1 until they reach the services in Northamptonshire. This is where the minors disembark and make their claim for asylum, and why Northamptonshire receives so many unaccompanied minors.
In spite of the county council’s inability to house the number of refugee families requested by the Government, the East Northamptonshire District Council (ENC) has encouraged residents to come forward with offers to provide housing for the Syrian refugees, whether it be a spare room or an entire house. However, an FOI request made by the Oundle Chronicle from the ENC has revealed that only three residents have offered housing.
Support for vulnerable refugees from Oundle’s own residents was demonstrated at a meeting at Oundle Primary School on the 21st September when residents met to discuss what the local community could do to help refugees. The Headteacher of Oundle Primary School, Janet McMurdo, said that the enthusiasm and concern shown by the local community was ‘overwhelming and unexpected’, with over fifty people attending the meeting at which NCC Councillor Heather Smith discussed the weekly arrival of unaccompanied minors in Northamptonshire who require foster care. The response to the meeting was extremely positive, with over half a dozen families agreeing to look further into the fostering process.
Additionally, the Vulnerable Migrants Project has been established in Oundle in order to facilitate the placement of refugees in Oundle.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Vulnerable Persons Scheme (UNHCR) is looking after very ‘vulnerable migrants’ in dangerous camps in the Middle East, mostly Syrians. In order for someone entering the United Kingdom to be granted refugee status, and therefore to qualify for this scheme, they would have to be deemed a ‘vulnerable migrant’.
This term means that the migrant has been judged to be vulnerable as a result of ill health, injury and distress.
Oundle’s Vulnerable Migrant Project hopes to support local families who would have the ability to house any refugees identified by the UNHCR, and would help to identify and meet any necessary statutory requirements to do so. A common misconception is that the refugees needing housing are those who have illegally obtained entry into England. However, in practice, if a house was to become available for a refugee family, this family would be flown directly from the refugee camp in Syria and given any necessary medical care before being settled in a house in Oundle.
ENC Councillor Rupert Reichhold said of this scheme: ‘This is a very worthy initiative by Oundle people which I fully support. My council’s key officers are working with other authorities concerned on preparatory work and I very much hope that the project will go ahead.’
The town is ideally placed for vulnerable migrants because of its proximity and access to hospitals in both Kettering and Peterborough, and the mosques in Peterborough. The positive response from the Oundle community is a very promising contribution to the national effort to home refugees in need of resettlement.