Enver Solomon is Chief Exective of the Refugee Council.
As the local election results came in on Friday, there was hope that Bury in Greater Manchester would swing to the Conservatives. It wasn’t to be, but the election had received national attention because one of the party’s proud candidates is not your average Conservative politician.
Jihyun Park, recently interviewed on this site by Andrew Gimson, was the first North Korean ever to stand in elections for the party in this country. Quite a remarkable achievement for a woman who fled the brutal communist dictatorship with her family by escaping over the border to China and eventually by plane to London.
After applying for asylum, she was given refugee status in the UK 13 years ago and housed in Bury, where she still lives with her husband Kwang and two sons. Park recently told the Times that when she first arrived in the country, she couldn’t speak a word of English. “We were given this house but there was nothing in it, no furniture, no heating,” she said. “The four of us slept in the living room covered by a single blanket. But everyone helped us. The council. Our neighbours. We will never forget this.”
Park’s story might seem unique. But it isn’t. People fleeing war, persecution, terror and dictatorships around the world are welcomed into the UK every year. Communities and councils across the land from Glasgow to Gloucester support them to set up home, put down roots in their neighbourhood and contribute to the good of the country paying taxes as law abiding citizens.
Many are part of the vast army of people employed by the NHS as doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. Others become academics, architects, accountants business people, lawyers, and lots more. And they often say they are proud that Britain is their home.
For seven decades since the UK signed the UN Convention on Refugees in 1951, the country has given protection to hundreds of thousands of people in need of safety. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents came to the UK from Uganda at the time of the dictatorship of Idi Amin is proud of the fact that the UK welcomed many Asian families cruelly expelled from the country. From Uganda to Iran to Bosnia to Afghanistan and most recently Syria people have come to the UK in the knowledge that the country will provide a safe haven for them and their families.
Conservative governments have been at the forefront of upholding this long tradition of providing refugee protection. Most recently, David Cameron when Prime Minister set up the Vulnerable Persons Syrian Resettlement Scheme. Working with the UNHCR 20,000 Syrian refugees have been brought to the UK over the last five years to rebuild their lives.
The Refugee Council has been working with councils in Yorkshire, Humberside, Hertfordshire and London to support them to successfully integrate into local communities. Many Syrians arrived with basic skills but they have found a way to make a real difference, even during the pandemic.
One example is Adil, a Syrian tailor who settled in Sheffield. When lockdown was first put in place Adil was inspired to do something to protect people against the virus. Initially he made 70 face masks, which he donated to his children’s school and his neighbours. He has now gone on to make 500 items of PPE for his local community, including masks and scrubs, purchasing many of the materials himself.
It is safer for people seeking asylum, and arguably less of a challenge to public services, if people arrive in the UK through routes designated as ‘safe and legal’ by the Government. In order to meet the scale of the global refugee displacement need, and deter people from making dangerous journeys to our shores, it is vital these routes must also be accessible for those fleeing persecution.
The Government’s New Plan for Immigration rightly commits to provide safe and legal routes for those who have been uprooted by war and terror.
But it holds back from making any firm commitment on numbers. If another 20,000 refugees were settled in the country during the next five years, it would be the equivalent of only eight in every parliamentary constituency each year. Doubling that number would mean just 16. Global Britain surely has a role to play in providing a home for a fraction of the 26 million refugees in the world today.
The reality, however, is that whether one likes it or not refugees are unable to travel and arrive in our country only via regular means. Apart from refugees who are admitted on a resettlement scheme, such as the recent programme for people escaping Syria, few are able to secure travel documents – usually because the authorities will not give them one, or they lose it or have it confiscated.
Persuading any country to give them a visa is very difficult. For all these reasons, people seek to make spontaneous journeys to safe countries in Europe. They have no choice. Of course, as a country we can’t simply give all these people protection. But what we have always done and should continue to do is give them a fair hearing if they reach our shores, so those who are in genuine need of protection are granted it. At the same time those who aren’t should be supported to return to their country.
Park is a case in point. She arrived on a plane and applied for asylum after getting to the UK. But under the government’s New Plan for Immigration, there is a risk that people like her will be turned away, or only given temporary protection. if they have travelled through another so-called safe country, or don’t make an asylum application entirely in accordance with the government’s rules.
When people come to our country seeking asylum we need a fair and effective system so that everybody in need of protection is given a just hearing. Both compassion and control are important. Let’s continue to welcome people like Jihyun Park, support them to rebuild their lives and contribute to our country. Refugee protection is a great British value that we should be proud to uphold.