Lewisham wants to be a sanctuary for Aegean refugees

Pic: Julie Ricard

Lewisham Council, one of the eight established boroughs of sanctuary in London, is calling on the government to restart the refugee resettlement programme and expand it to the people in the Aegean islands.

Mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, made the call to let the borough welcome the Aegean refugees in a letter to the Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, MP Chris Philp.

The request, which was sent at the end of February, has also been motivated by the need for a solution to resolve constraints on the resettlement programme.

As a borough of sanctuary, Lewisham supports vulnerable people who have escaped persecution or violence from their home country and advocates the rights of asylum seekers, refugees as well as other migrants.

Covid disruption

House of Commons Senior research clerk, Melanie Gower, said that the pandemic has disrupted the UK’s refugee resettlement, in a research briefing on January 26 this year.

Gower added: “Resettlements to the UK were put on hold in March 2020.”

Egan has expressed concerns over the harsh living conditions that the refugees are facing.

“Thousands of [Aegean] refugees are facing horrifying and desperate conditions, with reports of many having to go without water and electricity,” he said in the letter.

On November 23, 2020, Philip indicated that the government was looking to reintroduce resettlement cautiously in order to comply with Covid-19 constraints.

He said: “We have been working closely with key domestic and international stakeholders on plans to safely resume UK resettlement arrivals against the backdrop of unprecedented restrictions . . . caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a result of this work . . . the UK will shortly restart UK resettlement arrivals to fulfil our commitment of resettling 20,000 refugees affected by the conflict in Syria under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). . . ”

The VPRS provides exclusive sanctuary for vulnerable refugees affected by the crisis in Syria, which means that people in the Aegean islands will be unable to benefit from the scheme and will continue to face harsh conditions.

Loss of EU funding

Brexit has also lead to a loss of funding towards immigration support, which ultimately affects the government’s ability to provide sanctuary. Gower added: “The UK is losing access to EU funding for asylum and immigration initiatives. This has been used, for refugee resettlement. ”

Deputy Head of mayor’s office at Lewisham council, Sophie Carroll told Eastlondonlines: “[T]here will be times that the Council will be restricted by law and national government policy. That is why the Council campaigns with others in and outside Lewisham for change, as we have in calling for Government . . . to urgently restart the refugee resettlement programme in order to save lives.”

Egan believes that the island’s environment also poses a risk to refugees, prompting the need for a course of action. He said in the letter: “With . . . the grossly inadequate living conditions for people on the move living on the Greek islands, it is increasingly urgent for us to act.”

The mayor also requests that the UK participates in relocating refugees. Egan said in the letter: “It is critical that the UK joins EU countries in moving those stranded in the Greek islands using the UK’s Refugee Resettlement Scheme.”

He added: “The government must step up and do the right thing.”

Resettlement scheme extension needed

The government has not yet responded to the letter, but the council has a clear idea of what they hope will be achieved.

Caroll said: “If the Government accepts our request, we’d like to see an extension of the UK’s Resettlement scheme that’s already been used for bringing over and resettling refugee families from Syria and the wider Middle East so that it includes refugees from the Greek islands. That would mean that councils like Lewisham would be able to include these refugees in our resettlement programmes.”

According to London Councils, the UK’s refugee resettlement programme has provided sanctuary to refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, including nations such as Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

Despite this provision, the organisation affirms that the resettlement scheme aims to relocate 5,000 refugees a year and intends to widen the entry to those fleeing countries from outside the Middle East and North Africa, which may ultimately include the Aegean islands.

The UN Refugee Agency has outlined issues surrounding the standard of living for the refugees. The agency said: “Thousands of women, men, and children [in the Aegean Islands] who currently live in small tents are exposed to cold and rain with little or no access to heating, electricity or hot water.”

Borough of sanctuary

Lewisham is one of the eight established boroughs of sanctuary in London, which defines areas that are supportive and welcoming towards immigrants.

Carroll said: “[T]he commitment to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary is a response to the concept of a ‘hostile environment’ where people and organisations are encouraged and compelled to challenge anyone coming from elsewhere as to their right to be in the UK.

“The principle of sanctuary challenges that concept by offering welcome, listening and support to refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.”

Carroll believes that Lewisham’s role in providing sanctuary, has prompted the request to the government.

She said: “As a Borough of Sanctuary, it’s vital that we continue to challenge the hostile environment, which includes calling for the Government to do all it can to support refugees. The more voices that can unite and call for change, the more likely we are to get a positive response.”

The letter has been signed by Lewisham councillor and cabinet member for democracy, refugees and accountability, Kevin Bonavia, as well as MP for Lewisham West and Penge, Ellie Reeves, MP for Lewisham East, Janet Daby and MP for Lewisham and Deptford, Vicky Foxcroft.

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