Welcoming Syrian families to Ashford
When Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons in September 2015 and announced the government's intention to expand the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) and settle 20,000 refugees in need of protection across the UK, we were quick to step forward.
We committed to welcoming up to 50 refugees per year for each of the five years as part of the scheme – far in excess of any other local authority in the region.
Under the VPRS programme, Ashford has welcomed 34 families totalling 146 refugees over a four-year period (the most recent arrivals came here in October 2019). Ashford has resettled more vulnerable families from war-torn Syria than any other district in Kent, and indeed across the South East outside of London.
Why did we get involved?
The Syrian refugee crisis shocked the world – who can forget the harrowing photo of a child washed up on a Mediterranean beach? That image is as sickening today as it was then and was an important reference point for our involvement in the national programme to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.
Our refugee families have inspired so many people within the borough – they have even inspired an art project. Their resilience and humility are moving and our determination to help normalise their lives has brought communities together for the better. Ashford will never be the same again.
How has the resettlement scheme worked?
The first questions each family ask when they arrive are: when can we learn the language? When can we get into work? When can our children go to school?
With the emphasis on integration, we have worked hard – with the support of our partners and the wider community – to support families to gain the skills they need to enter the workforce.
Dedicated training has been provided in partnership with Ashford's Concept Training. It combines English language learning and workplace skills. Provision began with a course to improve employment prospects – many of the refugees were stonemasons and carpenters – and has expanded to include courses for those with childcare responsibilities for pre-school children. This is important, as this group have found it harder to access mainstream classes. Teens not eligible for a school place but not yet ready to enter college are also catered for.
With driving theory tests not being able to be passed in Arabic, many men and women have excelled in learning English to the extent they have been able to pass their theory (and practical) tests to give them independence and the means to get to work.
Ashford has been hugely successful in supporting refugees into work. More than half the families now have at least one family member in paid employment. Of those currently available for work, more than 40% have secured paid employment with the rest undertaking volunteering and work experience. This is much higher than the figures nationally (3%) and regionally (11%).
The children have thrived in school, proving to be enthusiastic students who have the full support of their families to excel. Many are progressing onto college courses.
Ashford earns national praise
Our proud record of welcoming vulnerable refugee families has earned national recognition. Ashford has been nominated in the Diversity and Inclusion category of the prestigious LGC Awards 2020.
Ashford is approached regularly by other council seeking advice on resettlement, while our project co-ordinator, Anne Forbes, received a British Empire Medal in the 2018 New Year's Honours List. The programme was awarded Outstanding Achievement in Housing at the 2018 Kent Housing Group and Kent Joint Policy and Planning Board for Housing Excellence Awards in 2018.
Ashford was praised by the Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as being endorsed by a visit from the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP. In autumn 2019, Anne Forbes was invited to attend a conference in Brussels to share our work as best practice across Europe.
What happens next?
We will continue to welcome desperate refugee families despite the fact that the current government-organised VPRS is ending. The government is putting together all of its refugee resettlement programmes into one, called the Global Resettlement Scheme (GRS), to continue beyond 2020.
In response, our Cabinet meeting on 29 January 2020 voted to continue to play an active part in the national commitment to planned refugee settlement under the new
Global Resettlement Scheme, opening the door to more refugee families desperate to make a new life away from their stricken homeland.
While refugees resettled under GRS can be drawn from anywhere in the world, council can request refugees from cultural backgrounds they are best-placed to support. Therefore Ashford plans to continue to support families with Syrian origin as we have the expertise and existing infrastructure already in place to support their successful resettlement.
We are extending the planned resettlement of refugees in Ashford to offer a new beginning for up to 50 people (around 10 families) each year under GRS, subject to the availability of suitable private rented property.
How can you help?
We desperately need houses in the private rented sector so that we can help more families. If you have property available that you would like to rent to a refugee family please email Anne Forbes to discuss options.
If you would like to get more involved in helping refugees to settle into our community and have time to offer, please contact Ashford Volunteer Centre on 01233 665535.
We are always looking for donations of good quality furniture, clothing and toys for the families. If you have anything you would like to donate please email Anne Forbes.