openDemocracyUK: Feature

From a bombed-out Damascus suburb to the British seaside

The UK government says it wants to welcome refugees via official resettlement schemes. How well does this work in practice?

Henry Peck
17 March 2021, 5.02pm
Forty-five Syrian and Sudanese refugees have in recent years been resettled in Eastbourne, on England's south coast
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Aloha Bonser-Shaw

At the back of a sprawling set of garden allotments in Eastbourne, on England’s south coast, Mahmoud Al-Halabi gently pulls up two carrots for his children and gestures to a thick curtain of green vines. Parting the leaves he reveals several large bottle gourds, quite unlike anything growing in his neighbours’ plots.

“In Syria, summer is longer, and these grow even bigger,” the 33-year-old says, waving admiration aside. The beans, peppers, and kusa (squash) he’s growing are other staples from that faraway climate. It’s been eight years since Al-Halabi and his family left their home in a pummelled suburb of Damascus, fleeing a conflict that has devastated their country.

Their route to the seaside resort of Eastbourne took many years, and yet was relatively direct. Along with hundreds of thousands of others escaping the war in Syria, they first went to Jordan. Life was “very difficult” there, and Al-Halabi worked three jobs a day to keep his family fed and housed. Then in late 2018 they received a rare lifeline, admitted to the UK under a government programme to resettle the “most at risk” refugees in the Middle East displaced by the Syrian conflict. It placed them in Eastbourne with refugee status and resources for their immediate needs.

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Mahmoud's allotment in Eastbourne, where he grows staples from a faraway climate | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

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This programme, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), has been a core part of the UK government’s refugee policy for the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the government to pause the programme in March last year, a few hundred shy of its target of resettling 20,000 people between 2015 and 2020. At the end of 2020 the programme began to resume and is intended to run until this original commitment is met. The government has yet to confirm when a planned replacement programme will follow, despite warnings about the impact of delays.

A lot rides on the programme, which was deemed the ‘gold standard’ of UK resettlement schemes in a 2017 UNHCR report. For refugees, it has offered one of the only safe routes to Britain, as well as designated support on arrival. For the government, it has been used to justify its antagonistic approach to asylum seekers crossing the English Channel. Across the world, resettlement serves fewer than 1% of refugees, but as Europe grapples with fatal sea crossings, xenophobic politics, and overcrowded asylum facilities, the successes and shortcomings of the VPRS hold lessons for the wider region’s immigration policies.

How has the scheme worked in practice? Two sets of experiences, from opposite ends of Britain, show us what’s required to make it a success.

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Mahmoud Al-Halabi's neighbouring allotments in Eastbourne | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

Location one: Eastbourne

Two years after arriving, Al-Halabi continues slowly putting down roots in Eastbourne. He’s learning English at a college, and recently celebrated the marriage of his sister at the town hall. His experience of resettlement is inseparable from his setting, particularly the efforts of a proactive community group and the local council.

On the town’s Victorian seafront, dozens of hotels look out over the Channel towards France, but until recently the town’s population of 100,000 looked little like the rest of the world. While there remains a high proportion of elderly residents, census data indicates that the proportion of black and minority ethnic residents almost doubled from 3.4% to 5.9% between 2001 and 2011. The decade since suggests a further shift. Among the more recent arrivals are 45 Syrian and Sudanese refugees, resettled through the VPRS. A group of volunteers has been instrumental to the town’s participation in the programme.

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The first family to be settled in Eastbourne under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme arrived in January 2017 | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

One of the group’s leaders is retired headteacher Anna Reid. Like many, Reid was shaken by the coverage of fatal migrations in 2015, when 3,771 people died crossing the Mediterranean. She and two friends started thinking about what they could do to help locally.

They’d heard about the VPRS, and contacted the town council about hosting refugees in Eastbourne. But their inquiries were met with concern that using social housing for the programme, or even advertising for spare homes, would cause a racial backlash. (Eastbourne Borough Council was contacted for this piece but declined to comment.) Although the Home Office oversees the programme, it mostly falls to councils and community groups to provide housing, public services, and direct support.

Councils are not obliged to join the VPRS but are encouraged to do so, and the majority have: 342 of the UK’s 408 local authorities have participated in the scheme. The UK government provides money to cover most costs for each refugee in the first year. The funding drops over the following four years from £5,000 to £1,000 per person.

One of the hardest parts for councils is finding suitable housing, but Reid was not deterred by the challenge. “I knew there were a lot of second homes in Eastbourne,” she said, explaining that the trio put out a call to friends and churches for anyone with accommodation to let. Naming their fledgeling group ‘Networx’, they had soon found enough houses and furniture to settle three Syrian families who arrived independently, and to help boost the programme’s viability for the council.

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Anna Reid is one of the leaders of Networx, a group of volunteers that has been instrumental to Eastbourne’s participation in VPRS | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

In January 2017, the first family on the programme was greeted at the airport by a representative from the council and an interpreter, and Networx supported the council in helping them adjust to life in Eastbourne. As more families arrived in Eastbourne, Reid noticed holes in the scheme’s provisions. She considered it short-sighted that participating local authorities were not required to provide TV or internet access, a ready source of English language material for the newcomers. So Networx started paying for the first year of each, with Eastbourne council subsequently taking over internet provision.

But what she found more glaring was the lack of general social care. “Just like schools and other services are forgotten for housing estates, the scheme forgets the basic needs for 20,000 people,” said Reid. She predicts that neglecting these needs now will lead to future mental health issues and costs.

Networx tries to offset these gaps with provisions that can be fundamental to general wellbeing. In Al-Halabi’s case that was the first year’s rent for the garden plot; for a man with a spine injury, Networx paid for an adjustable bed. The group also pairs families with volunteer ‘befrienders’, who might help with practising English or managing the school run, and include physiotherapists, teachers and others whose experiences are useful for the project.

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The improvised tea station at Mahmoud's allotment, which Networx paid his first year's rent on | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

The group has a Christian background, as does the town food bank and several other organisations offering public support. There is a long global history of faith communities helping people affected by displacement, according to Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, a professor of migration and refugee studies. Their importance in Britain has increased over the past decade. “With centrally provided welfare provision having been eroded over time in the UK, we see faith groups filling key gaps, by providing assistance and sanctuary in different ways,” said Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.

Networx’s links to churches have given it facilities for events and a café space, a congregation to help source housing, as well as access to funding from Christian charities.

While faith clearly guides Reid, it features little in conversation. Instead, she talks about language acquisition difficulties for the town’s new arrivals. She considers the programme’s requirement of eight hours of English language instruction per week in the first year to be insufficient. For each child, £4,500 is allocated to support learning English in the first year, but the usage varies hugely. She said one school “did it really well, by hiring an Arabic-speaking assistant to be with the child, dividing hours across the year so she’d be there often”, whereas another school “didn’t even know [the student] was a Syrian refugee, and he left last summer with nothing”.

UNHCR reported similar challenges among adults. The agency recommended increasing the number of English teaching hours available, particularly for two low-participation groups: women with young children and young people aged 18-24.

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Anna Reid feels there have been language acquisition difficulties for Eastbourne's new arrivals | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

Location two: Bute

While Eastbourne shows the scale of adjustments that refugees and hosts need to make, these become all the more stark when the location is remote, or in economic decline. Once known to Glaswegians as part of the ‘Costa Clyde’, the Scottish island of Bute shares with Eastbourne the legacy of a fabled but faded domestic holiday resort. Yet Bute’s remoteness, northern climate, and population of roughly 6,000 made it an unusual location for the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

“For the first six months, I studied English at home for five hours every day,” recalled Mounzer Darsani at his Orient Salon barbershop in Rothesay, on Bute. Darsani ran a barbershop in Damascus before imprisonment and torture forced him to flee to Lebanon with his wife and two children. They were among the first of 34 families so far to be resettled on this small island two hours west of Glasgow.

The decision to bring refugees to this island community came when the regional Argyll and Bute council determined in September 2015 that of the mainland areas and 23 islands it administers, Bute “best met the criteria drawn up to support refugee families having available property, capacity in schools and ability to access health care”.

Yet the reality was not so straightforward. Much of the housing consisted of one-bedroom flats unsuitable for families, while any health needs beyond primary care required a visit to the mainland. The surplus of housing also betrayed the island’s economic decline since the 1960s, with part of Rothesay counted among the top 10% “most deprived” places in Scotland today. This meant finding employment might be challenging for the new arrivals, but many locals hoped an infusion of young families would be a boon to the area.

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Like Eastbourne, the Scottish island of Bute is a fabled but faded holiday resort | Henry Peck

“We knew all of them would need homes, and there was also the sense that people with professional background and business acumen would revitalise the community,” said the Reverend Owen Jones, a Rothesay minister involved in the programme. Residents largely embraced the prospect, quickly establishing a welcome committee with over a hundred volunteers. They collected and sorted clothes, toys, and essential items for distribution.

There was a simultaneous surge in attendance at community council meetings by both residents in favour and against the programme.

“I can understand some of the locals living nearby being less than enamoured, especially when it was suggested not to have Christmas decorations because of the possibility of causing offence,” said Jean Moffat, a Bute councillor. “But the attitude of the locals and behaviour of the Syrians meant they were soon welcomed into the community.”

Helping out on the job was the obvious thing to do for Michael, one of the island’s bus drivers and himself a relative newcomer from Wales via London, which he said made him “used to people not knowing” an unfamiliar setting. He would count out the different coins for his new passengers, and make sure they knew when they had reached their stop.

The council emphasised creating paths to employment through volunteering, English competency, and training, and in time some of the refugees found work at the Mount Stuart estate and gardens, and at the vegan cheese factory that is one of the largest employers on the island. One woman started working as a carer for a local resident.

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Bute’s remoteness and northern climate made it an unusual location for the resettlement of Syrian refugees | Henry Peck

Yet the most visible manifestations are the Syrian businesses in Rothesay, none more so than Helmi’s Patisserie. The pastel pink exterior of Helmi’s, as it is affectionately known, makes it unmissable on the seafront of Victorian terraced housing, and for good reason. Its proprietor is the invariably smiling Bashar Helmi, who seems to be constantly shuttling between kitchens and supply stores. His son Momen offers customers a warm greeting in an English cadenced by a childhood in Syria and adolescence in Scotland. The mixture of dishes on the café’s chalkboard menu befits the same marriage of origin and setting: eclairs and cakes, halloumi wraps and lentil soup, and a mezze feast undersold as the “Syrian breakfast platter.”

The café’s huge popularity has propelled the opening of a new branch on the edge of Glasgow, but other Syrian businesses have not done so well. Two takeaway restaurants and a food truck that started with local support have not opened for months. The pandemic has not helped, but the barber Darsani suggested there’s just a limited market. People are curious about Syrian food, but do not want to eat it every week. Similarly, the island offers his barbershop a steady number of customers but no increase, and he has dreams of growth.

The loyalty of his customers and those at Helmi’s Patisserie might reflect the businesses’ high quality of service as well as a kind of ethical consumerism. “A slight moral glow attends you if you go in there. You think you’re doing good here, buying this stuff from someone who had to leave their homeland because life was unsupportable,” said summer resident Ian Jack about Helmi’s.

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Some Syrian businesses in the town of Rothesay, Bute, have struggled | Henry Peck

Still, the Bute resettlement initiative has not been wholly successful. Of the 34 families resettled on Bute, 20 have subsequently moved to Glasgow, Liverpool, or elsewhere for familial links or urban amenities. Even Darsani now commutes from the mainland (where he’s opened a second barbershop) to run his Rothesay salon two days a week, saying the lack of restaurants serving halal food, mosques or Arab shops contributed to his reason to leave.

Island life is not for everyone, and many of the families have come from cities – despite the Home Office’s aim not to resettle families from urban areas to remote settings. Nor is the challenge unique to Bute: UNHCR found that “some of the refugees resettled in small towns and rural areas of the UK found the process more complicated than for those in major cosmopolitan cities.”

Five years since the first families arrived, the island is more settled. While over half of the families have left, others seem likely to stay, just as Bute’s larger population continues to ebb and flow.

Unequal treatment or a fresh start?

The resettlement programme has demonstrated that alternatives to the UK’s prevailing “hostile environment” approach to immigration are possible, providing individuals with opportunities rather than obstacles to rebuilding their lives. And yet the programme has drawn criticism for contributing to a two-tier system by elevating one group of refugees over others.

Most refugees who arrive in Britain as asylum seekers have access to minimal resources and are unable to work while their claim is processed (some exceptions exist after 12 months, and the restrictions on asylum seekers’ rights to work are currently under review).

The distinction also affects public opinion. Alexander Betts, a professor of political science focusing on refugee assistance, argues that “it is no coincidence that it is in some of the countries with the strongest resettlement traditions where spontaneous asylum is regarded with the greatest scepticism.”

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Mahmoud Al-Halabi's seeds, as he readies his allotment for another year | Aloha Bonser-Shaw

Today there are other smaller resettlement schemes, such as Community Sponsorship, which further shifts the responsibility of refugee support to communities rather than local authorities, and has long been a popular model in Canada. The process of applying to be community sponsors has been criticised for its difficulty, but the scheme has attracted praise from UNHCR and research suggests refugees settled under community sponsorship may be better supported and less isolated compared to those settled through VPRS.

The Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project, secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, has celebrated the successes of the VPRS and called on the government “to commit to operating the new Global Resettlement Scheme for at least the next five years, to last the full length of the current parliament.” Local authorities, accustomed to long-term commitments for hosting refugees, would be better able to plan under this timeframe.

British immigration minister, Chris Philp, has said “we will continue to honour our commitment to those who have been invited to the UK and we will roll out a new global resettlement scheme in future, along with a new firm and fair asylum system, which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.” But the Home Office has still not announced any further details on the time frame or duration of the programme.

Achieving self-reliance in a new country may be a long process, in which obtaining a plot of land, a sewing machine or a driving license, or eventually indefinite leave to remain are major milestones. In Eastbourne, Mahmoud Al-Halabi is eager to volunteer or find work. The lockdowns have constrained opportunities for both, but have not dented his patience. As he puts his garden to bed for 2020, he collects seeds and turns them in his hand, held for another year of renewal.

This story is part of "Here to Stay," a multimedia reporting series on solutions to resettlement of migrants and refugees amid the global migration crisis. Produced by The GroundTruth Project with support from the MacArthur Foundation, Luce Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network, this series of nine stories from eight countries chronicles the trials, resilience and courage of both the native and the newcomer, as well as some of humanity’s most tragic impulses.

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