Nobody ever forgets their first visit to a refugee camp. You leave searching your soul for answers to the question: what more can I do? That’s why I’m proposing a plan for the West Midlands to become Britain’s first Region of Sanctuary – to pioneer new ways to turn our compassion into action to help those who need it most.
Four years ago, I was in the Ashti camp in north west Iraq. Through tears of anguish, Yazidi leaders implored us to tell the world about ISIS’ capture of thousands of Yazidi women and girls, who were raped, enslaved, bought and sold in ISIS markets for £100 each. Fathers and grandfathers told me of how they lost wives and children as they fled across the surging waters of the River Tigris. A hundred miles west, in the Baharka camp, I heard more brutal stories from the darkness. In one of the tents, I met Ahmed, and his five children. I’ll never forget their faces. Ahmed told me how he had trekked hundreds of miles through the mountains with his tiny children – all under nine – and lost everything along the way.
Throughout the camp, children do what children do everywhere: pushing little plastic diggers and trucks through the mud, kicking around a ball on stony football pitches, playing on battered bikes. They were in little wellies and flip flops, printed dresses and grubby Barcelona FC tops. Yet their parents were running out of hope, desperate to get back home.
Back in 2006, I was drafted in to fix an immigration system that was labelled ‘not fit for purpose’. Without doubt I didn’t get everything right, and sometimes I wasn’t careful enough with the language I used. Sometimes that language caused pain that I deeply regret. But I more than doubled the approval rate for asylum claims, delivering the highest approval rate for asylum claims since 1999. Almost 20,000 people were granted asylum while I was minister. I based a lot of reforms on a long series of meetings I held with Hodge Hill residents about the changes needed. And when I asked residents to name the British value they wanted centre-stage, ‘compassion’ topped the list.
It’s that sense of priorities that means for generations, the West Midlands has been a model for a diverse community living together well. And that’s why I’ve asked Refugee Action and Citizens UK for their advice on how we become Britain’s first ever Region of Sanctuary. For people seeking asylum, we must ensure active welcome and practical support for months – not weeks. This means welcome, community connection and far better access to legal advice. This ‘Early Action’ offered by charities like Sandwell’s Brushstrokes is a model for what needs expanding.
The Regional Resettlement approach pioneered by places like Yorkshire could be a model for us. Today it’s only got a year of funding but we should ask the government for a long-term plan to help our councils resettle 2,000 vulnerable refugees over the next five years to the West Midlands.
Help with learning English is vital. It really matters to refugees and today there’s huge frustration over lack of classes as well as other barriers such as lack of childcare provision. Syrians resettled by Birmingham City Council have been surprised the ESOL classes they are offered do not amount to much more than two lessons a week. So we need to find ways to scale this up to eight hours per week for two years.
Third, as part of our plans to Make Homelessness History, we have to ensure no refugees end up homeless, both after refugee status is granted and in all other circumstances. The failures of the Home Office constantly leave people destitute, but it’s not enough just to ‘call it out’. We need a plan for a proper safety net – it is frankly a scandal when people become destitute after they get refugee status.
Fourth, we need a far bigger network of Refugee Welcome Schools. I’m so proud of schools in my constituency who’ve helped pioneer this work – but we need many more of them. This is about far more than awareness of refugee welcome. Every school needs to deliver on a community action plan with others in their area.
Fifth, we need business and the Chambers of Commerce to play their role. Not only stepping up and providing jobs but helping our business support teams do more do to help to refugee/migrant entrepreneurs get started.
Alongside these changes we need a clear campaign plan with clear campaign asks of government, backing up the calls that have been made by Citizens UK for some time. This includes increasing the number of community sponsorship applications backed by the Home Office in our region and persuading the Home Office to reduce Child Citizenship application fees from £1,012 to what it actually costs them – £300. We should be exploring ideas pursued by mayor Sadiq Khan’s team, which is looking into the possibility of a mayor’s discretionary fund to pay legal fees to cover lawyer costs. And crucially we must insist on a Hate Crime Law review to make it far easier to prosecute hate crime.
Down the generations, our region has long been a region of revolutionaries. From the steam age to the jet age, we changed the world. But the reason for that is because we gave a home to newcomers looking for a better life, like Richard Tapper Cadbury or James Watt. So it’s time for us to learn lessons from our history and step up to our shared responsibility to provide a safe haven for those who need it most.