Simon Finlay, Project Co-ordinator of the Syrian Resettlement Programme at Hastings Borough Council, seems a happy man these days. He has spent half a lifetime working for organisations that have endeavoured, on a shoestring, to assist refugees to negotiate the tortuous and frustrating process of gaining asylum in the UK through a bureaucratic system designed to make life hard for them. But since 2016 he has been directing a refugee project which is well-funded and designed to succeed – all the more so in Hastings, he says, being the parliamentary constituency of the Home Secretary who set it up: a certain Amber Rudd MP.

It was David Cameron who in 2015 pledged to welcome to Britain 20,000 refugees from camps on the borders of Syria over a five-year period, offering them immediate rights to welfare benefits but also the right to work and receive appropriate education. Many liberal critics have complained, both at the time and subsequently, that this was a shamefully low figure in proportion to the total numbers of war-fleeing refugees. But to the credit of those implementing the policy, a proper level of funding (raised from the budget of the Department for International Development, not from cash-strapped local authorities) is, according to Simon, enabling a good service to be delivered to those that are selected to come.

The deal is as follows. Simon seeks properties offered for let by private landlords in the local area – not confined to Hastings and St Leonards, at least one of them is in Herstmonceaux – where the letting is likely to be available relatively longterm. Social landlords are excluded. He assesses each in terms of geographical location – is it urban or rural, is there a serviceable bus route, does it have access to health and education facilities; and physical condition – is it in good repair, how many bedrooms, is it suitable for the physically disabled – and sends his report in. Then he waits for the UNHCR (the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to select an appropriate family from one of the refugee camps to which Syrians have fled – could be from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya or Iraq. 

The UNHCR is supposed to select on grounds of vulnerability. But, in circumstances where everyone has lost their homes and their livelihoods, most have suffered bereavements of one kind or another, many have suffered torture or other severe physical injury and may have been waiting in camps for five years or more, it is probably difficult to assess one set of needs against another. The important task is to identify a family whose future needs will match the property on offer. I ask Simon how many selections he has turned down or found inappropriate. “None”, he says, “I’ve taken them all”.

His next task is to ensure that the families not only take up the housing offered but also receive, as soon as practicable, other ‘statutory’ services: English language tuition, schooling for children, establishment of benefits provision (Universal Credit if they are within Hastings borough) and access to health provision, including mental health counselling where their previous experiences have caused breakdown or other trauma. They get a minimum of eight hours per week language tuition at East Sussex College, and school enrolment has not been a problem. But Simon says he has to “manage expectations” in respect of health services: the system in Syria may have been less universal but those who were accustomed to getting what they needed there (prior to the war, at least) seem surprised by the waiting lists and other rationed provision they now experience in the hands of the NHS.

Equally important, from Simon’s point of view, is the integration process, the ‘soft’ inputs which the families need to rebuild their lives. He has high praise for the buddy hub being administered by Rossana Leal at Open on St Leonards seafront, where refugees can find a sociable space and make English language contacts. But he also describes the town and surroundings of Hastings as being “universally welcoming” to the families who have arrived, with none of the displays of xenophobia or other hostility reported (or sometimes just imagined) elsewhere in the country. “There are no issues”, he says. “It’s working brilliantly”.

In five out of the 20 refugee families, at least one member has so far found a job, appropriate, says Simon, to his or her qualifications and attributes. People who have the skills that once maintained a professional career should not be required to work as potato-pickers in his view.

What are the longer-term prospects? Most say they once enjoyed a pretty good life in Syria and hope to go back there if and when the military and political conditions allow it. In the meantime, most will be hoping to contribute positively to the society they find themselves exiled in. 

And what about the future of the scheme itself? The border camps are still full; the war grinds on. Will the UK agree to take more needy families after May 2020? That should be an urgent item on the incoming Prime Minister’s agenda.  

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