This is our chance to change the narrative

November 24, 2016 23:22

It was exactly a year ago today that the image of the lifeless body of three year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey, dramatised to the world the human tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Sadly, it has been all too easy in recent months for the ongoing crisis to be forgotten, as other news stories vie for public attention. Now, a year later, another iconic image of a child victim of the Syrian conflict, five year old Omran Daqneesh, shames the world, but alas the impact is likely to be short-lived.

In spite of these heart-rending images, we need to remind ourselves constantly of the daily reality facing thousands who have little option but to flee from the terror that has overtaken countries such as Syria. This seems like a good moment to take stock. Where are we now? How has our community responded to events? And what are some of the challenges ahead?

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees over a five-year period. So far, only about 1600, including 500 children, have arrived, with the largest groups going to Scotland, Coventry and Birmingham. The government’s appointment of a minister for Syrian refugee resettlement has been abolished, causing great concern among refugee organisations. However, a recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee said that there is scant evidence that Britain would even reach the target of 20,000.

Two thirds of local authorities have now offered to take Syrian refugees, but only 11 of the 32 London boroughs have agreed to do so and none of the ten in Greater Manchester. 53 councils have refused to accept Syrian refugees because of financial pressures and housing shortages. According to them, a major obstacle is that government funding only covers 70-80% of the total costs of housing refugees, most of whom will be housed in the private sector.

In Europe the overall situation remains disturbing. So far this year, over 242,000 migrants and refugees have arrived by sea. But many more shocking 3,116 people - died on the way, a thousand more than last year. The closure of the Macedonian border in March, coupled with the failure of EU states to agree and implement a common refugee resettlement policy, has left thousands stranded in Greece. Conditions there for the over 50,000 refugees remain poor, with not enough food and conditions that one official claimed were “unfit for animals”. Spaces for unaccompanied children ran out long ago, so some children are being held in police stations. The situation in Turkey is equally grim; many children are now working, illegally in sweatshops or in other employment to support their family.

More than 10,000 of the estimated 90,000 lone refugee children in continental Europe have gone missing.

In May, the government agreed to offer sanctuary to vulnerable minors, but as yet only 20 have been selected for relocation and none have actually arrived. A further 40 have come under family reunification regulations. Councils are reluctant to accept child refugees because, even though the government has increased the funding to local authorities for their support, it is only guaranteed for a year.

According to a report published in July by the House of Lord, the UK is shirking its responsibility to care for unaccompanied migrant children in Europe, dismissing them as “somebody else’s problem”. As a result, thousands are living in squalid conditions, preyed upon by traffickers and people smugglers. They are often found in emergency accommodation "without reliable access to food, water, sanitation, official information or any form of legal advice”. Others are sleeping rough. Some have resorted to drastic measures such as burning their fingertips to avoid registration and possible deportation.

The Jewish community’s response has been exemplary and varied - not just for newly arrived refugees (of whom there are relatively few) but also for the many asylum seekers and refugees already here.

The Board of Deputies organised a big public meeting at JW3 in response to the crisis. World Jewish Relief has developed a project to help 1000 Syrians in the UK to find work, and provides aid to refugee camps in Greece and Turkey. Rene Cassin and Tzelem campaign on ending the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. And individuals have also made a significant contribution: among them, a member of Alyth Gardens synagogue, who organised the massive Refugees Welcome march in London last September, with a follow-up one to come on September 17.

Four synagogues run monthly drop-in centres for refugees and asylum seekers, the longest-running of which is ten years old. Mitzvah Day and the League of Jewish Women organise collections of essential items. JCORE runs a befriending scheme for unaccompanied minors (JUMP) and a mentoring project for refugee doctors re-qualifying here. It has also initiated a number of high-profile campaigns: to allow in more Syrian refugees, to take measures to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, to take in more unaccompanied children, and to continue supporting unaccompanied minors after they turn 18.

In addition JCORE has created a Jewish Communal Taskforce to bring together the many organisations involved in this work, and puts out a monthly e-newsletter with news, events, volunteering opportunities and campaign news. And it hosts and co-ordinates the Support Refugees website ( with information about activities in London and in other parts of the UK, including Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

It would be an understatement to say these are uncertain times. The 42% % increase in hate crimes following the Brexit vote is just one of the many issues we must deal with. All we can say with a degree of certainty is that this crisis is not going away any time soon. So we need to think through a number of issues. How do we avoid compassion fatigue and keep alive the huge surge of interest and goodwill towards refugees? How can we extend the momentum to support those asylum seekers already in the UK, most of them destitute, some of whom have been waiting over ten years for a decision on their claim? How do we prevent public opinion turning hostile in the face of increasing pressure on housing, education and health services, and sensationalist media reporting? How can we encourage people to not only offer practical support but to engage in campaigns to bring about real justice for asylum seekers and refugees? With a new Prime Minister and Home Secretary, we have been provided with a new opportunity to be engaged with the political process.

Perhaps we are at a crossroads: we can either return to business as usual (i.e., negative reactions to refugees) or we can use this opportunity to put these issues on a more positive trajectory - to create a different narrative in this country which sees refugees as part and parcel of our society. We in the Jewish community should play a central part in this endeavour, and we should do it with pride.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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