The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham asked the Government for its response to the All-Party Parliamentary Group report on Refugees in a short question in the House of Lords on Wednesday 19th July 2017.
Rising at 7.45pm, Bishop Paul introduced the short debate saying: “My Lords, I am pleased to be able to introduce this short debate on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees’ report, Refugees Welcome?. It was a privilege to serve on this group. It was also often disturbing to hear the stories of those who, having experienced years of difficulty as asylum seekers, found the joy of being finally given refugee status taken away by the poor ways in which they were then treated. As a nation, we had agreed that they deserved to be fully welcomed—but our systems often left them bereft and destitute. As the report makes clear, we have work to do as a nation to ensure that those who we have agreed are refugees and whom we believe have much to offer our land are made truly welcome.”
He concluded his 13-minute question by asking: “will Her Majesty’s Government appoint a Minister for refugees? Will they implement the report’s call for a national refugee integration strategy? Will they seek to ensure that, when people are given refugee status, their experience will consistently be one of support and welcome rather than the varied and often distressing experience that is the reality for too many at present?”
Question for Short Debate asked by: The Lord Bishop of Durham
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, Refugees Welcome? The Experience of New Refugees in the UK, published on 25 April.
Defining successful integration is incredibly complex, but I think my Syrian story gives a picture of it: someone is well-integrated when they want and are able to give of themselves for others in the community that they have entered. Members of Survivors Speak Out gave a similar message when they described integration to the APPG inquiry. One said it was,
“the ability to feel at ease in the new country whilst also not forgetting your own culture”.
Another said that integration was,
“when you feel really proud to be British”,
while a third described it as,
“being able to participate in social life here and be part of the community”.
These aspirations are not exclusive to refugees. They are things that we all want for ourselves and those we love. Similarly, integration is not something that you can do to an individual; it is a process that a whole community must go through. The findings of the report emphasise that successful refugee integration takes a whole-society approach; it is a two-way process. It is as much about capacity building in communities as about building resilience in individuals. This requires action from both civil society and government. That is why we should welcome both the innovation of the community sponsorship scheme and the inclusion in the Cabinet of the Minister for Immigration—but more needs to be done.
During the course of this inquiry, it became clear that the difficulties facing refugees extend beyond a simple lack of co-ordination. Instead, refugees find themselves up against processes that are in some sense biased against their success. One prominent example of this is the perilously short time that refugees have to move on from their support once their refugee status is confirmed. The stories that we heard suggest that the destitution of the vulnerable, whom we have committed to welcome, is currently a structural feature of the system. We can and should fix these structural and process issues. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who also served on the APPG, and perhaps others, will outline more specifics of how we could do so. But I want to take a step back and ask what we need to put in place to prevent instances emerging in the first place. The report’s answer has two parts: a national integration strategy and a Minister for refugees to implement it.
Throughout the inquiry, discussion kept returning to the importance of an integration strategy. While it was mainly policy specialists who made this point to us, you do not have to spend years immersed in refugee resettlement and Home Office policy to think that having a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to achieve it might be worthwhile. A strategy becomes particularly urgent when we consider all the competing priorities in government. Unless we have a strategy by intention, we are left with a strategy by implication, dictated by other priorities. Our work with refugees needs to be led by and organised around a vision for thriving individuals and communities. At present, the report makes clear that refugee support is often organised by the quirks of the DWP and short-term cost cutting. Refugees deserve better. As it happens, so do our national finances.
So a specific national refugee integration strategy makes sense. All the evidence indicates that it would have a positive impact on outcomes for refugees and, through them, for wider society. Still Human Still Here and Refugee Action both highlighted the positive role of previous UK-wide strategies in securing better outcomes. It is therefore also in our own best self-interest. Simply enfolding it into a broader social integration strategy will not be adequate. There are specifics about refugee integration that need their own clear strategy. According to the Scottish Refugee Council, the Scottish experience demonstrates that even the process of designing a strategy is beneficial, simply in getting all stakeholders around the table and buying into a common vision.
Over the course of the inquiry we identified six areas that any national refugee strategy should address: first, transition from asylum support to other forms of financial support and accommodation; secondly, ESOL provision; thirdly, employment and training; fourthly, health and well-being; fifthly, access to education; and sixthly, community empowerment. I trust that subsequent contributions may draw out some specifics in these areas.
The inquiry also heard about the importance of monitoring outcomes. While monitoring has previously taken place, Refugee Action noted that there are no current data on levels of employment rates of refugees and the number accessing ESOL classes. Before we even consider how to improve refugee integration, we need to know where we are as well as where we are trying to get to.
The Government already recognise the importance of outlining targets for refugees. The Government have produced a statement of requirements for local authorities for those resettled under VPRS. This captures a wider theme that emerged during the course of the report: the harm caused by the current two-tier system. I have seen first-hand the hurt and confusion caused to those who have not come through VPRS when they see the greater resources for ESOL and other provision available to those who have. Unequal treatment is causing resentment and actively impeding integration for those arriving under both schemes. There is, of course, something helpful in having a variety of parallel schemes: it becomes apparent what works. Best practice for VPRS is already being shared horizontally between local authorities. My hope is that the report will help the process of sharing best practice across all levels of government and all parts of the UK.
The work of discovering, implementing and sharing best practice needs a champion in government. The decision to end the role of Minister for Syrian Refugees was regrettable, particularly just as the legislative agenda threatened to sideline refugees. We are fortunate to have many Members across both Houses and all parties who are passionate about welcoming refugees, including the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Yet, as my brief outline hopefully demonstrates, improving integration is an incredibly complicated task. It will involve at least the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and DCLG. Meaningful improvement across this number of departments will not take place naturally. If we are serious about leading the way in responding to the global refugee crisis, we need a Minister to head it up.
It was noteworthy how many agencies we heard from that operate in the voluntary sector. Refugees themselves offering evidence also spoke highly of the support that they received from such organisations, nationally and locally. It was heartening to see evidence of the work of churches during the course of the inquiry. Churches have been and plan to be at the heart of welcoming refugees to our country. We do so to join in the work of the one whom the psalmist describes as,
“a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows”,
“sets the lonely in families”.
We are a welcomed people who desire to welcome others. We join faith and other communities in being committed to playing our part in improving the welcome offered to refugees. We are not simply asking the Government to do something for us, though obviously the report recommends specific action from them. Instead, the report is an invitation to work with us so that the whole of British society can benefit from the full contribution of those who have chosen, and have been chosen by, Britain.
In conclusion, will Her Majesty’s Government appoint a Minister for refugees? Will they implement the report’s call for a national refugee integration strategy? Will they seek to ensure that, when people are given refugee status, their experience will consistently be one of support and welcome rather than the varied and often distressing experience that is the reality for too many at present?