Refugees speech to Cambridge City Council

It’s not often that I give a prepared speech – they’re usually from brief notes or a mind map. But unusually, my speech tonight to Cambridge City Council was one I wrote in advance, so I’m able to share it with you.

The background is in the context of the Liberal Democrat amendment to the Labour City Council budget tonight. As part of a fully costed budget amendment, we’ve asked the council to fund a part time post in the not-for-profit sector to help coordinate efforts. There is a lot of goodwill from the residents of Cambridge towards those in need, but no effective coordination yet.

Proceedings are still in full flow, so we don’t know the outcome yet.

The amendment was not accepted – the relevant executive councillor did not speak, but both the Labour leader and executive councillor for finance did. They seemed confused and did not appear to have given the issue much serious thought, claiming a wildly inaccurate (just four people) figure on the number of refugees housed by Cambridge City council and stating that a document produced by their own officers was “rambling”, apparently in the belief we had written it.

Given the cross-party support we have seen, with the council unanimously passing a motion in support of Cambridge becoming a City of Sanctuary in October, I feel that any lengthy description of the horrors many people are fleeing from would be preaching to the choir, so I will not belabour that point.

However, It it worth noting that Office for National Statistics released it’s latest national asylum application figures this morning. Those figures show that 2015 was fifth successive year in which asylum applications have risen.

There is nothing that would suggest these numbers will fall any time soon, despite the current government limiting it’s commitment to helping refugees.

Against this background of conflict in the wider world, and large-scale displacement of persecuted peoples, we have seen the amount of support for asylum seekers and refugees in Cambridge fall. The Refugee Council’s outreach programme in Cambridge closed when it lost national funding in 2014 – to be replaced by a different organisation, which focused it’s work in larger urban areas, away from Cambridge.

At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the fantastic work that Council officers have done, trying to fill in the gaps despite the increase in numbers. This is not part of their normal day-to-day duties, and they have gone above and beyond in providing this help. Bit it is a stretch to do this on top of their other work.

But it is a stretch to do this on top of their other work. We should not be placing the burden solely upon the shoulders of council officers, who with the best will in the world simply can not provide as co-ordinated a service as a funded post could.

The void in co-ordinated provision does mean we suffer from a lack of robust data on the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Cambridge. But we know they are here – as well as the numbers we know the council itself has formally housed via the Home Office programme, there are others staying with friends and family in the city.

And we also know that housing a family that has fled from war and persecution is no trivial task, that can be handled by a quick gateway assessment at the local CAB – it takes a long term commitment to work with people who may have no ability to communicate using either written of spoken English when they first arrive.

Those working with refugees in Cambridge tell us that, in the coming year, they will be left “struggling to regards to capacity both in regards to direct service and coordinating services in the City“.

They tell us that that even a small investment in funding would go a long way.

And we know that there are many people willing and able to provide help, if only some way can be found to coordinate this goodwill.

We are proposing that the council fund a post within the not-for-profit sector to both provide direct help and enable coordination, going some way to help those who are in the most dire of need. This is a time limited post, after which we will be in a much better position to know the level of need within the city. We have shown that this amount is also affordable, within the wider council budget.

The council resolved to be a City of Sanctuary, but words alone are not sufficient – we are now asking the council to deliver on that commitment.

Thank you.

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