COMMUNITY leaders in Shetland have moved to allay fears over housing capacity as the isles prepare to take part in a new scheme to relocate Syrian refugees.
The Shetland Partnership Board unanimously agreed on Thursday to support a “community” approach to taking part in the new country-wide Syrian Resettlement Scheme.
It comes ahead of a motion signed by Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson and his deputy Billy Fox to ask the local authority to join the programme next Tuesday.
UK prime minister David Cameron eventually responded to the refugee crisis last week by announcing that the country will take in up to 20,000 refugees from camps in Syria and neighbouring countries over the next five years.
More than half of Syria’s 22 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the current conflict began in 2011.
The Syrian Resettlement Scheme is an extension of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which was launched in 2014.
News that Shetland is preparing to take part in the resettlement scheme has raised concern over the isles’ ability to house newcomers when many local people are struggling to find affordable accommodation.
Speaking after Thursday’s meeting, SIC chief executive Mark Boden said the number of refugees that could move to Shetland had not yet been discussed.
He moved to quell fears about housing by suggesting outlying areas of Shetland may benefit from the move.
“There inevitably will be in any community – Shetland is no different in this regard – accommodation that is less developed,” he said.
“We must not assume that this will be council housing. So there may be accompanying benefits to having more people wanting to go to those areas where accommodation is in less demand.”
Boden pointed out that the UK government was indicating it might help pay to refurbish accommodation for refugees.
“So we might be able to find properties that aren’t currently able to house people at all, being refurbished with money we wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said, adding that some islanders had volunteered to invite people into their homes.
SIC leader Gary Robinson meanwhile moved to downplay housing fears on Facebook on Thursday, saying that in reality Shetland is unlikely to take in many people at all.
“The expected 2,000 refugees that might come to Scotland equates to just over 60 refugees per council. However distribution based on the size of councils would see us receive only half a refugee,” he said.
“One or two families would appear to be a realistic number in the event that the government allocates some to us or that refugees wish to come here.
“A handful of Scottish councils, large and small, have received Syrian refugees for a number of years now.”
Council deputy leader Billy Fox further played down online suggestions that high numbers of refugees may be relocated to Shetland.
He added that the current Syrian crisis, which reached worldwide attention recently with the picture of three year old boy Alan Kurdi after he drowned trying to reach Greece, is only one of many global issues.
“I am asking folk to look beyond the headlines,” Fox said about Shetland preparing to help the resettlement scheme.
“We are not saying we are going to take loads of refugees into Shetland. That is not the case at all. If we would take refugees on a pro-rata basis we would probably take in eight individuals – two families – to Shetland.
“We are happy to participate and support the national initiative to take in refugees. The likelihood is that the government will not put anybody to Shetland anyway because the cost of supporting folk in Shetland is 40 per cent higher than in mainland Scotland.
“This is a situation that has been ongoing for a number of years now.
“And let’s not forget all the other injustices in the world, let’s not forget that 800 million people are undernourished.
“It really is a sad indictment upon us all that it needs something on the television screens to have this emotive reaction to problems that are there all the time.”
Attending Thursday’s meeting was Wendy Sinclair, who has set up a new group called Shetland Supports Refugees after acting as a spokeswoman for the original support group Shetland Solidarity with Refugees.
The new group aims to forge a network to help any refugees hoping to integrate into the local community.
Talking after the meeting, Sinclair said she formed the new group to focus on creating a longer term plan and act as a “community liaison” for any refugees coming to the isles.
She said the group aims to work with the local authority and government in a bid to strengthen their efforts.
“We have a lot of support from the local council, and [Shetland MSP] Tavish Scott has been really supportive of us.
“The support from the local people too has been amazing. The negativity is next to nothing compared to the positivity. You get people who said that they would have a family stay with them, and you can’t say better than that.
“More and more people are coming out and criticising any negativity.”
The group’s mission statement adds that it “hopes to provide those people of Shetland who wish to help the refugees embroiled in the ongoing crisis with an opportunity to do so”.