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Council: UK government must help more refugees

COUNCILLORS from throughout Shetland have issued a strong message calling on the UK Government to do more to help address the global refugee crisis – with one member saying the local community’s response had “shamed” David Cameron’s administration.

Along with all of Scotland’s other local authorities, Shetland Islands Council has agreed to play its part – if required – in housing refugees as part of the government’s vulnerable persons relocation scheme.

However that scheme will see the UK take just 20,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon over the next five years. Were it to be applied on a pro-rata basis, that would see Shetland take in just seven refugees between now and 2020.

At a full council meeting on Tuesday in Lerwick Town Hall, SIC members unanimously approved a motion committing the council to taking part in the government scheme.

Members heard it was likely that the number of refugees to be resettled in Shetland will be “very small”, and there should be no impact on the waiting list for public housing thanks to offers from private homeowners to help out.

SIC leader Gary Robinson offered an assurance that accepting refugees would have no impact on the council housing situation.

But several members were angry with what they view as a wholly inadequate response from Cameron’s government, with central ward member Vaila Wishart saying it was important to send out a “clear political statement that our government should be doing more to help”.

“It’s not just Syrian refugees, we’ve got people from many different countries,” she said. “There are nine wars going on throughout the world, an enormous amount of trouble. It’s a worldwide issue and we need to make our views clear.

“I understand and agree with the response to [offer to] take a number of refugees into Shetland. Whether they want to come or not is a moot point. When they came from [the South Atlantic island of] Tristan da Cunha, we offered them a home and they didn’t really want to come. But we ought to be making our voices heard.”

Convener Malcolm Bell said the Home Office would look “very carefully” at how it allocates refugees. It was likely that councils already participating in the scheme, and those which had resettled Afghan citizens, would be the first port of call.

“If any did come to Shetland they’re likely to be in very small numbers,” Bell said.

South Mainland member Allison Duncan welcomed the swift drawing up of a motion to pledge help for people “going through sheer hell, to put it mildly”.

He added that, given the cost of living is around 40 per cent higher in the islands, assurances would be needed that Shetland will receive extra resources to cover the cost of any refugees it does take in.

Some of the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and the Middle East, pictured in Hungary. Photo: UNHCR/M.Henley

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills said there was no doubt councillors had to “authorise our officials to do what little we can, or as much as we can”.

“But I think we should also bear in mind that the government’s refusal to take refugees that have already managed to get to Europe… is just absolutely deplorable, and the people of this country and the people of Shetland have shamed the government with their response.”

Council political leader Gary Robinson said he was “outraged” listening to UK chancellor George Osborne talking of regret at not taking action on the ground in Syria back in 2013.

“I’m sorry, but at that point it was going to be action against Assad,” he said. “I’m not making apologies for him, but the reality was he was saying his country was overrun by terrorists. Our government was going to take action against Assad, not ISIS, and for George Osborne not to acknowledge that was a huge error of judgement.”

Lerwick North member Michael Stout said it was important to recognise the UK state’s responsibility “in terms of creating the problem – up to and including the arms fair which took place in London a couple of weeks ago”.

Councillor Michael Stout said it was important to recognise the UK's role in fomenting troubles in the Middle East.

South Mainland councillor George Smith said the SIC ought to be “making our voice heard about our abhorrence at the situation, and urging the UK government as part of the international community to be thinking about what their overall strategy is”.

Smith said that had to include how to solve the issues causing the crisis as well as dealing with the fallout: “Otherwise we’ll just be putting sticking plasters over what is a major world issue.”

There has been a mixed response on local social media forum about the impact of accepting refugees, with some questioning where refugees could be housed in a community with a shortage of housing for existing inhabitants.

But Robinson moved to allay such fears, saying the local authority had “become aware of offers form the private sector and indeed private individuals, so I don’t anticipate there will be an impact on our council housing or indeed Hjaltland Housing Association”.

“Within 24 hours of a call going out to local authorities to become involved in this [relocation scheme],” he continued, “all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities had responded and responded positively to that call, and I’m pleased that this council was among them.”

He added: “I do think it’s essential that we do what we can to help the refugees given the desperate lengths that they were going to to get away from that conflict.”

SIC chief executive Mark Boden explained that it would be down to the UK government, which is in charge of immigration, to allocate refugees to different local authorities.

“We’ll have nothing to do with who comes into the UK,” he said.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021