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Shetland unlikely to house Syrian refugees

Scores of people turned up at a vigil at Lerwick's Market Cross in September, declaring that refugees would be welcome in the isles. Photo ShetNews

SHETLAND will not be taking any of the first tranche of 350 Syrian refugees arriving in Scotland before Christmas, the local authority has confirmed.

However Shetland Islands Council remains an enthusiastic member of the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Scheme and has pledged to do all it can to provide support and assistance, after the UK government promised to resettle 20,000 Syrians during its term of office.

SIC infrastructure director Maggie Sandison, who is leading on the issue for the council, said the Home Office would only be approaching councils that had vacant property and adequate support to accommodate such vulnerable people.

“The reality is that the needs of the refugees are so great that it would not be appropriate to put them somewhere there isn’t daily contact with support services,” she said.

“We are talking about people who have been tortured, who have suffered serious trauma and people for whom English isn’t their first language.”

Sandison said the only vacant properties on the council’s books were in Unst and Fetlar, where the necessary levels of support were clearly not available.

“We also have to be very aware of the need to make sure their cultural needs are met, which would include attending a mosque and having access to halal meat, so it’s about a lot more than vacant properties,” she said.

Despite this, the SIC is assessing buildings it owns in Lerwick which could be converted to house refugees, if funding was made available to do so from the Scottish government.

Some of the local volunteers collecting donations to help the refugees in Calais.

Monthly telephone and video conferences involving all 32 Scottish local authorities, the Scottish government and the Home Office have given Sandison a much better understanding of the complexity of resettling refugees, she said.

Experienced authorities like Glasgow and Renfrewshire, as well as academic experts in the field, have helped other authorities realise what is involved.

“I think we have to be realistic that the most successful resettlements happen where refugees are within a social network with other people from a similar background and some local authorities already have a Syrian population and experience of providing resettlement schemes,” she said, acknowledging that this was primarily in cities.

“That doesn’t mean we are not going to do everything we can and we are looking at what we can do to support other local authorities who may be approached.”

The council has been speaking to the Shetland support groups set up through Facebook that have collected huge amounts of supplies and materials for the refugees stuck in Calais waiting to enter the UK.

The refugees being resettled under the UK scheme are different, coming directly from camps just outside Syria itself, who are also likely to be some of the most vulnerable in those camps.

If Shetland is not approached to house any refugees, which is quite likely under the circumstances, Sandison wants to explore alternative ways of helping, for example by twinning with local authority areas that are more directly involved.

Young and old pledged solidarity with refugees in September. Photo ShetNews

“Local support groups can do a lot more at this stage than the council can,” she said.

“We can only do something if the Home Office approaches us, whereas support groups can get help and assistance directly to refugees.

“We are keen to see what we can do to assist them to target their response.”

Later this month the resettlement scheme will hold another meeting to discuss how rural communities can get more involved in helping address the crisis that has touched so many hearts across the world.

“At the moment we are in a learning phase to find out what we need to do ahead of the second phase of the resettlement programme after Christmas,” Sandison said.

“We need to make sure if we do take any refugees we don’t get it wrong.

“The Home Office are not expecting anyone to be placed in anyone’s spare room.

“Having been through what they have been through, the government wants them permanently settled on arrival in a permanent home.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021