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‘We have a moral duty’: councillors back resettlement of two Syrian families

Lerwick North councillor John Fraser: "“We have a moral duty to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the displaced and the oppressed.”

SIC COUNCILLORS have unanimously backed a proposal to buy two homes in Lerwick to resettle two families from war-torn Syria.

There was no dissent around the table during a council meeting at Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday morning. It means Shetland Islands Council is now set to follow Orkney and the Western Isles in housing refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme (VPRS), which it signed up to in 2015.

The council had faced growing pressure to do more to ensure some refugees were resettled here, with Gulberwick-based businessman Dennis Leask forming an informal group to campaign on the matter this spring.

SIC political leader Cecil Smith, whose motion to approve the proposals was unopposed, said the resettlement would not be without its challenges and the families “will definitely need support”, adding that “we may well see folk coming here with skills that we need” to fill job vacancies.

Lerwick North councillor John Fraser, one of several members to speak in favour of the plan during a session of the full council, said: “It’s my personal view that social responsibilities do not begin and end at national borders, nor is it dependent on the nationality, colour, creed or religion of the recipient.

“We have a moral duty to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the displaced and the oppressed.”

A report before councillors set out a proposed price limit of £160,000 on each property to be purchased, with £57,000 per house to come from the Scottish Government. Some councillors questioned whether that sum would be sufficient to obtain property big enough to house families.

Campaigner Dennis Leask was delighted with Wednesday's positive outcome.

Under the resettlement scheme, funding of £8,520 per person is available to cover the receiving local authority’s costs during the first year. Additional support for educational and medical needs is also available.

Council development director Neil Grant said the local authority would seek properties in Lerwick as it offered the best access to healthcare, schools, translation, places of worship, a social network and everyday services.

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson, who was also “delighted” by the general thrust of the report, said he understood the need for the refugee families to be in close proximity to public services. But he “wouldn’t necessarily rule out housing outwith Lerwick at this stage”.

“I know the North Isles is a piece away and it isn’t ideal with regards access to support services, but the issues that would cause wouldn’t be insurmountable in my opinion,” he said. “Travel links between the North Isles and the central belt are regular, and our North Isles are famed for our communities – any resettlement would be welcomed.

“Shetland must play its part in terms of getting a couple of families in initially – a relatively small part, but it’ll be a part nonetheless. Not seeing this through is not an option.”

Lerwick South member Peter Campbell was also “delighted” with the report’s proposals, adding that Shetland has “a reputation as a community to be charitable, to be generous and to be supportive”.

Speaking after the meeting, Leask said he was thrilled by the outcome.

“I firstly have to apologise to the councillors a little bit because it was unanimous in the chamber, albeit they’ve been slow coming to that decision, but there was no negativity, they seemed very committed and have thrown the full weight of the council behind it,” he said.

“It’s very positive for Shetland. If all councils would do the same I think we’d have far less racial tension and tension between indigenous population and refugees, if they were evenly spread throughout the UK.”

Leask added that purchasing properties was a “neat way” of circumventing concerns about those on the council house waiting list, the main criticism of those opposed to accepting refugee families in the islands.

“It also attracts substantial funding from central government,” he said. “The council is also focusing on talk about the positive aspects – these people can quite often bring skills and contribute to the economy.

“Now they have to put together a good profile of Shetland so that the authorities looking after the distribution of refugees can make a best fit. I just hope it’s not a token gesture and we will, long term, see a small programme of one or two a year perhaps coming to Shetland.”