Refugee update

Here in Plymouth Diocese people have very generously been offering the use of spare bedrooms for refugees, or suggesting that church halls and empty buildings could be shelters.

In September of this year Pope Francis said:

“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger... the Gospel calls us to be neighbours to the smallest and most abandoned……
May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe take in one family”.

Around the same time, we became increasingly aware of the desperation of people seeking safety in Europe from the Syrian civil war, particularly through those never to be forgotten pictures of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Under public pressure the UK government increased the number of Syrian refugees it would accept from 5,000 to 20,000. These would be from the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, selected through the UNHCR Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement scheme, to arrive over 5 years.

Here in the Plymouth Diocese people have very generously been offering the use of spare bedrooms for refugees, or suggesting that church halls and empty buildings could be shelters. However, under the Resettlement Scheme, private accommodation will not be needed. The process of deciding where in the UK these Syrian refugees will be settled has been very slow, because as we know, local council budgets are under great pressure from cuts in central government funding. Understandably, councils have been waiting for details from the government about how these very vulnerable people will be supported financially after the first 12 months, which is all the government has made extra provision for so far. However, the first few Syrian families arrived in the South West before Christmas. I hope in the future to be able to highlight some local welcoming and integration projects, but the safety and privacy of people arriving area is a priority, and the focus will more properly be very local.

Tragically, there are tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict in the Middle East still risking their lives to cross to Europe. Bombing Syria will make more refugees. We have seen the pictures of the weary convoys of families sleeping in railway stations, blocked at borders by barbed wire, crossing icy rivers. More than 80 children have drowned in the Mediterranean since Aylan –that’s just the children (source: Save the Children). The UK government will not so far accept any of the people who reach Europe. There are also thousands of refugees left behind in the Jordanian and Lebanese refugee camps. Over winter, conditions are very harsh. The UK donates more than other EU countries but the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is chronically underfunded.

There are also people stranded in the camp in Calais. They are fleeing from conflicts, from the effects of climate change, from crushing poverty. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Congo, Sudan. They are stranded in very poor and degrading conditions. Many people from the South West have been generously collecting goods and taking them to Calais. The agencies in France distributing the goods were at first somewhat overwhelmed. Things are now more organised. There is a registering system for donations and co-ordination for volunteers, and for people with medical and building skills.

What the people in the Calais camp, and the people risking their lives crossing the sea in leaky and overcrowded boats need most of all of course, are safe and legal ways of seeking sanctuary. Sadly, there are some very negative attitudes to migrants of all kinds in this country, caused by fear - fear for our standard of living, fear of different cultures and religions; attitudes which the government seems to think justify a very harsh immigration policy. We already have some of ‘the smallest and most abandoned’ (to quote Pope Francis again) among us. Many people are not aware that UK immigration policy means that destitute refugees will be sleeping on the streets in Plymouth this winter, or that UK immigration policy means that many refugees in this country are locked up in prison like conditions, with no legal time limit. (Including 154 children locked up during the past 12 months). The psychological harm this could cause for someone fleeing torture or rape is well documented. Even for those people who are granted leave to remain in this country there are very restrictive conditions around visas, making reunion with their families almost impossible.

However there are also many people in the South West who have opened their hearts and wish to welcome and support refugees, as those connected with social media will be aware. This good news is to be celebrated in events across the region, which hopefully will be forums for sharing ideas and enabling people to join together in more effective solidarity. It is hoped the first such day will be in Cornwall in March.

Meanwhile what can we do?

Pope Francis recommends that we start with personal encounter:

Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself.

Listening to the stories of people seeking sanctuary

Refugee Action 
Refugee Council
Refugee Action

Financial/ Practical support

Plymouth DCRS
CAFOD CAFOD's Refugee Crisis in Europe appeal will provide food and emergency supplies to refugees who have recently arrived in Europe, as well as supporting refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria
Jesuit Refugee Service UK is working in different countries in Europe providing a warm welcome to refugees. Its UK organisation is accepting donations to help accompany, serve and advocate for refugees to reduce their destitution and loneliness.
Red Cross 
Aid to the Church in Need has a campaign page focusing on Syria.

• For an example of local action see 

Praying and reflecting
Pope Francis message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2016 “Migrants and Refugees Challenge Us. The Response of the Gospel of Mercy”. Read here
Caritas Social Action Network has resources including reflections on Catholic Social Teaching and Migration and suggestions for liturgies here

Celebrating welcome and generosity in the South West
watch this space!

Mary Conway
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