Cllr Sonia Winifred at the #OurTurn rally during Refugees Week 2019
Cllr Sonia Winifred at the #OurTurn rally during Refugees Week 2019

Cllr Sonia Winifred is the Cabinet Member for Equalities and Culture and a councillor in Knight’s Hill 

In recent weeks, the Tory Home Secretary announced a crackdown on migrants and hinted that she will be sending people fleeing war and persecution away to other nations.

It is part of the long-standing hostile environment policy that this government has perpetuated for many years. And it is in remarkable contrast to what we are doing in Lambeth as a Labour council to welcome and resettle new refugee families. Working with our tireless community groups including Lambeth Citizens, we have been at the forefront of efforts to welcome new families to Lambeth and make our borough their home.

We have so far welcomed 28 families – almost 120 people – of Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese backgrounds to make Lambeth their home who get a bespoke package of intensive support from Single Homeless Project (SHP) who we commission. These families have incredibly rich and varied backgrounds but have often experienced complex trauma, making it all the more important that the council and community partners such as Lambeth Citizens are able to provide them the deep support required.

As a Labour council, we make sure that the accommodation we source is suitable to each family’s needs, funding adaptations to their properties if necessary. We also support refugee families to navigate the NHS and access medical treatments that they need. Over the past few years, children in our refugee families have been supported by our fantastic NHS colleagues at Evelina Children’s Hospital and Guys and St Thomas’ Trust and have received successful liver transplants; heart surgery and major orthopaedic surgery to reduce pain caused by cerebral palsy. This is the difference that our approach to those fleeing war and persecution & our fantastic NHS can have on people’s lives.

It is important to recognise that progress will look different for each individual. For some it might be sleeping peacefully through the night; for another, it has been speaking on Arabic channel news such as BBC Arabic about the situation back home. For one child it might be re-joining mainstream school after years of child labour; for another it will be going to university. The one thing that our families all have in common is that they have told us that they feel safe in the UK, which is a testament to the brilliant and dedicated work of organisations like Lambeth Citizens, SHP and the council.

Many have relatives still in Iraq, Sudan and Syria and surrounding countries, concerns for their wellbeing significantly impacts on their mental health and wellbeing, with some sending financial support to relatives back home. Despite these enormous challenges, they have made fantastic progress.

We’ve witnessed some of the children and young people make fantastic progress in education and training. Undergraduate degrees, plumbing qualifications and interpreting training have all been achieved by young people from refugee families, arriving here with little to no English. That is a testament to the families but also to the hard work and commitment of community groups, organisations and the council pulling together and delivering on our Labour values.

Refugees resettled under the VPRS scheme were granted with 5 years limited leave status with access to public funds. In Lambeth, 40 people who came in 2016 and whose 5 years limited leave status will expire in 2021, with the first 12 people (2 families) and we are now supporting them to apply for settled status in the UK. We are deepening our commitment, commissioning a dedicated immigration advisor through SHP to support them with Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) applications.

Our renewed commitment to refugees

Lambeth has committed to receive an additional 38 families up until 2025 under the new UK Resettlement Scheme but the Tories have – against our wishes and in the face of campaigning from other local authorities and organisations like the Refugee Council – halted new arrivals. We continue to put pressure on this Tory government to resume the scheme at the earliest opportunity so that we can do the right thing and welcome many more families who are forced to flee their homes in other countries to our borough and support them to flourish in our diverse communities.

Cllr Sonia Winifred

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