Observer column: 25 September 2015
The Syrian refugee crisis has created the most severe humanitarian problem to face Europe for decades. It has led to harrowing stories about both the plight of those in the refugee camps, and the perilous journeys undertaken to reach Europe. In response, Britain has now agreed to take 20,000 refugees over five years, bringing them directly from the camps in Turkey and Lebanon.
The government has asked all local authorities if they would be prepared to accept refugees, and what number they could cope with - no quota was suggested. Hastings Council has said that we could accept 100 refugees over the five years, subject to the county council being able to offer education and social services support. This is more than we would expect to receive if the refugees were spread evenly across the country, but that would never work - it would mean, for example, sending one refugee a year to the Shetland Isles. One hundred would create a self-supporting community, where refugees will be less dependent on public sector support, and will be better able to settle into their new environment.
Britain has a long tradition of welcoming refugees, from the 17th century Huguenots, through to the Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese Boat People in the 20th century. In recent years, Hastings has been particularly welcoming. There are over 60 languages spoken in the borough, with communities from Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Turkey, Kurdistan, Bengal, Somalia and others well established here. Many of these recent immigrants have contributed to economic regeneration, setting up successful businesses. And they've brought new cultural experiences - how many towns can boast two Armenian restaurants, for example?!
So I was not surprised by the flood of offers of help I've received for welcoming and befriending refugees, as well as offers of accommodation. We will be putting together a register of people who want to help. We know that it's likely to be families that arrive, a few at a time.
However, in accommodating these refugees, we can learn lessons from the past. During the Yugoslav war, Hastings was a 'dispersal town' where refugees were placed in unsuitable temporary accommodation and not properly supported. Victims from both sides of the war were housed in the same hotel, leading to inevitable conflict. So this time, we will be aiming to arrange permanent, supported accommodation from the start, in the private rented sector.
I realise there will be some in our town who are uncomfortable with this. But I think we all need to ask ourselves the question: how would we cope if we were refugees, if it was us who had been driven from our homes by murderous terrorists? What would we do to protect our children, to find a place of safety? The scale of this crisis means that all of us should do whatever we can - we are all citizens of the same planet, we all have a duty to help. So I felt duty bound, and proud, to accept refugees in Hastings. I could not have lived with the shame if I had failed to act.
And I am sure that a majority of the people of Hastings will feel the same: we will look forward to welcoming refugees from the Syrian conflict, and helping them make a home in our exciting, caring and hospitable town.