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How a trailblazing seaside town in Wales welcomed Syrian refugees

11 Syrian refugees, identified as ‘priority cases’ by the United Nations, arrived in Aberystwyth a week before Christmas 2015. They were the first to be resettled in Wales, in the UK, under central government plans to assist the most vulnerable of those seeking asylum away from countries crippled by civil war and persecution.

The integration of the Syrian refugees is coordinated by the ‘Task and Finish’ Group set up by Ceredigion Council to ensure the resettlement takes a multi dimensional approach. Relevant partner organisations who work with and advise the Group include representatives from Housing Associations, Health Boards, Police, Universities, Fire and Rescue Services, and the Department for Work and Pensions. Alongside British Red Cross support staff, the group offer practical assistance with tasks such as signing tenancy agreements, food shopping and registering with a GP. As well as assisting the families to connect with Arabic speakers and religious groups in the area, they assist with integration to the wider local society. The longer term strategy includes offering English and Welsh language classes and an introduction to local culture and customs.

The Care Society, who operate social lettings agency, has played a crucial role in ensuring good quality housing for the families. The organisation was originally set up as a response to visible rough sleeping in the town. It has expanded to support a wide range of vulnerable and socially excluded individuals. Their move away from having the majority of work funded through grants, to having income generating commercial projects, has allowed them to support a wider range of people. By using the private sector to house the refugees, much contested social housing stock is left to the use of the local population. This decision by the council minimises the risk of public backlash against the refugees and local services. Guy Evans, managing director of Care Society, states that the compassion and support of the Aberystwyth community has been overwhelming.

Up to 1,600 refugees could make their new home in Wales over the next five years. A poll conducted in September 2015 showed that 5 out of 6 people in Wales believed that the UK should accept refugees, with just under half thinking that Wales should accept more than the agreed quota. The Welsh Local Government Agency (WLGA) emphasise that an integrated support model is essential to ensure successful resettlement. There is evidence that many of the refugees due to arrive in Wales are highly qualified and are eager to seek employment and want to make a contribution to their new communities. Dyfed Edwards, a spokesperson for the WLGA states that Welsh councils will play a vital role in coordinating partnerships between local services:

“From meeting the housing, schooling, and complex care needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, local councils throughout Wales and the UK will have a huge role to play.”

There is a strong sense of pride amongst members of the Task Group that Aberystwyth is in a position to be able to lead the way with their integration strategy and create a model that can be replicated to other councils across the country. The town has welcomed Belgian refugees at the turn of the 20th century and evacuees from WW2, and is proud to be able to provide a safe home to another group of people. There is no lack of committed individuals who are working hard to prepare for the arrival of additional refugees over the coming months. These grass roots creative solutions are essential to deal with the refugee crisis on the ground, but there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the hands off role of wider central government and EU bodies. Guy Evans who has ensured housing options for the refugees explains that the work in Aberystwyth is a mere drop in the ocean of the work that needs to be done to welcome as many refugees as possible. Mirroring Aberystwyth’s approach in other areas of Wales will ensure that more refugees are able to move to the country and continue to contribute to the rich complexity of Wales’ history and heritage.

By Gwenno Edwards, Fellow at Year Here