Immigration can be an asset to Wales – but we need to change how it happens

A man in the Calais jungle. Picture by malachybrowne. (CC BY 2.0)

Vicky Moller

The problem with immigration is not that it happens – but how it happens.

The Welsh know the meaning of loss, of invasion and dispossession. Of the street and landscape changing out of recognition, along with the faces and language and the young people gone.

This pain, however, has been a springboard for an extraordinary compassion for community sponsored refugee families.

Let me tell a personal story: I went to the Calais jungle out of curiosity. I was helping a neighbour who had started to bring refugees on respite breaks to the countryside.

I thought I had better learn what these mysterious, demonised people were like. I found among the heavy pollution from a plastics factory, the puddles, the coughing, the biting wind and the ripped canvas, civilisation. Delightful, courteous, hopeful young adults.

They came from all backgrounds from dentists to farm labourers, artists, master craftsmen, students. After a week of forming friendships I left and it hit me that they had no future.

I left them without a home, without a hope. I knew I could do something about that. It was too difficult to change UK policy, but I knew I could change things in Wales.

After six months of supporting a Citizens UK led campaign, Teresa May announced that she would allow Community Sponsorship of refugees, influenced by its success in Canada and the pestering compassion of UK citizens.

A year on I was one of a small number invited to a House of Lords event to announce the sponsorship arrangement. I described what I had seen at the refugee camps.

The endless dedicated work of volunteers from the UK, and especially Wales, at these camps was civilisation, and the response of the UK and other governments was barbarity.

I expected to be ostracised. Instead, the woman in charge of the joint DfID/Home Office project came to Narberth for a two-day tour of rural towns in the county to see what we could offer.

She met with residents, businesses and organisation to see what they could offer to refugees to integrate them into our communities.

I was amazed at the enthusiasm. A farm coop manager said the 20 farm members would probably provide homes in return for help on their farms, for example.

Then started the long excruciatingly slow journey for three towns to get permission to become some of the first sponsors in the UK.

It meant forming a charity – four charities in fact. We had to find houses for four families, and they had to pass standards.

We had to find ESOL qualified teachers, Arabic/Welsh speaking school support teachers, and Arabic translators. And lots and lots more.

We also had to raise £4,500 per adult. Then there were policies and procedures and compliances and officers to enforce them – enough paperwork to terrify an institution.

Asset

Two years on from the first visit to Calais three neighbouring towns are now home to four families from Syria.

They arrived without a word of Welsh or English, but are now settling and going out into the neighbourhood, to school, volunteering, joining football teams, taking part in discussions at meetings, sharing their culture, and loving Wales.

Nearby towns in Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire are expecting their first families in a few weeks. And some cities must be beginning to feel, well, if little rural towns can manage, what’s the matter with us? Many schemes in Cardiff are well on their way.

There were at the last count 57 sponsored refugees in the UK, a third of them in Wales. We are now recognised as the epicenter of Community Sponsorship.

A recent article in the Guardian about the family in Narberth led to over 100 moves towards sponsorship across the UK.

People get involved for different reasons, mostly because they want to help the needy. Personally, I don’t.

I say that I am doing this to help Wales because the kind of people I met in Calais would have been an asset to our country. The family we are hosting in Cardigan are an absolute asset.

If only we had some say over who came to join us, I could see a scenario where every village and town in rural Wales had a new family as a member of their community.

The new member would bring cultural riches and a heart, body and mind hungry to find a new country to love and belong to.

Wasteful

What of the reputedly vast opposition to immigration in this country? I think I will now fall out with all those not yet alienated by this article by admitting I agree with them.

I mean, I generally agree that there is an incendiary and alienating influx of people because of government policy. People from war-stricken and ravaged countries continue to flow in.

Numbers entering illegally or spontaneously fluctuate but remain large and out of control. The only way to stop a flood is to turn off the tap, or provide proper channels. Our governments are not brave enough to do either.

Once arrived via smugglers, the government hands those who declare themselves to private companies. They are banged up in ghettoes far from English speaking neighbours, and forbidden from working.

There is no more human contact, just the wait for their application for asylum to be heard, rejected, appealed – a process that usually takes years.

They get £37 a week and live in houses in decrepit zones far from the poorer city centres.

The inevitable happens, they become used to the ghetto, the benefits laced with black market incomes, and make non-English speaking friends. People learn and adapt to circumstances.

Their early adoration of all things British and ardour to belong and contribute is lost.

You could not devise a more incendiary policy. Or more wasteful. It is cultural, social, security and economic self-harm for the UK.

Back in the sunlight of sponsorship, the by-benefit is that the hosting community grows muscles in places we did not know we had.

Common sense

In Cardigan a large group of volunteers who have not worked together before with mixed motives and backgrounds have had to learn to liaise, and run a full-on project under watchful governments eyes, to achieve the integration and healing of people traumatised by loss and war, in an unknown culture.

No, it hasn’t always been easy, there have been personality clashes. I have had to take a deep breath before opening certain emails. Why go through unpaid pain?

But it has been a golden experience too. The astonishing kindness. Going around every shop to sell a raffle ticket (and discuss concerns), busking on the street, knocking on the neighbours’ doors.

Whatever we needed has been showered upon us. Recently I put out a call for two bike helmets and had five within two days.

It is like staring dazzled and shocked into a golden world of hope, which I had ceased to believe in.

The team has not hesitated through the bad times. Nobody has left in a huff. The vision has carried us through.

And when a father stands up straight and faces you formally to give an impassioned speech of heartfelt thanks in his own language, knowing you will understand, a bridge has been built that spans a world of war.

This is the power of community, a Welsh solution to a global doom.

To allow this scheme to reach its full potential to benefit Wales and a meaningful cohort of newcomers we need to persuade UK government to allow a principle that has underpinned the successful Canadian model.

This principle is that the incomers can name refugee friends / co-workers / relatives that they wish to sponsor.

It means those communities that wish can speak to their potential newcomers before they arrive to develop a friendship and explore if their community is the right place for them and vice versa.

It sounds and is common sense, but our government is for some reason hostile to the principle,

If you can be bothered, ask your MP to support this principle. Ben Lake MP for Ceredigion will liaise with MPs of other parties to hoist the flag of common sense.

Community sponsorship plus naming will create that channel through which immigrant refugees can go exactly where they are wanted without any cost to the state.

It will turn the immigration issue from a flood risk into a system of irrigation that will bring new life to all our communities.

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