This is a momentous week for Britain. Undoubtedly the contentious issue of migration, both internally in the EU and from the rest of the world, will be much debated. For this reason, Refugee Week, which for nearly 20 years has been celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK, is likely to be rather eclipsed. This is a great pity because over the last year a quiet revolution of welcome for refugees has been taking place across the country which is worthy of wider recognition.
A major spur to this outpouring of generosity was the publication of the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a beach in Turkey last September. Within days of that happening, offers of help were pouring in to refugee charities, an estimated 100,000 people joined a march and more than a million people signed petitions calling for more refugees to be allowed to come to Britain. Many were people who said they were willing to take refugees into their homes or to adopt children. Refugees Welcome banners were even being unfurled at football matches.
But these moments sometimes pass. And in the following months, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, there were some signs that the mood of welcome had dissipated. Yet even at that difficult time, and certainly since, I've been impressed by how little compassion fatigue has set in. As a co-chair of the National Refugee Welcome Board I've seen how local welcome groups that sprang up at the height of refugee crisis have not only survived but thrived. They've been at the forefront of local efforts to persuade councils to resettle Syrian refugees in their areas and to welcome the refugees when they arrive. The City of Sanctuary movement has also seen a huge growth in support up and down Britain.
The growing network of civic welcome in Britain has been mirrored by extraordinary voluntary efforts in Calais and beyond. As exemplified by the three women who, in a matter of months, turned Help Refugees from a hashtag to a £2 million operation feeding 20,000 people a day, many, many people have given up jobs and devoted all their waking hours to help desperate people in the so-called Jungle camp. Many others have gone further afield to volunteer in camps in Greece and Turkey. One of my co-chairs on the National Refugee Welcome Board spent Christmas and New Year in Lesvos, as did thousands of others.
Meanwhile exciting new initiatives have been taking shape including community sponsorship of refugees, modelled on a similar scheme in Canada. Faith groups, including the Church of England, have been prominent in some of these ventures, but it's been striking that all parts of society have been keen to get involved, and to work together. Local welcome groups typically have people who have no religious faith, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths working alongside one another. In turn they seek to work closely with Local Authorities, schools, health providers and all those needed to ensure refugees are truly welcomed.
So I'm not surprised that a recent public opinion survey suggested people in Britain are the second-most willing in the world to make refugees welcome in their own homes, with 29 per cent saying that they would do so. Moreover, nearly half (47 per cent) said they would accept refugees into their neighbourhood, and the vast majority (87 per cent) want the UK to welcome refugees.
Therefore, during this Refugee Week, with its theme of welcome, there is much to celebrate. Try and find an event in which you can join. The British people have shown that when people from overseas need help we don't turn our backs. We could, and I firmly believe should, be doing more, but it's been heartening to see the response so far - and I should add the government is not always the villain of the piece, it's shown some generosity and flexibility too. Richard Harrington and his team of civil servants who volunteered for serving on the Syrian resettlement team have been working extremely hard to make it all happen. Whatever happens in that other big event this week, the Referendum, we must continue to keep our borders, our homes and our hearts open and welcoming to refugees.
For more information go to the Refugees Welcome website.
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