17 September 2015
Wales - towards a nation of sanctuary
Throughout the UK, attitudes towards the Syrian refugee crisis changed dramatically when pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, appeared on the internet.
Wales' response was no different to other parts of the UK - people held fundraising events, donated to local refugee charities, made trips to Calais with clothing (including a bag of ties collected by a church in the Valleys) and other items for people staying in the Jungle and took part in rallies showing support for refugees.
Within days, Welsh Government also announced that the First Minister would be holding a Refugee Summit on resettlement, focussing on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. This took place on the morning of Thursday 16 September, bringing together representatives from local government, the Third Sector and Welsh Government to discuss an appropriate response to the crisis. Local authorities and Welsh Government had already pledged to play their part and Rev Aled Edwards, one of the Third Sector representatives, spoke of his visit to the Balkans to observe the flow of refugees in the days leading up to the summit.
Among Third Sector charities who work in the refugee sector, the crisis quickly resulted in the formation of a refugee coalition. With some charities being overwhelmed with donations and offers of support, this coalition - initially 16 members - has helped to coordinate efforts and bring clarity across the sector regarding what the main priorities are around resettlement of refugees, accommodation, fundraising etc. It also brings together the needs of Syrian refugees and the existing needs of refugees and asylum seekers already in Wales. The upcoming Welsh Assembly elections in May 2016 will also be an opportunity for the coalition to outline priorities to candidates and to gain commitments.
The coalition response and the direction it takes is also being undergirded and influenced by the nation of sanctuary vision for Wales. Welsh Government committed itself in principle in 2012 to Wales becoming a nation of sanctuary, although little has happened since then. The city of sanctuary movement - for UK cities and towns to be places of welcome for those fleeing persecution - was the brainchild of Methodist Minister Inderjit Bhogal who set up the first group in Sheffield in 2007. In Wales, city of sanctuary groups are active in Swansea and Cardiff and last summer, the charity DPIA announced that they were successful in their £500,000 bid to create development officer, integration officer and other posts in the two cities over a three year period. More recently, significant work has been done as to what it would mean in practice for Wales to become a nation of sanctuary.