York welcomes refugees


From left to right:  Lib Dem Cllrs Ashley Mason, Andrew Waller, Keith Aspden, Stephen Fenton, and Keith Orrell from City of York Council.

In the late 1990s, York offered a place of safety to 90 Kosovan Albanians as they fled conflict in their homeland. They were living in overcrowded camps in neighbouring Macedonia, and our country heard their cries. Today, thousands of Syrians face a similar plight and once again cities like York are preparing to help.

Initially, David Cameron was very slow to react to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. In contrast, Tim Farron was quick to grasp both the seriousness of the situation and the need for swift action. Cameron’s reticence also contradicted strongly with the view of many residents I spoke to in York, including those who I joined on a ‘Refugees Welcome’ march back in September.

Indeed, York should be proud of the reaction from residents in recent weeks. The level of generosity and support from individuals, voluntary, and faith groups has been impressive. York residents and students have put the government to shame in the speed and selflessness of their response.  Now that the Government has been pressed into action, we as a local authority are in a position to harness this local generosity and start preparations for the arrival of refugees.

In September, I chaired a meeting of voluntary, community, and faith organisations – from York Minster to our universities to York Mosque – with the aim of coordinating a response across the whole city. This has led to the public launch of the York Refugee Appeal, the creation of a Task Group and a dedicated refugee response coordinator.

Government confusion and mixed-messages over budgets continue to delay our efforts and we are still awaiting confirmation of funding arrangements beyond the first year – we will continue to work alongside the Local Government Association to push for greater clarification and funding for local authorities. However, from early in the new year we should be welcoming the first refugees to our city. Whilst the council is playing its role in coordinating the response, it is the community and voluntary groups of York which will be providing so much of the help and deserve the real praise.

The prospect of refugees arriving has not however met with universal approval. Whilst residents have raised legitimate issues with me over finance and housing, others including UKIP have been attempting to hijack the issue for their own political ends. With the tragic events in Paris this has increased over the last few days.

However, now would be the very worst time to turn away from our humanitarian responsibility. Those driven into refugee camps by the twin horrors of ISIL and Basher al-Assad deserve our compassion and support now more than ever. If the attacks in Paris were an attack on ‘western values’, then those values of openness and tolerance are not best served by turning away from those in desperate need.

This is why getting the local response right in York is so important and in the coming weeks my efforts will be focused on this.

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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  • Richard Underhill 25th Nov '15 - 10:50am

    Keith Aspden | Wed 25th November 2015 – 10:01 am This is all very good, but an additional point needs to be made. The people who are coming are THE MOST VULNERABLE and, as such, are an unlikely threat. They have been sifted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the camps adjoining Syria and they have been sifted again by the UK government. That does not mean that either UNHCR or the UK government has assessed them for asylum and the local press should be told that pressure of that kind should not be applied, because they are the most vulnerable.
    The minimum that any human being needs is water, food and shelter, but in these cases hospital resources will be also be affected.
    The ethnic Albanians in camps in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had been driven from their homes in Kosovo by force (known as ‘ethnic cleansing’). It was right to distinguish them from citizens of the Republic of Albania, who had not been.
    There were, at that time, people who were extremely vulnerable from the former Yugoslavia who would have been unable to be assessed for asylum and were therefore given limited leave to stay in the UK under powers delegated from the Secretary of State.
    When that leave to remain expired they were discouraged by the UK government from claiming asylum because most of them would not have qualified and because the process itself might have been too onerous for them. A few did, but the others were given further leave to remain in the UK.
    If you would like my email address please ask the editors or party HQ.

  • suzanne fletcher 26th Nov '15 - 10:33am

    Excelletn article. We are trying to get a “Stockton Welcomes Syrians” off the ground here, to “encourage” the Council to take in Syrians under the UNHCR scheme, and do so before more people die from cold in the camps near to the border.
    Going on a wing and a prayer we are having a vigil tonight to remember those who have died or are suffering in the camps or making the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean.
    I was just putting the finishing touches to the leaflet we were handing out when I read this (encouraging) and Richard Underhill’s point about the most vulnerable, which I have added to the back of the leaflet where we are trying to deal with the dehumanising of asylum seekers. thank you Richard, and thank you York.
    I can e-mail the leaflet to anyone if they get in touch. my e-mail address known to all, so can post here [email protected]

  • @ Suzanne Fletcher

    I live in Stockton Suzanne, who are we?

    I have not heard anything about a ‘Stockton Welcome Syrians’ campaign, has it been in the local press, it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the edition of the Stockton News that arrived last week, how many supporters do you have.

    The only campaign I have seen is in on 38 Degrees which has accumulated 136 signature in 4 months, out of a population of 200,000.

    Sounds a bit like the royal ‘we’ to me.!!

  • suzanne fletcher 26th Nov '15 - 11:33am

    He @Raddiy, “we” have only just formed, and nothing been published by press, and definitely not formed before Stockton News went to press, although unlikely they would have included us. have a look at our website and if you are on facebook that.
    Are you interested in being part of us and agree with our aims ?
    website: https://stocktonwelcomessyrians.wordpress.com,
    email : [email protected]
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/stocktonwelcomessyrians

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