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Supporting Refugees in the Borough ‘Very Challenging’ Says Council

Published on: 9 Nov, 2022
Updated on: 10 Nov, 2022

Then home secretary Priti Patel talking to arriving Afghan refugees in 2021. Image BBC

By Emily Coady-Stemp

local democracy reporter

Volunteers in Guildford have been stepping up to get food and baby milk from supermarkets as the council helps out in a “very challenging” situation supporting refugees in the borough.

A hotel in the east of Guildford has been set up to house people from all over the world at various stages of the asylum application process, but council staff have spoken about the tensions surrounding it.

A meeting of Guildford Borough Council’s overview and scrutiny committee discussed the authority’s support being offered under various schemes set up to help those from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and more.

A Home Office-led scheme has seen the hotel set up as bridging accommodation, being run by ClearSprings Ready Homes via a subcontractor, with a management team in place at the hotel to support the aslum applicants.

But the borough council’s executive head of community services, Sam Hutchinson, highlighted that despite the authority not being responsible for the running of the hotel, once issues there had come to light, there was a responsibility on the council to put things right.

She told the meeting: “The council can’t do anything about it other than support to make it as good as it can be.

“We stepped in to help volunteer coordination which again, brought a lot of tension because the volunteers were asked to do things that were beyond their remit.”

Ms Hutchinson said people were arriving but there was no food or baby milk available, with volunteers going to supermarkets to buy it.

Earlier tensions around the running of the operation had now been replaced by tensions between the refugeess, she explained, regarding some progressing through the asylum-seeking process quicker than others.

Guildford MP Angela Richardson’s contibution to the Parliamentary debate on Asylum Seekers’Accommodation and Safeguarding on November 7

Weekly clinics took place to check on residents, and meeting documents showed local volunteer networks had been “crucial” in helping provide clothing and toiletries, registering children for schooling and language classes.

Ms Hutchinson said that as around any hotel there had been some complaints about noise and rubbish, and added: “The parish council has been absolutely excellent.

“They’ve done a piece in the local newsletter to support it so it’s starting to see its way through and the local residents have been very supportive.”

With many applicants at the hotel, and other refugees in the borough, having experienced “significant trauma” councillors asked about the provision for mental health support.

The borough welcomed eight Syrian families between 2016 and 2018, found homes for two families in Ministry of Defence properties in Pirbright under the Afghanistan Relocation and Assistance Programme, has seen 570 people arriving to date under the Homes For Ukraine Scheme and, reportedly, 1,000 resettle from Hong Kong.

Meeting documents said: “The Homes for Ukraine scheme is a serious challenge for the council.

“There have been significant difficulties in ensuring guests can access school places, doctors and dentists.

“Most pressing however is the lack of suitable and affordable housing provision once the six-month arrangement of host and guest ends.”

There has also been a “significant impact” on the mental health of both hosts and Ukrainians which officers said “cannot be underestimated”.

Of the pressure on mental health services, Ms Hutchinson said it was “extremely challenging” and important to note that those at the borough council were not mental health professionals but needed to make the correct referrals.

She said mental health support was seeing a “huge backlog” across all communities, and not just among refugees and asylum seekers.

Ms Hutchinson added: “I think it would be fair to say that the infrastructure of our support services are at breaking point and this is a concern for all councils, in terms of all issues around refugee schemes and immigration generally and asylum dispersal.

“We do the best that we can.”

Cllr Angela Goodwin

Cllr Angela Goodwin (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) questioned, given concerns raised about the availability of accommodation in the area, if under-occupied student properties in the town could be used to provide support in the short term.

The meeting heard that there would be more work to be done on finding vacant properties, including student accommodation, with extra resources being allocated to help people find a home.

Cllr Julia McShane

Council Leader Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough) introduced the officers’ report to the meeting, also sharing some of the positive stories to come from families that had been supported in the borough.

She said: “It is a very challenging area of work and the teams involved are extremely dedicated and often face some very difficult situations, with the people who are displaced traumatised and in need of significant support.”

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