District ‘unlikely to offer safe haven for refugees’

Cllr Jason Ablewhite, leader of Huntingdonshire District Council.

Cllr Jason Ablewhite, leader of Huntingdonshire District Council. - Credit: Archant

Huntingdonshire is unlikely to offer a safe haven to any Syrian refugees as there are too many local people in desperate need of housing.

That is the view of the leader of Huntingdonshire District Council (HDC), Jason Ablewhite, who told The Hunts Post yesterday (Tuesday) there were currently 2,000 people on the council’s housing waiting list who should take priority over refugees.

“We just don’t have a plethora of available housing and personally, as leader, I would not approve of this [housing refugees] at the current time. We will wait to hear from central Government about its plans, but we are already under pressure – we have eight families living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Everyone on the list has to stay in temporary accommodation before they are offered permanent housing.”

Amid mounting pressure, Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Monday that the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.

At least 40 local councils have already come forward to offer sanctuary after Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper suggested housing authorities should take 10 families each.

Peter Bucknall, chairman of HDC, will meet with housing officials on Thursday to discuss the area’s response, but said he had already explored several options.

“We have looked at whether we could use old military housing, but so much of it is in disrepair now and just not habitable. We will, of course do what we can, but we are a rural area and we need to think about future needs in terms of amenities and jobs.”

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Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) has confirmed that while it is not a housing authority, it does have responsibility for any social, educational, fostering and mental health issues affecting refugees who enter the country.

In a statement, CCC said: “Nobody could fail to be moved by the recent pictures and stories of refugees fleeing war-torn areas of the world. We will play our part in any co-ordinated Government-led scheme. We are liaising with the Local Government Association on what the best countrywide approach should be for councils. Support for refugees must take account of their long-term needs not just immediate accommodation.”

A Freedom of Information request, by The Hunts Post, had revealed that 26 “unaccompanied children” seeking asylum were referred to the county council between April 1 and August 13 this year.

The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, issued a statement offering his support to refugees and asked people to offer a “Biblical welcome” to those fleeing violence and oppression.

“We must find a language of welcome, not suspicion. We should be proud of Britain’s ongoing commitment to overseas aid and humanitarian relief,” he said.

Dr Alexandria Innes, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of East Anglian, said the UK had a “legal and moral responsibility to accept more refugees. He described David Cameron’s announcement as “a step in the right direction”.

“Twenty-thousand people is a very good start, but if the UK wants to meet its international obligations, the number should be upwards of 100,000. Currently, the UK has one of the lowest numbers for refugee resettlement of any developed country.”

Oxfam confirmed that it had launched its Refugee Appeal in response to the crisis. Manager of the Oxfam Bookshop in Huntingdon High Street, Geoffrey Stalker, said: “Oxfam has been working in Syria for a long time and will continue to do so.”

Blankets and winter clothes can be taken to the Oxfam shop in Chequers Court.