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The ‘big society’ could offer a solution to the refugee crisis

18 September 2015

4:12 PM

18 September 2015

4:12 PM

At first the government was slow to react to the refugee crisis, but now things are starting to happen. It’s less than two weeks since David Cameron said Britain would take in an extra 20,000 Syrian refugees, but this week Theresa May promised that the first of them will be arriving ‘in the coming days’. Given the logistics of resettlement, this turn of speed is impressive.

But if the pace of the response has picked up, the scale of it still remains disappointing. Having ruled out taking in any refugees who’ve already reached Europe, even as an emergency measure, the government really should look to increase the number it’s prepared to take through resettlement from camps in the region. So here’s an idea that would allow for that which should appeal to David Cameron.

In a word, privatise the process. Or to put it another way, enlist the ‘big society’. One of the barriers to resettlement on a large scale is the involvement of local government. Councils are wary primarily because social housing, in short supply in many places, has to be found for the refugees. Then there are on-going support costs. One way or another, taxpayers are footing quite a large bill – and local authorities don’t want it to be their council tax payers.


Yet in recent weeks we’ve witnessed an extraordinary upsurge in public sympathy for refugees, with many charities overwhelmed by individuals calling in to offer practical help. The desire among the public to act already exists; it just needs an organised outlet. The answer is private sponsorship schemes. They exist already in Canada and Germany and have proved successful. For instance in Germany, 15,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in this way in recent years.

The schemes allow concerned groups of individuals, community organisations, churches and other civic bodies to register their interest in resettling refugees in their areas. Those who are approved are then responsible for housing the refugees, for all their financial and material needs, and for other ongoing support and mentoring. The cost to central and local government isn’t zero of course, and neither do these schemes entirely replace state run ones, but they do provide a useful supplement.

There are already small charitable groups and networks of volunteers in cities and towns around the country who house asylum seekers for short periods. On top of that various national charities have been registering people who’ve said they would take in Syrians and support them. (A new Refugees Welcome coalition claims nearly 600 private landlords have already offered properties for refugees.) There is now a unique opportunity to mobilise this civic generosity and to frame a response to the refugee crisis that isn’t wholly reliant on state action. It should be one that this Conservative government, led by this Prime Minister, embraces.

Tim Finch is a former head of migration at the think tank IPPR and a former director of communications at the Refugee Council 

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