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Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

  • Henry Ridgwell

Compared to many other European countries, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived - and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country.

It takes an hour by ferry to cross the North Atlantic swell from Glasgow to the windswept island of Bute in Scotland – the very northwestern tip of Britain.

For more than 40 refugees in December, it was the last leg of a journey that took them from their homes in Syria and through a camp in Lebanon to Britain.

They were among those selected to be part of Britain’s resettlement plan for vulnerable refugees.

"I think the community is very, very sensitive to the fact that the Syrians that are coming over are probably coming from a very traumatic experience," said Tariq Iqbal, who is with the Glasgow-based support group Scottish Communities Initiative..

The refugees have been advised not to speak to the media. Some local people have expressed concerns over whether the refugees would settle on the island.

The editor of the local The Buteman weekly newspaper, Craig Borland, says there is little diversity among the 6,500 islanders.

"Bute is, through no fault of its own, it's an overwhelmingly white, until now, overwhelmingly white community. Its religious background is almost exclusively Christian," he said.

Despite the contrasts, it is possible to integrate newcomers into the community, says the University of Sussex's James Hampshire - a former adviser to the British government on migration.

"History shows us that over time, these differences lessen," he said. "And some of the most important ways in which that can be achieved is by securing the economic integration of refugees and migrants by enabling them to get jobs, and also by enabling their social integration."

The University of Sussex has offered 50 scholarships to Syrian refugees. It is based in Brighton – a city on the south coast that recently welcomed its first three Syrian refugee families.

Britain has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020 – far fewer than many other European states.

"The current government has a commitment to reduce immigration overall. And also the debate about immigration in Britain has become toxic, particularly surrounding the discussion around British membership of the EU," said James Hampshire.

"Now whilst refugees are separate from that, they’re caught up in it," he added.

Last month, four young Syrian asylum seekers living in a refugee camp - dubbed the "Jungle" camp in the French port of Calais - celebrated a legal victory that allows them to join family members already in Britain. Hundreds more cases are likely to follow.

The British government has said it will fight each case. For most migrants with ambitions of reaching British shores, the dream will remain out of reach.