Brighton and Hove could soon be the new home for a small number of refugees whose lives have been devastated by the Syrian Civil War. NEIL VOWLES reports

SOME of the most traumatised and vulnerable victims of Syria’s devastating civil war are set to find refuge in Brighton and Hove.

Orphaned children, torture victims and women subjected to sexual attacks in the war-torn Middle Eastern country will be offered an escape route from their nightmare by starting a new life in the city.

Councillors are now pushing for Brighton and Hove to be officially recognised as a ‘City of Sanctuary’ to mark the area’s proud history in supporting victims of persecution.

But elected members concede the city’s attempts to help refugees are being hampered by a shortage of affordable housing.

Green councillor Leo Littman, who has raised the motion, said there was still a “great deal more” the city could be doing to welcome refugees, and hoped the city could accommodate more victims of the conflict, which has now entered its fifth year.

He said: “We have taken in people from communities where they have been forced to flee their homes in the past and currently the most critical situation is Syria so we have agreed to accept a small number of households.

“These are the most extremely vulnerable – orphaned children, victims of sexual violence, those needing specialist hospital treatment and torture victims.”

Half of Syria’s 23 million population have been forced from their home and 200,000 people have been killed since war broke out in 2011.

The UK, while offering more than £700 million in humanitarian aid, is lagging behind other countries in offering refuge for the victims of Syria’s internal conflict and charities such as Amnesty International have been urging the Government to do more.

So far the country has taken on about 150 refugees compared to Norway and Sweden who have taken in around 1,000.

The biggest burden and pressures have fallen on Syria’s neighbouring countries with 97% of the country’s victims fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Coun Littman said: “Given our history and the role that we have played in last few decades in the Middle East, it is regrettable that we have taken in so few people in so far and now is the time for the Government to act a bit quicker.

“Other European countries and other Middle Eastern countries have taken in huge numbers of people, we could be doing more than we are.”

While the numbers of refugees the city will accept is dependent on the cooperation with central Government, Coun Littman is hopeful that gaining the status will send out a positive message at the very least. He added: “I’m not sure if getting the status will make a huge difference in speeding up the process but it’s a good way to raise the flag, to say this is how we as a city see ourselves and how we feel we should be behaving.

“It may help us to work more closely with other local authorities which already have this status.

“I’m hopeful that councillors from all parties will support the motion, we are trying to help out the most vulnerable people on the planet so I hope everyone can get behind that.” A Parliamentary briefing paper on the UK’s support to Syrian refugees published at the start of the month said that there is pressure for the UK to accept more Syrian refugees as the crisis “gets ever deeper”.

Until January last year, the Government's policy was to be “generous with humanitarian aid” to Syria’s neighbours rather than to accept large numbers of refugees.

But just over a year ago Home Secretary Theresa May announced the establishment of the vulnerable person relocation scheme.

Those resettled under the scheme are granted five years humanitarian protection and given access to public funds and the labour market.

The Government expects several hundred refugees to arrive over the next three years with the first group of up to 20 arriving in March last year.

Syrians can also claim asylum to the UK while the Home Office has extended a temporary concession allowing Syrians in the UK to apply for an extension to their visa or switch into a different visa category until February 28 next year.

Last year there were more than 2,000 asylum applications from Syrians, the third biggest nationality for asylum applicants after Eritreans and Pakistanis, with 86% of applications granted.

Culture of hospitality

CITY of Sanctuary is a movement to build a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.

Organisers hope to create a network of towns and cities throughout the country which are proud to be places of safety, and which include people seeking sanctuary fully in the life of their communities.

The movement began in October 2005 in Sheffield and within two years it had become the UK’s first official City of Sanctuary.

Since then, organisers have supported the development of more than 30 other City of Sanctuary initiatives in towns and cities across the UK.

Swansea became the UK’s second official City of Sanctuary in May 2010 following the support of more than 100 community organisations and Swansea City Council.

The group hopes to establish a national network of cities to promote a more just and humane approach to people seeking sanctuary in this country.

City has a solid history in welcoming the needy

COUNCILLOR Leo Littman hopes to achieve the City of Sanctuary status in part to recognise the role the city has played in welcoming in refugees down through the years.

Concrete evidence, or at least red brick evidence, of one of an earlier wave of refugees can be found in Queensbury Mews – the only French Protestant Church in the UK outside of London until its closure and conversion into a house in 2008.

Huguenot teachings were first brought to Brighton in 1548 by a French-speaking Flemish man called Deryck Carver who fled to Sussex to escape persecution for his Calvinist beliefs.

Mr Carver also formed Brighton’s first brewery, the Black Lion, but unfortunately his respite lasted only so long before he was martyred by Queen Mary I for holding bible reading sessions.

The church itself was built in 1887 and cost more than £1,500.

The first recorded Jewish settlers arrived in the 1760s and the first synagogue was built in 1792.

After the Second World War, Brighton became a port of call for leading supporters of the state of Israel to make speeches and rally support for the fledgling state, including the state’s fourth prime minister Golda Meir, who made a speech at the Royal Pavilion in 1950.

Among many notable Jewish refugees in the city’s history is Rabbi Erwin Solomon Rosenblum of the Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue who fled to Sussex in 1939 and whose family died at Auschwitz.

In more recent times, 80 members of the Oromo tribe came to Brighton and Hove as refugees in September 2006 through the Gateway Programme Protection arranged by the Home Office.

The tribe were forced to flee persecution in Ethiopia and came to the city from a refugee camp in Kenya.

Eleven children from the persecuted Ethiopian ethnic group started lessons at Hove Park School from October 2006.

Six years later, a special mayoral reception at Brighton Town Hall was held to celebrate their integration into the city and their newly received eligibility to apply for British citizenship.

The city also offered a safe haven to Sudanese refugees in the 1980s and Somalians in the 1990s.

Hundreds of Kosovans were airlifted to Sussex from squalid camps in Macedonia and Albania in the wake of violence breaking out in the fledgling Balkan state.

‘Huge housing pressure’

WITH the best will in the world, the number of refugees Brighton and Hove can accommodate is limited by housing shortages and the wishes of central Government.

With more than 20,000 local residents on the housing register, there is not an abundance of affordable housing that they can be rehomed into.

The council is also reliant on the Home Office allocating refugees to the city and by the end of last year, the country had accepted just 143 refugees in total.

Coun Littman said: “It’s difficult to take on refugees in large numbers because of the pressure on housing in the city.

“We are restricted in taking on a relatively small number because of the number of available social housing and housing association properties.

“It would be impossible really to house anyone in the private sector at the current market rates.

“It’s one of those chicken and the egg situations. We need to be able to offer people housing before the Home Office can confirm how many people want to come to Brighton and Hove so it needs a bit more joined up thinking.”