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Labour Party Takes Wandsworth Promising to Welcome More Refugees

The Labour Party wins control of Wandsworth for the first time in 44 years. Labour council leader, Simon Hogg, has promised to build and maintain a compassionate council, with security, prosperity and opportunities for residents. Responding to requests from local refugee organisations, the Council has signed a pledge to become a Borough of Sanctuary to make Wandsworth a welcoming place for refugees and asylum seekers, and take effective measures to put this plan into action.

The Borough of Sanctuary movement is certainly a monumental one, being part of a strong, national initiative to make cities and towns a safe and wholesome place for people seeking sanctuary. Working closely with local charities, voluntary organisations and civic society groups, the Labour council intends to improve Wandsworth’s support for individuals fleeing persecution and war, especially in Syria, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, and help refugees to access education, healthcare, jobs and language training.

Making her maiden speech, Councillor Sarmila Varatharaj highlighted the small number of Afghan and Syrian families supported by Wandsworth since 2016, and called for changes in the current integration policies. Councillor Sarmila also pointed out the fact that the No Recourse to Public Funds policy is extremely detrimental to individuals seeking sanctuary, especially children and young people, making it more difficult for them to seek further education.

(WWR at the full meeting of the Council in July).

Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees supports the Council initiative, and believes it will encourage more local places like theatres, libraries, cafes and gardens to become part of the Sanctuary movement. This year, the Home Community Cafe was the very first to be accredited by the City of Sanctuary in Wandsworth, providing inspiration for other local action to welcome refugees and those seeking asylum. But our efforts and initiatives to encourage further places of Sanctuary must continue.

Refugees experience immense trauma along their journey to Europe in order to escape the war and violence in their hometowns. Refugees and asylum seekers are individuals that simply want to be free of this torture as well as the inhumane and degrading treatment they have faced. The UK should not endorse hostile environment policies, as it is highly unethical towards people seeking safety in this country.

Several refugee organisations are thus teaming up to further motivate and support Wandsworth Council to uphold principles of dignity, and promote the inclusion, welfare and empowerment of vulnerable individuals that are fleeing severe human rights abuses.

The local organisations, Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (CARAS), Katherine Low Settlement, JustShelter, Battersea Welcomes Refugees and WWR, have put together a policy document, with measures to support the Borough of Sanctuary initiative in Wandsworth. These initiatives include the encouragement of developing and implementing policies, such as appointing a councillor and a council officer solely dedicated to building Wandsworth as a Borough of Sanctuary, and supporting facilities where refugees can come together and connect with community groups, encouraging inclusion and integration.

Refugee organisations also expressed the importance of a more comprehensive plan to compensate for the lack of housing for lower income residents, and to expand access to social housing without setting maximum numbers within the Borough. The need for greater support of unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) is also endorsed to the Council, pledging to provide more assistance in their needs for foster homes, immigration status and citizenship as well as mental and physical health needs, and education.

As Wandsworth Council pledges to become a Borough of Sanctuary, and is now led by the Labour Party, we should be able to provide more support to integrate refugees in order for them to be able to make great contributions to Britain’s economy and culture.

Wandsworth has a rich history of welcoming refugees, with the Huguenots being considered some of the first refugees from the 16th and 17th century. They were French Protestants who fled persecution and violence from the French Catholic government, settling and forming new communities in the United Kingdom. The Huguenots were widely welcomed, as the British were very keen on cultivating the workforce in the country, and found them to have valuable skills that could help build a strong and vibrant country. Refugees have brought skills and made valuable contributions to the UK then as well as now. Therefore, it is essential we welcome refugees to create a more diverse Borough.

Wandsworth Council’s pledge is a proud milestone and a landmark of achievement, from which we hope to continue to build on with partners across our community. With Wandsworth Council going to Labour for the first time in 44 years, Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees look forward to more positive changes in the community. We intend to push forward our action plan, which will aim to help establish Wandsworth as a formally recognised Borough of Sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers.

Written by Pia Subramaniam

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