At the back of a sprawling set of garden allotments in Eastbourne, on England’s south coast, Mahmoud Al-Halabi gently pulls up two carrots for his children and gestures to a thick curtain of green vines. Parting the leaves, he reveals several large bottle gourds, quite unlike anything growing in his neighbors’ plots.
“In Syria summer is longer, and these grow even bigger,” the 33-year-old says, waving admiration aside. The beans, peppers, and kusa squash he’s growing are other staples from that faraway climate. It’s been eight years since Al-Halabi and his family left their home in a pummelled suburb of Damascus, fleeing the conflict devastating their country.
Their route to this seaside resort town took many years, and yet was relatively direct. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees, they first went to Jordan, where Al-Halabi worked three jobs a day to keep his family fed and housed. Then in late 2018 they received a rare lifeline: entry to the UK under a government program to resettle the “most at risk” refugees in the Middle East displaced by the Syrian conflict. It placed them in Eastbourne with refugee status and resources for their immediate needs.
This program, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), has been a core part of the UK government’s refugee policy for the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the government to pause the program in March 2020, a few hundred shy of its target of resettling 20,000 people between 2015-2020. At the end of 2020 the program began to resume and is intended to run until this original commitment is met. But despite growing concerns over the impact of delays on services, the government has yet to confirm when a planned replacement will follow.
A lot rides on the program, deemed the “gold standard” of UK resettlement schemes in a 2017 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For refugees, it has offered one of the only safe routes to Britain, as well as designated support on arrival. For the government, it has been used as a counter to criticism of an antagonistic approach to asylum seekers crossing the English Channel. Across the world, resettlement serves fewer than 1% of refugees, but as Europe grapples with fatal sea crossings, xenophobic politics, and overcrowded asylum facilities, the successes and shortcomings of the VPRS hold lessons for the wider region’s immigration policies.
Since 2014 the UK’s different schemes have resettled over 25,000 people, more than any other European country between 2016 and 2019, though the almost 20,000 resettled under the VPRS is a small fraction of the more than 6.6 million Syrian refugees (close to 7 million more have been internally displaced in Syria).
Other countries accept more people via asylum processes: for the past five years the annual number of asylum claims in the UK has ranged between 26,000-37,000 (with an average grant rate at initial decision of about 40%), compared to an average of over 100,000 in France and over 200,000 in Germany. But the UK is harder to get to, and the VPRS has provided a supportive route for refugees in need – until now. The uncertainty over the resettlement program’s future has left families who were promised resettlement in limbo and put councils under strain, jeopardising the services built over the past five years.
Two years after arriving in this town of 100,000 residents, Al-Halabi continues to slowly put down roots. He’s learning English at a local college, and recently celebrated the marriage of his sister in a socially distanced ceremony at the town hall. His experience of resettlement, along with the other 44 Syrians and Sudanese resettled in Eastbourne through the VPRS, is inseparable from the setting, particularly the efforts of a group of volunteers instrumental to the town’s involvement.
Retired headteacher Anna Reid is one of the group’s leaders. Like many, she was shaken by the coverage of fatal migrations in 2015, in which 3,771 people died crossing the Mediterranean, and started thinking with two friends about what they could do to help locally.
They’d heard about the VPRS, and contacted the town council about hosting refugees in Eastbourne. But their inquiries were met with concern that using social housing for the program, or even advertising for spare homes, would cause a racial backlash. (Eastbourne Borough Council was contacted for this piece but declined to comment.) Although the Home Office oversees the program, most of the implementation happens in local areas – where councils and community groups provide housing, public services, and direct support.
Local councils are not obligated to join the VPRS but are encouraged to do so, and the majority have: 342 of the UK’s 408 local authorities have participated. The UK government provides councils with money to cover most costs for each refugee in the first year. The funding drops over the following four years from £5,000 to £1,000 per person.
One of the hardest parts for councils is finding suitable housing, but Reid was not deterred by the challenge. “I knew there were a lot of second homes in Eastbourne,” she said, and the trio put out a call to friends and churches for anyone with accommodation to let. Naming their fledgling group “Networx”, they found enough houses and furniture to settle three Syrian families who arrived independently, and to help boost the program’s viability for the council.
In January 2017, the first family on the program was greeted at the airport by a representative from the council and an interpreter, and Networx supported the council in helping them adjust to life in Eastbourne, from furnishing their house to facilitating access to medical and educational services. As more families arrived, Reid noticed holes in the scheme’s provisions. She considered it short-sighted, for example, that participating local authorities were not required to provide TV or internet access, a ready source of English language material for the newcomers. So Networx started paying for the first year of each, with Eastbourne council subsequently taking over internet provision.
But what she found more glaring was the lack of general social care. “Just like schools and other services are forgotten for housing estates, the scheme forgets the basic needs for 20,000 people,” said Reid. She predicts neglecting these needs now will lead to future mental health issues and costs.
Networx tries to offset these gaps with provisions fundamental to general wellbeing. In Al-Halabi’s case that was the first year’s rent for the garden plot; for a man with a spine injury, Networx paid for an adjustable bed. The group also pairs families with volunteer ‘befrienders’, who might help with practicing English or managing the school run, and include physiotherapists, teachers and others whose experiences are useful for the project.
The group’s work is driven by a Christian ethos, fitting into a long global history of faith communities helping people affected by displacement, according to Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, a professor of migration and refugee studies. Their importance in Britain has increased over the last decade. “With centrally provided welfare provision having been eroded over time in the UK, we see faith groups filling key gaps, by providing assistance and sanctuary in different ways,” said Fiddian-Qasmiyeh.
Networx’s links to churches have given it facilities for events and a café space, a congregation to help source housing, as well as access to funding from Christian charities.
While faith clearly guides Reid, it features little in conversation. Instead, she talks about language acquisition difficulties for the town’s new arrivals. She considers the program’s requirement of eight hours of English language instruction per week in the first year to be insufficient. For each child, £4,500 is allocated to support learning English in the first year, but the usage varies hugely. She said one school “did it really well, by hiring an Arabic-speaking assistant to be with the child, dividing hours across the year so she’d be there often,” whereas another school “didn’t even know [the student] was a Syrian refugee, and he left last summer with nothing.”
UNHCR reported similar challenges among adults. The agency recommended increasing the number of English teaching hours available, particularly for two low participation groups: women with young children and young people aged 18-24.
Once known to Glaswegians as part of the “Costa Clyde”, the Scottish Isle of Bute shares with Eastbourne the legacy of a fabled but faded domestic holiday resort. Yet Bute’s remoteness, northern climate, and smaller population of roughly 6,000 made it an unusual location for the resettlement of Syrian refugees – and the adjustments all the more stark.
“For the first six months, I studied English at home for five hours every day,” recalled Mounzer Darsani at his Orient Salon barbershop in Rothesay, on the eastern edge of Bute. Darsani ran a barbershop in Damascus before imprisonment and torture by the government forced him to flee to Lebanon with his wife and two children. They were among the first of 34 families so far to be resettled on this small island two hours west of Glasgow.
The decision to bring refugees to this island community came when the regional Argyll and Bute council determined in September 2015 that of the mainland areas and 23 islands it administers, Bute “best met the criteria drawn up to support refugee families having available property, capacity in schools and ability to access health care.”
Yet the reality was not so straightforward – much of the housing consisted of one-bedroom flats unsuitable for families, and health needs beyond primary care required a visit to the mainland. The surplus of housing also betrayed the island’s economic decline since the 1960s, with part of Rothesay counted among the top 10% “most deprived” places in Scotland today. This meant finding employment might be challenging for the new arrivals, but many locals hoped an infusion of young families would be a boon to the area.
“We knew all of them would need homes, and there was also the sense that people with professional background and business acumen would revitalize the community,” said Owen Jones, a Rothesay minister involved in the program. Residents largely embraced the prospect, quickly establishing a welcome committee with over a hundred volunteers. They collected and sorted clothes, toys, and essential items for distribution.
There was a simultaneous surge in attendance at community council meetings by both residents in favor and against the program.
“I can understand some of the locals living nearby being less than enamored, especially when it was suggested not to have Christmas decorations because of the possibility of causing offense,” said Jean Moffat, a Bute councilor. “But the attitude of the locals and behavior of the Syrians meant they were soon welcomed into the community.”
Helping out on the job was the obvious thing to do for Michael, one of the island’s bus drivers and himself a relative newcomer from Wales via London, which he said made him “used to people not knowing” an unfamiliar setting. He would count out the different coins for his new passengers, and make sure they knew when they had reached their stop.
Others initiated efforts of their own. When the first group of families arrived in the winter of 2015, they had no public space to gather, so the Catholic priest Michael Hutson offered a vacant church hall for their use. Though draughty, it provided a place for meetings and accessing services, as well as a possible prayer space.
As in Eastbourne, the church response has been significant. Hutson spearheaded an ecumenical collaboration to support the resettled families. Like Reid, he championed general wellbeing, and his church decided to give bicycles to the children in the first two waves of arrivals. “It’s a human right for kids to bike,” he said.
But such unilateral decisions that could be seen to privilege newcomers also caused friction. There were some “vociferous” naysayers at the beginning. Hutson recalled one resident complaining about being unable to drive without encountering four boys riding bikes in the street, at a time when he said there were not even four Syrian boys with bikes on the island.
For the group of volunteers new to working with refugees, certain growing pains emerged. One volunteer, Alison Clark, described it as a “big learning curve for the statutory agencies and for the volunteers,” even in realizing the diversity of backgrounds and language levels among the families. As time went on, a challenge arose in navigating the roles of volunteer, teacher, and friend – boundaries that could easily blur and were difficult to communicate.
The council emphasized creating paths to employment through volunteering, English competency, and training, and in time some of the refugees found work at the Mount Stuart estate and gardens, and at the vegan cheese factory that is one of the largest employers on the island. One woman started working as a carer for a local resident.
Yet the most visible manifestations are the businesses started by Syrians in Rothesay, none more so than Helmi’s Patisserie. The pastel pink exterior of Helmi’s, as it is affectionately known, makes it unmissable on the seafront of Victorian terraced housing. Its proprietor is the invariably smiling Bashar Helmi, who seems to be constantly shuttling between kitchens and supply stores. His son Momen offers customers a warm greeting in an English cadenced by a childhood in Syria and adolescence in Scotland. The mixture of dishes on the café’s chalkboard menu befits the same marriage of origin and setting: eclairs and cakes, halloumi wraps and lentil soup, and a mezze feast undersold as the “Syrian breakfast platter.”
The café’s huge popularity has propelled the opening of a new branch on the edge of Glasgow. But when UK chancellor Rishi Sunak chose Helmi’s on a visit to the island in August 2020 to promote the government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme to aid food businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of people grumbled on the island’s Facebook group – both that Helmi’s is often visited, and that the Conservative politician was exploiting the café’s success for his own ends.
“People don’t resent the success of the business, but the publicity it attracts, because others have been around for a long time and no-one notices them,” said summer resident Ian Jack. “It’s a difficult place to make a living in.”
Other Syrian businesses have not done so well. Two takeaway restaurants and a food truck that started with local support have not opened for months. The pandemic hasn’t helped, but the barber Darsani suggested there’s just a limited market. People are curious about Syrian food, but do not want to eat it every week. Similarly, the island offers his barbershop a steady number of customers but no increase, and he has dreams of growth.
The loyalty of his customers and those at Helmi’s Patisserie might reflect the businesses’ high quality of service as well as a kind of ethical consumerism. “A slight moral glow attends you if you go in there. You think you’re doing good here, buying this stuff from someone who had to leave their homeland because life was unsupportable,” said Jack about Helmi’s.
Still, the Bute resettlement initiative has not been wholly successful. Of the 34 families resettled on Bute, 20 have subsequently moved to Glasgow, Liverpool, or elsewhere for familial links or urban amenities. Even Darsani now commutes from the mainland (where he’s opened a second barbershop) to run his Rothesay salon two days a week, saying the lack of restaurants serving halal food, mosques, and Arab shops contributed to his reason to leave.
Island life is not for everyone, and many of the families have come from cities – despite the Home Office’s aim not to resettle families from urban areas to remote settings. Nor is the challenge unique to Bute: UNHCR found that “some of the refugees resettled in small towns and rural areas of the UK found the process more complicated than for those in major cosmopolitan cities.”
Five years since the first families arrived, the island is more settled. While over half of the families have left, others seem likely to stay, just as Bute’s larger population continues to ebb and flow.
The resettlement program has demonstrated that alternatives to the UK’s prevailing “hostile environment” approach to immigration are possible, providing individuals opportunities rather than obstacles to rebuilding their lives. And yet the program has drawn criticism for contributing to a two-tier system by elevating one group of refugees over others.
Most refugees who arrive in Britain as asylum seekers have access to minimal resources and are unable to work while their claim is processed (some exceptions exist after 12 months, and the restrictions on asylum seekers’ rights to work are currently under review).
One such asylum seeker is Oscar Serrano, a 48-year-old English teacher and municipal councilor from Honduras who claimed asylum with his family in the UK in 2018. He said he feared for his life in Honduras after an author with whom he shared evidence of corruption was murdered.
The Home Office sent Serrano and his family to Cardiff while their asylum claim was being considered. They made friends and joined dance groups, even performing at Wales’ Green Man festival. Then with one week’s notice they were moved more than 200 miles southeast to Hastings under the Home Office’s dispersal policy, a much-criticized system intended to redistribute asylum seekers more equitably around the UK but has clustered asylum seekers in deprived areas. Forced to start again from scratch, Serrano became despondent at not having “the opportunity to be useful.” Despite using the time to train as a chef, the inability to work was crushing. “I was in lockdown before lockdown happened,” he said.
In Hastings, Serrano came into contact with the Buddy Project, a group set up and funded to support participants of the UK program to resettle vulnerable Syrian refugees. Serrano was able to get involved with their events, providing him with a valuable community, but the group’s work has been largely oriented towards those on the government program, despite the large number of asylum seekers in the area with distinct needs and fewer resources.
This fits into what Professor Fiddian-Qasmiyeh described as “a broader process of creating bifurcated systems of worth and need seen across all sorts of humanitarian relief.” While she said the government’s anticipated global resettlement scheme, intended to replace the VPRS, is to be welcomed for going beyond regional identifiers, “the difficulty with having a bifurcated resettlement system is that tensions will emerge between people who have arrived on different pathways, because their rights have not been respected equitably.”
The distinction also affects public opinion. Alexander Betts, a professor of political science focusing on refugee assistance, argues that “it is no coincidence that it is in some of the countries with the strongest resettlement traditions where spontaneous asylum is regarded with the greatest skepticism.”
For Serrano, his asylum claim was rejected and subsequent appeals dismissed, largely on the basis of providing insufficient evidence of fear of political persecution – a challenging task. He is scheduled to be deported to Honduras.
Resettlement programs have a history in the UK going back to World War II. These include schemes for Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s military junta in the 1970s, Vietnamese escaping persecution in the 1980s following the end of the Vietnam War, and Bosnians seeking refuge from the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. They have all been temporary, quota-based, and nationality-specific, allowing successive UK governments to avoid establishing a permanent refugee settlement policy.
Today there are other smaller resettlement schemes, such as Community Sponsorship, which further shifts the responsibility of refugee support to communities rather than local authorities, and has long been a popular model in Canada. The process of applying to be community sponsors has been criticized for its difficulty, but the scheme has attracted praise from UNHCR and research suggests refugees settled under community sponsorship may be better supported and less isolated compared to those settled through VPRS.
Despite being a relatively small part of the migration landscape, refugee resettlement captures outsize attention. The introduction of the VPRS has helped bring more people into civic engagement, like Reid, who may then try to close the gulf of support for others – Reid’s group now supports about 100 people outside the scheme. Local authorities tend to have little to do with the broader asylum system, which is largely contracted out to private companies, so the VPRS has expanded their involvement in migration issues, giving insight into the challenges and barriers to integration.
The Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy (RAMP) project, secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, has celebrated the successes of the VPRS and called on the government “to commit to operating the new Global Resettlement Scheme for at least the next five years, to last the full length of the current parliament.” Local authorities, accustomed to long-term commitments for hosting refugees, would be better able to plan under this timeframe.
British Immigration Minister Chris Philp has said “we will continue to honor our commitment to those who have been invited to the UK and we will roll out a new global resettlement scheme in future, along with a new firm and fair asylum system, which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.” But the Home Office has still not announced any further details on the time frame or duration of the program. In March 2021 the Home Secretary announced new immigration proposals that would remove migrants arriving by small boats or other irregular routes after traveling through a “safe country” in which they could have claimed asylum, among other changes that have drawn criticism from humanitarian groups.
Jacqui Broadhead, director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity at the University of Oxford’s COMPAS research center, said the delay is a pressing concern. “My worry would be that as the initial commitment comes to an end, and funding winds up, programs will be dismantled in councils,” she said. “The one year horizon makes it less efficient and less easy to plan. Even on a very practical level, for those staff whose contracts are up in 6 months they will start looking for jobs.”
The RAMP project has also argued for applying the resettlement program’s strengths to the broader refugee and asylum system. “These would include the long view of welcoming refugees which involves sufficient investment and effective decision making to allow asylum seekers and refugees to live with dignity in the UK, to be assured that their immigration cases are considered correctly and that allow them to contribute to society and to begin integrating as soon as they arrive in the UK.”
Achieving self-reliance in a new country may be a long process, in which obtaining a plot of land, a sewing machine or a driving license, or eventually indefinite leave to remain are major milestones. In Eastbourne, Mahmoud Al-Halabi is eager to volunteer or find work. The lockdowns have constrained opportunities for both, but have not dented his patience. As he puts his garden to bed for 2020, he collects seeds and turns them in his hand, held for another year of renewal.