Emma Brooksbank: Yorkshire communities need better resources to cope with refugees

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David Cameron must tackle concerns over school places, housing, healthcare and legal advice.

AFTER months of indecision, the Prime Minister is doing all he can to ensure the government appears on the front foot in the face of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. His flying visit to a camp in Lebanon prefaced plans to appoint a minister for refugees and a reminder that the UK will offer sanctuary to 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020.

However, with expectations that towns and cities in Yorkshire will be asked to absorb an increasing number of refugees, alongside the existing flow of asylum seekers into the UK (applications rose 10% during the year up to June 2015); attention must now turn to the public infrastructure that we need to support and integrate these families.

Programmes of austerity that see school places squeezed, inadequate social housing and cuts to legal aid budgets must be paired back, otherwise the PM’s “extraordinary compassion”, could store up a tremendous struggle ahead.

As has been established, half of the Syrian refugees re-homed so far in the UK have been re-settled in Bradford. All refugees get the right to work, receive welfare benefits, health care and education. But being closely linked with refugee groups and communities in the area I am painfully aware of the burning issues non-EU migrants are faced with already.

Key problems I witness on an ongoing basis, are the lack of school places, pressure on housing associations and cuts to Legal Aid.

Unfortunately, the people yet to arrive are not only going to increase the pressure on existing resources but will be faced with the lack of support in all of these three problem areas if the PM doesn’t hurry to look for effective solutions.

The outlook for families with children is bleak; between 2010 and 2015, the number of primary school pupils in the UK increased by 24 per cent, while every spring we are reminded of the lack of school places available in the area. For example, data published by my firm Simpson Millar in April shows that almost 10 per cent of primary school admissions in Leeds were appealed in 2014, but parents in the city are generally forced to accept what they are given; sadly 92 per cent of those appeals failed.

To make matters worse, David Cameron proudly pledges his support for the Government’s free school programme and promises to open 500 free-schools in the years to come. However, the existing institutions are already suffering from budget cuts and statistics published by the University Colleges Admissions Service in August show that we are also Perhaps the single greatest public infrastructure challenge facing this country; social housing supply, simply has to be addressed and Whitehall’s post-Thatcherite sequel to Right to Buy is arguably the greatest anachronism of current government policy.

Housing associations nationwide are already under considerable pressure after the Government forced a one per cent reduction in rents payable on social housing. If this resource is to be called upon to invest in our housing stock to accommodate refugees in the greatest movement of people since the Second World War, Mr Cameron must put the brakes on both right to buy and the rent freeze.

As I mentioned before, refugees are granted a legal immigration status that separates them from other illegal non-EU migrants and asylum seekers.

The Prime Minister’s attempt to address the Syrian refugee crisis ‘at source’ by providing a home to current occupants in Lebanese camps fails to address the continuing problem of undocumented asylum seekers entering the UK.

In the year to June 2015 there were just short of 26,000 asylum applications, with around 10 per cent of these from Syria, as well as other war torn regions like Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. These are the people who need support from the justice system and I fear their cause will be undermined unless the government puts a stop on its cuts to legal aid.

Immigration solicitors’ hands are often tied when deserving cases appear but no funds are available to help. Weeks before the end of the last financial year, the Leeds area had already run out of its Legal Aid budget for immigration, with hundreds of deserving asylum cases left without representation.

The PM must recognise that refugees and asylum seekers are vulnerable people who typically require a disproportionate level of support from the system.

Schools, housing, healthcare and legal advice; austerity has placed a huge burden on the institutions that deliver these services. But if the government’s policy of hard and fast cuts is maintained, how can the country be expected to cope with net migration in excess of 300,000 in the year to March 2015?

The Prime Minister’s promise of compassion should mean more than simply a refuge for Syrians fleeing war; he must address the deep cuts to our public services, otherwise migrants and non-migrants alike, will feel the effects of austerity amplified many times.

Emma Brooksbank is head of immigration at Leeds-based legal firm Simpson Millar.