Middlesbrough mayor, Andy Preston, has been making the headlines, with an unambiguous statement of support for refugees from Afghanistan. Many here will welcome those humanitarian sentiments, published in the Gazette on 19 August. The Gazette article, however, moves swiftly on to discussion of the pantomime of incompetence in Westminster over the issue, and so does not really do justice to Preston or to Middlesbrough. So here are some of the things they missed out.
Readers of The Guardian (19 August) will have seen that Middlesbrough is the town with the largest share of refugees and asylum seekers per 10,000 population of any town in England. They will also have seen that the league table they published contains three towns in the Tees Valley in the top ten – Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hartlepool.
No anti-immigrant demonstrations in the area
Elsewhere in the country, as the same Guardian article reports, the arrival of asylum seekers has led to anti-immigrant demonstrations. Such concerted action has not, we believe, occurred in this area. Something else for which people here deserve credit. It has not quite reached the level of empathy that was seen earlier this summer in Glasgow when protesters faced down immigration officials who were attempting to arrest two asylum seekers with a view to deporting them, but the fact that, in the wake of the racist sentiment unleashed by the Brexit referendum, the situation here has been quite calm is reassuring.
But it’s an uneasy peace. The region is also not short of people drawn to the boat-popping charms of Nigel Farage. Which may help to explain a curious omission from the Gazette article, which is this. It may be that the Gazette reporter did what we did a couple of days ago and wrote to every council leader on the Tees Valley and asked if they would welcome refugees fleeing Afghanistan. Maybe the Gazette got the same response that we did – that Preston was the only one who answered. For the time being, at least, he stands alone among the region’s civic leaders.
The North East has outstripped other areas in support for refugees
Which brings us back to the issue of the unequal distribution of refugees across the country. The figures published by the Migration Observatory show that the North East has considerably outstripped every other region of the UK in terms of the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers accommodated:
Response from MPs
When we approached local MPs for their reaction to the impending refugee crisis in Afghanistan, Stockton North MP, Alex Cunningham, was quite forthright. Having agreed that, as a country, we should acknowledge our responsibility to those fleeing the situation in Afghanistan, he goes on:
“I do however know that our local authority has a much higher proportion of refugees already in the area than there are in others and whilst I am sure Stockton Borough will play some role, I firmly believe that other parts of the country should step up and offer a welcome to the thousands of displaced people who will find their way here.”
Darlington MP, Peter Gibson, was less critical, but pointed out that Darlington had also played its part:
“I welcome news of a refugee programme for up to 20,000 over the coming years and I know that Darlington, just as it did with those fleeing Syria, will play its part.”
Andy McDonald MP expressed similar sentiments:
“I am in no doubt whatsoever that Middlesbrough should continue with its long and proud history and warmly welcome Afghan refugees fleeing this crisis.
“I trust that our local Council will make it clear that we as a town are ready and very willing to do our bit in offering sanctuary to those who seek it.”
So, the region’s MPs have been more forthcoming than the council leaders in stating their support for refugees from Afghanistan. Of the four who did not respond to our inquiry, we have searched their Facebook pages for clues. Matt Vickers (Con, Stockton South) and Jill Mortimer (Con, Hartlepool) have said nothing at all. Simon Clarke (Con, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland), meanwhile, has been doing a fair bit of tub thumping about the shortcomings of American foreign policy, but has had precious little to say on the matter of refugees. Jacob Young (Con, Redcar), meanwhile, has stated “I agree with Tom”, where ‘Tom’ is Tom Hunt MP:
Jacob Young’s post then generated a great deal of this kind of comment:
A level of humanitarian concern the Taliban itself would approve of.
Leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council is silent, as is Ben Houchen
Perhaps as well that the leader of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, Mary Lanigan, has remained silent, given that her past interventions in relation to refugees have been less than constructive. The now notorious meeting of Loftus town council in 2017 to protest the settlement of asylum seekers in the town saw the ward of which she was a councillor refuse to support the vital work being done elsewhere in the region. While the Tees Valley did considerably more than other English regions to support refugees, that effort did not extend to Loftus. Or to Mary Lanigan.
Undoubtedly, what is needed now is a rapid and co-ordinated response. One that acknowledges that, even if the solution is to spread the refugee population more evenly around the country, this region can provide unparalleled expertise in managing the situation.
Which may serve as an object lesson for Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, who has had nothing whatsoever to say about this crisis, who has not acknowledged the work of those who manage refugee support services in the region, but who is uniquely placed to promote the work that they do. Talking up Teesside, as it were.
Meanwhile the government dithers
Sadly, the indications are that the government’s response is to dither. The following, from the Times on 18 August, puts into perspective the hopeless inadequacy of Priti Patel’s plan to allow 20,000 refugees to enter the country over 5 years:
“According to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, an estimated 400,000 Afghans have fled their homes this year. Caroline van Buren, UNHCR’s representative in Afghanistan, said that between 20,000 and 30,000 people were thought to be leaving the country each week — a number that could rapidly escalate.”
While there appears to be a great deal of public support at the moment for those seeking asylum, Andy Preston’s good intentions are undermined by the government’s delay and confusion. Delay simply provides opportunity for Tom Hunt, Jacob Young and their supporters to undermine the genuine humanitarian response that is so urgently needed.