How do we respond to the Afghan crisis as a Nation of Sanctuary ?

Mark Seymour asks how the Welsh Government can put the terms ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ into action.

The awful events that we have recently witnessed in Kabul came as a shock to so many of us.

The desperation of people at the airport trying to flee the regime change of the Taliban after the withdrawal of US forces and their allies has brought home to many of us the reasons why people need to flee their home country as a refugee.

No one chooses to be a refugee; to have to flee, leaving behind everything that you once knew, in fear of your very life is something that most of us living in the UK will never have to contemplate. The Brexit narrative and the Nigel Farage-driven xenophobia of the last few years seem to be evaporating as there is a surge of support for Afghan refugees amongst our communities.

My charity has been overwhelmed by the generous and kind offers of support for the two Afghan refugee families relocated to Newport. They join other Afghans – and many thousands of others – who arrived as asylum seekers and are now settled in our cities and working and contributing to our communities here in Wales.

Our asylum seekers and refugees have always felt welcomed in Newport. One of my friends, a refugee from Eritrea, once said of Newport: ‘I like it here, people smile at me’. Many of them have random Welsh friends who they have met at the bus stop, in the park, or at the school gate. I guess, as Welsh people, we know and understand what it means to be in a minority.  It’s also a national trait that we Welsh take people as they are, and treat anyone who shows themselves to be ‘alright’ as one of us. We would accept them as a part of Cymru – the brotherhood, in contrast to the name given to our nation by the Anglo Saxon invaders – Walles, which meant ‘outsiders’ or ‘others’, implying people on the margins of life. 

‘The work of us ‘locals’ made it more tolerable for many of the men stranded there with little to occupy them.’

The local community’s positive support in Pembrokeshire lessened the impact on their wellbeing of the dreadful conditions experienced by asylum seekers in the Penally military camp near – compare the outcomes of the Inspection reports of Napier barracks, near Folkestone, where local support was limited, with the Inspection report for Penally. The noticeable difference is, I believe, down to the positive support from the rapidly formed County of Sanctuary Pembrokeshire, Oasis Cardiff, an established refugee charity who led outreach activities, and to the work of the Welsh government in mitigating the impact. It was by no means ideal, but the work of us ‘locals’ made it more tolerable for many of the men stranded there with little to occupy them.

And whilst many of us identify proudly with our Celtic roots, our DNA contains many traces of those who have joined us on our journey, Irish, English, Italians, Jamaican and many others intertwined in our heritage. The blood of immigrants flows through all of our veins. In Caerleon, where I live, the Romans stayed for 4oo years. They intermarried with the local community. They included people from the Middle East, North Africa and probably a few sub Saharan Africans who were all part of the Roman Empire at that time.

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With the London-based Home Office controlling Asylum and Immigration, those competences are currently outside the remit of the Welsh Government. Yet, the Welsh Government have pledged to make Wales a Nation of Sanctuary for those seeking war and persecution – a place of welcome and acceptance of outsiders who need our welcome and an invitation to join us and contribute to our evolving sense of nationhood.

This contrasts so strongly with the London government’s self declared ‘Hostile Environment’ which actively seeks to deter those fleeing war and persecution from settling in the UK. Rather unexpectedly, this has turned into ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ as the Home Office actively welcomes those who worked alongside us in Afghanistan in our efforts to bring peace and prosperity to that long troubled mountainous country.

With the growing sense of confidence in the Welsh government for their handling of the pandemic, many are considering further powers being granted to our devolved Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. All three may take different forms and paths. What would our policy on asylum be if it were to be determined by the Welsh Government? How would the Nation of Sanctuary function as a devolved power?

‘I would hope that if devolved, we would see a more orderly, open, transparent, efficient and fair system of deciding asylum claims.’

All of our local authorities have pledged to take families fleeing from the Taliban, an approach unlikely to happen in our neighbouring counties across the border in England. The Wales-wide commitment to welcoming resettled families is to be welcomed. Might our current established asylum seeker dispersal areas – currently Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham – and very recently, a pilot in Caerphilly, be joined by other towns across Wales? Carmarthen, Llanelli, Pontypridd, Cwmbran, Pontypool, Neath, Aberavon, Bridgend, Abergavenny, Bangor, Aberystywth, Llandudno, Brecon amongst others could benefit from hosting asylum seekers in their communities.

And if the Welsh Government took responsibility for deciding asylum claims, how might that look? There is a stark contrast between the mindset, culture and availability of civil servants working for the Welsh Government compared to the civil servants currently working for the London Government’s Home Office – I would hope that if devolved, we would see a more orderly, open, transparent, efficient and fair system of deciding asylum claims than that currently administered from London.

It’s been said that you should judge a nation by how it treats the most vulnerable. Let’s continue being a compassionate, socially responsible nation. It’s in our DNA. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Mark Seymour founded the Sanctuary, Newport, a project run by the charity the Gap Wales, which supports asylum seekers and refugees in rebuilding a sense of community and belonging.

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