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Myth buster: Afghan refugees in the Harrogate district. Interview with Belinda Goode for the Stray Ferret

Myth buster: Afghan refugees in the Harrogate district

Last updated Aug 29, 2021
Picture: Ministry of Defence.

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan earlier this month, four families have been resettled in Harrogate through the government’s Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme.

Our story on Harrogate Borough Council pledging to house refugees fleeing the country provoked a big reaction on social media, both positive and negative, and we wanted to answer some of the questions raised in the responses.

Refugees are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecution and are protected in international law.

An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim hasn’t been evaluated.

We put several questions to Belinda Goode, chair of Harrogate District of Sanctuary, a charity that supports refugees and asylum seekers in the Harrogate district.

Who is coming to Harrogate?

These are Afghan families and their arrival was planned. They knew Nato forces were withdrawing and there was a deal with the Taliban in 2020. They are interpreters who worked for the British Army and their families who were in a vulnerable situation in Afghanistan. They’ve been here a couple of weeks self-isolating in hotels then arrived in Harrogate.

Do refugees jump the social housing queue?

There are a very small number of people coming through the resettlement scheme and they will be given accommodation [in council housing]. North Yorkshire County Council approached Harrogate Borough Council for that.

Housing is sourced and they are supported by the Refugee Council who makes sure they have access to the healthcare that we take for granted. We support them with this.

In the last five years, we’ve not had 20 families and not all of them live in local authority accommodation.

If they don’t come through this planned resettlement scheme they won’t be entitled to social housing. They will be placed in private rental accommodation but it’s usually substandard.

Can refugees work — and do they want to?

Yes, they’ve been given the right to remain here and contribute to society.

Often people come here with great skills but can’t find work. I met a woman who was an engineer in Iran. She couldn’t work and she found it incredibly frustrating and odd that she couldn’t pay her taxes and contribute. She’s doing a course to eventually become a doctor. It’s not that people don’t want to work, they want opportunity.

Are asylum seekers coming to the UK illegally?

One of the biggest issues is people understanding that asylum seekers are not illegal. It is a legal right to seek asylum. There’s no such thing as a bogus or illegal asylum seeker.

Asylum seekers are experiencing the same struggles as refugees, but an asylum seeker flees the country on their own and not through an organised resettlement process. They have to apply for asylum once they get here.

Does Harrogate have the space to house refugees and asylum seekers?

We’re not in the top 10 countries that take Syrian refugees. It’s countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, Iraq and Egypt.

The idea that people will always come to England through other countries isn’t factual. Often they will stay in nearby countries.

It’s easy to find these statistics if you look in the right places. We take a very small proportion of refugees. We see the boats coming over and the media use words like “hoards” and “flooded” but in Syria, the statistics are scary. Five million people live without direct access to water. These are often children who are desperate.

Is Harrogate a ‘welcoming, tolerant and diverse’ place, as suggested by the council leader?

That is aspirational but people’s hearts have been wrung out by the scenes in Afghanistan and at Kabul airport. The majority of people have that humanitarian pull to ask what can we do to help.

There are another group of people who will never change their minds, equally you’ll never change my mind about the situation.

Our culture in Harrogate is not multi-ethnic and in that sense, it’s more of a challenge. It’s not a big city where naturally there are people from all sorts of races but I’ve seen some wonderful kindness in Harrogate.

There have been some issues [with racism], but that’s not just Harrogate it’s everywhere.

The refugees bring a huge richness of culture with them. What I’ve learned about Syrian food and culture is brilliant. And how welcoming a culture it is. You’re always offered food and these are people that don’t have a lot.

f you visit a refugee family, leave plenty of time, you’re not going to get away with a quick cuppa like you would in the UK. They enjoy life and they want to share it.