COUNCILLORS have backed plans to make Monmouthshire a “welcoming” place for asylum seekers and refugees with the aim of being recognised as part of the City of Sanctuary network.
As part of the ambition, the county council will work with community groups to develop an action plan to support refugees and asylum seekers which promotes and celebrates the contributions of those fleeing war or persecution to the area.
Rogiet Labour councillor Peter Strong moved the motion, which was supported across the chamber, at the authority’s September meeting and said becoming a member of the network meets the council’s approved plan to address inequalities.
He said: “Membership is about improving outcomes for asylum seekers and refugees and would ensure equal opportunities where possible under UK immigration law.”
He said the council is already “doing these things” and said before he was elected he remembered attending a presentation at Abergavenny’s King Henry comprehensive about how it was integrating children from Syria into the school and said the town has been recognised by the Sanctuary network since 2018.
City of Sanctuary UK started in Sheffield in 2005 and now coordinates and accredits supports networks, including community groups, schools, venues and councils, to make the country more welcoming for asylum seekers and those granted refugee status.
In the United States of America the Sanctuary City movement works on similar lines, but also limits the extent local government will work with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
Chepstow Mount Pleasant councillor Paul Pavia said the Conservative opposition would support the motion and understood why the council wanted to better coordinate the support it, and community groups, offer and establish a “consistent approach” to doing so.
But he added: “We should be going into the process with our eyes open as supporting refugees in a largely homogeneous, rural county isn’t easy or straightforward.”
He said the council needed to be aware resources required to support unaccompanied child asylum seekers who may have also experienced trauma and that some may also prefer to live in larger town and cities where they may have cultural links.
The councillor added: “There are also pressures in rehousing individuals and families and the knock on implications this has for our indigenous population who are already on waiting lists for social housing. This is not a negative but we need to be open to the challenges that exist. It isn’t easy but collectively sharing the belief that every person, regardless of their background deserves to live in peace and dignity, is the right approach.”
He said working with the community would also help build a “strong business case to show national government there is a need for additional resources.”
Chepstow Bulwark and Thornwell Labour councillor Armand Watts said he wanted assurance the council woud continue to fund the “excellent” GEM (Gwent Minority Education) service with Newport and Torfaen, while Gobion Fawr Tory Alistair Neill asked if the motion, which he supported, committed the council to any identified costs.
Angela Sandles, cabinet member for equalities, said she would provide written answers and Cllr Strong said there were “no direct financial costs” to approving the motion but while it committed the council to an approach that could lead to other initiatives any carrying a cost would be subject to the usual decision making process.
Council leader, Llanelly Hill Labour councillor, Mary Ann Brocklesby said the motion “reflects what is already happening because the residents of Monmouthshire have been like this for centuries opening their homes over the wars of the borders, the Second World War, the First World War, every wave of refugee.”
Councillors also highlighted businesses that recent refugees have established in Monmouthshire.