In which we welcome Caitlin Webb, the UK’s first Local Democracy Reporter, to The Political Medway to look at how welcoming Medway has been to refugees..
You may not know but 17-23 June was Refugee Week.
Before we delve into this subject- let’s get the facts straight. Refugees are displaced people who have been forced to leave their home country to escape war, persecution or natural disasters. This is different from migrants, who have moved to the UK for hope of a better life but could potentially return home.
Refugee Week may have gone under the radar because of the political sensitivity around the issue or simply because every week seems to be a celebration of something. Yet the Armed Forces Week has been promoted everywhere in the Towns.
Regardless of your opinion on the armed forces, there is far more support for those who braved their lives to protect our country. It is a no brainer, Medway Council would rather fly the flag for the troops than broach an issue which is “hostile”.
Labour leader Cllr Vince Maple was met with a barrage of online abuse when he posted a selfie showing support for refugees moving to Medway. The trolls didn’t come for him for his camera angle or lack of filter but for his empathy for people who are fleeing deadly situations.
The fact Medway Council has not signed up to the Government’s dispersal scheme may have something more to do with the lack of awareness. Despite this, there has been some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children moved to the Towns from Dover by Kent County Council. The location or number of these children is not common knowledge to protect their identity.
If you think of it logically, Medway seems like the perfect place for refugees to settle while they claim for asylum (this is when they become asylum seekers).
In just over an hour, you can get a train to the Home Office, monthly rent is £75 cheaper than the South East average and if they are unsuccessful they are not far from Dover or any of the London airports. That’s if you ignore the housing shortage, “hostile environment” and the crippling debt of the council.
It’s also not politically popular in the Towns. Anti-immigration The Brexit Party gained 48% of the vote share for the European Elections in May. There’s only ever been two Ukippers in parliament and one represented Rochester and Strood: Mark Reckless.
Despite this fear of migration and immigration in the Towns, international moves to Medway has been constant since 2010 and there are fewer people moving here from elsewhere in the UK than anywhere else in Kent.
So not only is it a sensitive issue, it also costs a lot. Medway Council is diving into its reserves at a worrying rate as it stands without paying for people who, currently, don’t pay their taxes. Sure, the dispersal scheme is supposed to be paid by the Government and not the local authorities but there has been a shortfall worth millions. Just look at Kent County Council’s records to see.
This is probably the reason you didn’t know it was Refugee Week and the council won’t be putting posters around the Towns. It would raise an important issue that is not in the headlines any more and would not do them any favours if they started to address it.
Caitlin Webb is a Medway based media relations officer, and formerly the UK’s first Local Democracy Reporter for the BBC and Kent Online.