John Leech, the sole opposition on Manchester Council has hit out at the decision to reject child refugees.
His opposition questioning uncovered that Manchester was yet to accept a single Syrian refugee under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme that was announced in 2015, despite the war-torn region enduring one of the worst crises for decades.
Mr. Leech questioned the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr. Sue Murphy, on the recent treatment of Syrian child refugees, asking how many of the unaccompanied children the city had housed since the beginning of the conflict.
Ms Murphy simple responded: “Manchester was prepared to play their part” but was later forced to admit that Manchester has only taken on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from around the world in single figures.
In 2013, Manchester took just two, 2014 one, 2015 three, and 2016 three. She added that currently, Manchester is home to a staggeringly low 39 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Mr Leech said these numbers were”depressingly low”, adding that there are an estimated 88,000 lone Syrian refugee children already in Europe at risk of being trafficked or abused.
But Manchester is still yet to accept a single Syrian refugee under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme that was announced in 2015, including unaccompanied refugee children.
John Leech said: “Manchester is an international city that prides itself on being a leader in the world, but that role has a duty and a responsibility to do more in crises like this.
“And this absolutely is a crisis, there are tens of thousands of vulnerable children wandering around Europe completely alone; cold, sick and hungry, and it won’t be long before they end up stuck in a chain of horrific events including trafficking and abuse.”
The EU’s criminal intelligence agency says that more than 10,000 children have already gone missing since arriving in Europe. They fear that children are being kidnapped for slavery and to be sexually exploited.
Mr Leech added: “Manchester has a moral duty to do absolutely everything we can to house these vulnerable children.”
The five-year Syrian civil war has created more than 4.5 million refugees across the region and the UN has warned that a whole generation of Syrian children is at risk.
The UK government’s scheme will target unaccompanied children in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as those considered at risk of abuse and exploitation, such as children threatened with child labour and child marriage.
It will resettle children and their families “where the UNHCR deems resettlement is in the best interests of the child”.
However, shockingly, Manchester Council leaders are currently refusing to take any Syrian refugees due to a disagreement with the government programme drawn up last year.
The government’s ‘dispersal’ policy sees people seeking asylum status moved to areas with lower housing costs, meaning Greater Manchester would be one of several regions to take disproportionate numbers without any extra funding for the strain put on local services.
Greater Manchester has a good record of accepting asylum seekers but council leaders are refusing to take any Syrian refugees until the policy is changed.
Mr Leech said this decision was ‘”appalling” and described the council as “sickeningly shallow.”
The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme was announced in 2015 and since then Greater Manchester leaders have refused to accept any refugees.
The heated debate continued, with Leech arguing: “These are real children’s lives, and Manchester Council is putting a price on them.
“If Manchester Council can afford to waste £2.4 million on unnecessary new bins and hundreds of thousands of pounds per year increasing senior staff wages by up to 60%, then they can absolutely afford to take on these children.
“Children who are literally wandering around Europe with nowhere to go, no food, no water, no shelter, no one to look after them. Where has our sense of compassion gone? These are human beings; children; someone’s son and someone’s daughter.
“The thought that we would even consider turning our backs on them is frankly just appalling and I want the world to know that these council leaders do not speak for me when they refuse to take on these vulnerable children.”
The government said it was taking action to help child refugees. Prime Minister, and former Home Secretary, Theresa May said: “We’re putting £10m into being able to provide help and support for children who are in Europe.”
The Government’s progress towards meeting its pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 has been slow, with only around 3,000 refugees having arrived so far.
Rethink Rebuild Society (RRS) is a community organisation that works towards improving the lives of Syrians in Manchester and helping them become positively established within British society. Their work began informally after the start of the uprising in Syria in March 2011 and were formally registered in May 2013.
Dr. Haytham Alhamwi, Managing Director of RRS, said: “We are asking Manchester City Council to accept at least 50 Syrian families through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme that was announced in 2015.
“We also ask Manchester City Council to accept as many unaccompanied Syrian children as possible, who are in urgent need for all kinds of support”.
A spokesman for Manchester council said the city has taken on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from around the world since 2011.
On the region-wide stance on Syrian refugees, he said: “We stand willing to play our part in assisting the international effort to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Manchester continues to work with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, to assess how we can provide further support.”