Meeting about the refugee crisis held at St Mary’s Church, 23rd September 2015
More than 200 people attended, from churches across Watford and the surrounding area, together with representatives from non-Christian faiths. The meeting was chaired by the Vicar of St Mary’s, Rev’d Tony Rindl.
The meeting was opened with a video clip describing how the refugee crisis developed, with the punch line ‘Do we want to be remembered as xenophobic rich cowards behind fences?’
Tony Rindl referred to the gospel passage, which many churches heard recently, recounting two events which are very relevant to the refugee crisis. In one, a woman from what was then Syrian Phoenicia asked Jesus to help her sick daughter – even though she was a foreigner. In the second, Jesus went on to heal a man to hear and to speak. (Mark 7:24-37) Perhaps God is healing our deafness to the cries of the Syrian people and giving us the ability to speak out on their behalf.
Several speakers were invited to make brief statements.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein from Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, recalled how the Jewish people were once refugees and were careful never to forget this, especially as their experience in the Holocaust reinforced the experience. Scripture tells us we must never turn away or become inward-looking. People of faith must work together to build a real peace by (a) educating ourselves, (b) giving money to aid agencies, and (c) lobbying our MP, elected mayor et al. We must think ‘And’ rather than ‘Or’ – adopt as many ideas as possible rather than promoting one idea to the detriment of others.
Matthew Heasman, Chief Executive of Watford New Hope, described how disadvantaged people with nowhere to sleep are already an issue in Watford and becoming more numerous. He cautioned against rushing in where long-term strategic solutions are needed, and stated that no single agency can solve the crisis alone. He recalled the parable which Jesus told in which God declares ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40) and ended by saying that we must respond to the refugee crisis.
Louise Finan, from Christian Aid, showed a video clip on the theme ‘Love the stranger’ and urged us to pray, to give and to speak up, in faith and in hope. She reminded us that Christian Aid had come into being through a refugee crisis, and declared that our political leaders must act to solve this crisis.
Joy Hobbs, from Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Partnership (WTRRP), said that many people come to the UK in order to get away from an intolerable situation at home, and that no-one does this unless they are desperate. WTRRP offers practical and emotional support in West Hertfordshire to asylum-seekers and refugees, many of whom are destitute and homeless, helping to provide access to the advice and services needed, and often providing long-term support until statutory services are in place. She reminded the meeting that asylum seekers are not allowed to work.
Watford already has asylum seekers and Social Services have insufficient funds for them. WTRRP knows of at least 4 families supported by Social Services and 3 who are ‘sofa surfing’. There are good economic arguments for housing them in the private rented sector rather than the present arrangements, and a meeting with Social Services including representatives from tonight’s meeting would be a good practical outcome from tonight.
Dorothy Thornhill, elected Mayor, thanked everyone for turning up to the meeting. She reassured the meeting that Watford will play a full part in looking after refugees. There are 250 families currently in temporary accommodation, which is historically extremely high. Compared with other parts of the UK, empty properties in Watford are both scarce and expensive. She noted that last year the UK took in 23,000 refugees and she revealed that she is already receiving many emails about accepting refugees here – but these are largely adverse emails. Dorothy challenged the meeting: (a) Locally, how can we help the people who are already here? (b) Nationally, shall we be moved to say ‘let them come’ and ‘let them work’?
Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, attended in Richard Harrington’s unavoidable absence and gave the government’s view. There are potentially 11-15 million refugees. (Other estimates given to the meeting were considerably lower.) The Prime Minister wishes to help people in-country rather than when they have become migrants. The UK has therefore used our considerable aid budget to help in this way. Of course the UK needs to take people in, and has therefore decided to accept 20,000 by 2020 from border camps. There are challenges in providing sufficient schools, housing, medical services etc for them. We must also deal with IS etc at source, but this is very difficult.
Rebecca Palmer, from Watford New Hope but with previous experience in Birmingham helping refugees and asylum seekers from Kosovo, described how local churches there had offered practical help in various ways. She recalled that refugees often suffer from post-traumatic stress. She urged people to support WTRRP.
There followed a time for Q&A. Which included
Q: Why can’t we ask refugees to work?
A: They are not allowed to – by successive governments.
Q: (a comment): The crisis goes beyond Syrian refugees. Our government is not fulfilling its obligations under international agreements. We need to act now at governmental level, however difficult.
Q: How many refugees are there in Watford?
A: We don’t know specifically.
Q (follow-up): They should become apprentices in order to become able to work.
A: Agreed that we do need creative thinking of that sort.
Q: How many vacant properties are there in Watford?
A: Around 20 ‘social housing’. But all councils need to know how many refugees they will receive – although accepting refugees is voluntary and not all councils are volunteering. We need to commit – build more housing – and overcome NIMBY-ism.
Q (statement): Churches with links in other countries, eg Germany, should contact them in order to learn their perspective on the refugee crisis.
Q: Have we contacted Muslim leaders with a view to working together on this?
A: Cooperation will develop over time, and this crisis offers an opportunity to build interfaith friendships further.
The meeting ended with prayer led by Rev’d Dave Middlebrook based on the song ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’, in which people were invited to consider what they could each offer to help, and to pledge accordingly to a central point to be set up.
A website watfordcares.org has been organised for people to pledge their personal support; a portal for agencies and volunteers to find each other when the needs arise. Please visit and make your pledge.