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8 April 2008

New Mayor should support integration

The Refugee Council discusses what their organisation wants from the next Mayor of London in terms o

By Donna Covey

London is known for its diversity, with residents from all over the world. It is a great city, with challenges to match, and the job of Mayor is to rise to those challenges.

Among the seven or so million Londoners there is a small but significant population of refugees. They come from all over the world and have had very different experiences, but what they have in common is that they have all fled persecution to seek safety in Britain.

Refugees have made an enormous economic, social and cultural contribution to London. And we would expect any Mayor of London to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution that refugees, as part of the wider migrant community, have played in making London the vibrant and successful city it is today. In a climate of continued hostility to asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, this is more important than ever.

Many refugees play an active part in communities around the capital, but some can face significant barriers when settling into London life. The Mayor of London has a key role to play in developing strategies that encourage and support integration. They should also be a powerful voice in promoting positive messages and an accurate understanding of refugees within London’s media.

Refugees have done much to make themselves heard, and to show the powerful contribution they make to the life of the city. There are over 600 refugee community organisations (RCOs) in London. RCOs play a vital role in supporting and assisting refugees to rebuild their lives in London, and provide a lifeline for many vulnerable people trying to make a new life in a strange country. We would like the Mayor to support the growth and development of this essential, but underfunded sector, by giving RCOs a voice in decision-making processes affecting Londoners and emphasising the importance of funding their work.

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We believe the Mayor has a unique opportunity to advocate, at the highest level, the rights and welfare of asylum seekers and refugees in Britain by building on experience and good practice in the capital. We would like to see the Mayor actively campaign for an end to destitution of asylum seekers. There are very vulnerable men and women sleeping rough on the streets of London who have nowhere else to go, and who are not even entitled to emergency hostel accommodation. Help for these people is often provided by small charities with limited resources, so initiatives to support these charities would be very welcome.

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We also hope that the next Mayor will support the moral and financial case for allowing asylum seekers to work. It cannot be right that people are forced to claim benefits while they are here when they actively want to work, and it is in the interests of all Londoners that they be allowed to make an economic contribution.

The fact that refugees are unable to work while their asylum claim is being processed also makes it even more difficult for them to find work once their status has been settled, despite often being highly qualified. So we would like to see the Mayor support strong employment and training initiatives to ensure we nurture the talents of those who seek safety here.

Finally, we would also like to see all candidates for London Mayor express their commitment to welcoming refugees to London. A nationwide initiative has begun, to mark Britain’s cities as ‘Cities of Sanctuary’. The next Mayor has a unique opportunity to back London as the first Olympic City of Sanctuary. Above all, London should be celebrated as providing a place of safety for those fleeing persecution across the world.

Donna Covey is the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council.

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