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From A to B




Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sparked forced relocations on a scale unseen in Europe since World War Two. Within weeks, over five million refugees had left the country. A small fraction of them came to Britain, with approximately 7,500 eventually finding their way to Wales.

 

In March 2022 the Welsh Government responded by creating the Welcome Ticket, offering free travel on public transport, initially to Ukrainian refugees, then to Afghan refugees, then extended more widely to refugees of all nationalities.

 

People with limited control over their own lives and vanishingly low spending power have been able to travel to medical and job-related appointments, voluntary activities, courses of study and social events. The impact on integration has been hugely positive. Those seeking refuge have been empowered to become community leaders.

 

On April 1st 2024, the Welcome Ticket scheme was suspended. At the time of writing, the stated intention of the Welsh government was to review and revise the scheme, and bring back a sustainable version in a “new phase” later in the year.

 

In 2010, Swansea became the first city in Wales to be declared a City of Sanctuary, and only the second in the UK. Many people in Wales speak of wanting to make it a country of sanctuary. What, in practice, does that actually mean?

 

The Welcome Ticket has been suspended. When you suspend something that carries the name “welcome”, you are by definition telling people that they are less welcome today than they were yesterday. If the sole obligation of a city or nation of sanctuary is to open the door to those in need of refuge, then we can meet it without offering much in the way of comfort, convenience or kinship once they get inside. If we aim that low, though, we’re selling more than one group of people short.

 

The People’s Library manages community projects in support of vulnerable people from all backgrounds. Some of our most rewarding work has been done for the benefit of elderly people living in residential care homes. Our experience of refugees – and of asylum seekers, who have never been included in the Welsh government’s Welcome Ticket scheme - is that they want to help others, they see it as part and parcel of being good citizens, and they’re happy to do it as volunteers. When we take away their ability to travel to project locations, it’s not only the asylum seekers and refugees we’re hurting. It’s the people whose lives they want to enrich.

 

To take just one example, a family of refugees we work with told us they wanted to help with projects at homes for elderly people suffering from dementia. Together we created projects that brought back happy memories for these older people. Because the family were able to travel with me to the care homes, they were able to play a full part in the project. They were able to interact with care home residents, and the knock-on effects of that interaction were wide-ranging. Some of these elderly people had relatives who, to be blunt, didn’t like immigrants. They didn’t like immigrants because they hadn’t met any, so their perception of them was shaped by hearsay, dubious media coverage and good old-fashioned prejudice. But when they saw a family of refugees making someone they loved happy, they began to realise just how foolish their prejudice was, and that prejudice began to fade away.

 

This isn’t rocket-science; it’s common sense. When we give asylum seekers and refugees the means to travel from A to B, interact with community members whose experience of different nationalities and cultures may be limited, and open their eyes to the benefits of integration, we create the most powerful weapons in the fight against divisiveness. 

 

Having seen the social and cultural upsides of this approach, we find it particularly frustrating to see the rug pulled from underneath people seeking to do good. The best-case scenario seems to be the Welcome Ticket scheme’s reintroduction at some point in the summer of 2024, streamlined and subject to a means test. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of means-testing a service that everyone has a reasonable claim to, including the asylum seekers who’ve never been given access to it, if you have a leaky tap, you don’t solve the problem by shutting off the water supply for three months. Yes, you may consider it a priority to fix what you believe to be an unnecessary leak, but is that really less urgent than the everyday need for people to have a drink of water? We believe anything that’s wrong with the Welcome Ticket scheme could be more productively addressed with the scheme still active. You don’t fully appreciate what the problems of a project are when you set it to one side and detach yourself from those problems. You learn as you go along. You make improvements and adjustments as you go along. By shutting the scheme down, we only neglect an urgent current need.

 

Ukraine has been fighting for the right to retain its national identity and exist in an independent form since the first day of Russia’s invasion. Two years on, that fight is no less meaningful, and no closer to being resolved. The refugees and asylum seekers who have come to this country, from Ukraine, Afghanistan or anywhere else, are also engaged in an ongoing fight to retain their identity and be recognised as independent citizens, not dismissed as faceless and unwelcome burdens on the state. If we support them in that fight, the wider social and economic impact will be positive. Immigrants are net contributors to the UK economy, and always have been. Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of any economy, and it’s a stone-cold fact that while less than 15% of UK residents are foreign-born, 39% of the country’s fastest-growing startup companies have at least one immigrant co-founder. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future success of British business depends in large part on the welcome we offer to people of talent and resilience who were born outside our borders.

 

We don’t expect everyone to monitor national entrepreneurship statistics, but it doesn’t do any harm to take a passing interest in issues that directly affect our lives. Last year, when speaking at an event in London, I was faced with a splutteringly angry voter who told me how much better off this country would be if we’d never let in any immigrants. I asked what he did for a living and he announced, proudly, that he worked in logistics at Marks and Spencer. I told him that one of the company’s co-founders, Michael Marks, was of Eastern European Jewish origins and had come to this country from Slomin, a town in Belarus almost within earshot of the current carnage in Ukraine. His red face flushed a shade darker and he turned and walked away. As he had every right to do, of course. That’s the great thing about living in an evolved democracy. People can move around freely.

 

Can’t they?

 

Being part of a community means we should be free to explore it. In 2023 I had a disheartening conversation with a Swansea-based asylum seeker who, since moving to the city 18 months before, had never seen the waves break on a Gower beach. She had no money – none - and as an asylum-seeker she had no access to the Welcome Ticket. These areas of natural beauty are spoken of with awe all over the world, but to a person living just a few miles away they’d been as inaccessible as the dark side of the Moon. People who oppose immigration often complain that people who come here from overseas don’t really love this country the way they should. At the People’s Library we haven’t found that to be true, and in many cases we’re astonished by the capacity of asylum seekers and refugees to love a country while being given such restricted access to it. When we ask a person to love a city that’s famous for its coast without giving them the means to visit it, we’re asking them to love a black and white photograph, knowing very well that other people have access to full colour.

 

Leaving aside the aesthetics of a coastline, when asylum seekers gain refugee status, they gain permission to work in the UK. The People’s Library offers decades of recruitment experience, and at the most fundamental level, we find that the process asks four questions of the applicant.

 

Can they do the job?

Can they get to the job?

Will they take the job?

Will they stay in the job?

 

Our experience of refugees is that they can answer an enthusiastic yes to three of those four questions. If they can’t physically get to their place of work, though – and support with that task is crucial in the early days before they start to receive a salary – then those three enthusiastic “yes” answers might count for nothing.

 

We also believe it’s worth reminding ourselves of the standards our political leaders set for new arrivals in this country. The Welsh government’s Migrant Integration Framework Document gives us a list of its key indicators of integration. This document was published in December 2023 and appears on the government’s website. It poses questions around whether or not people are fitting into Welsh communities, and tells us that one of the key indicators is the percentage of migrants using advisory services. I agree that it’s absolutely right to include that benchmark. We need to know if people are sufficiently engaged in the community to reach out and ask for support on important issues.

 

So the Welsh government’s own guidelines tell us they see it as incumbent upon asylum seekers and refugees to actively seek advice on financial issues, housing issues, welfare and benefits issues and employment issues. And the refugees and asylum seekers the People’s Library supports want very much to do precisely that. But what if they can’t physically get to the offices where advice is being given? Our experience is that it can be a real struggle for them.

 

Is it reasonable to argue that by denying refugees and asylum seekers the means to travel to these advice centres, the Welsh Government is actively preventing them from seeking advice that it’s explicitly stated they should be seeking? Is the Welsh Government actively preventing these people from meeting one of its own key standards of integration?

 

Is it reasonable to argue that political leaders are setting migrants up to fail? I wonder if they realise they’re doing it? If they don’t, I wonder if they’d be open to a conversation with people who aren’t politically motivated and simply want to speak for their communities. The People’s Library isn’t politically motivated, we just like things to make sense.

 

It makes sense to us for people to be given the opportunity to make a contribution.

 

It makes sense to us for people to be given the means to integrate in the way their government is explicitly telling them they should.

 

It makes sense to us for people to be allowed to travel from A to B.

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