St Albans: A safe haven for people forced to flee

The town’s council is now seeking City of Sanctuary status, building on Cllr Simon Grover’s motion to resettle Syrian refugees in the area.

Everyone is welcome mural
Cllr Simon Grover

As Green councillors, we’re always looking for ideas that others haven’t thought of.

Sometimes these ideas seem obvious to us. When I first got elected in 2011, I couldn’t believe that my council hadn’t thought of putting solar panels on its leisure centres and other electricity-guzzling buildings. I proposed a half-million-pound budget amendment to borrow the money to do it. The project paid back in just a few years, and of course continues today to bring in revenue and save tonnes of carbon.

Other times, the ideas are out there, but we need to be open to spotting them and seeing their potential. And sometimes those ideas can be taken up by others and turned into something truly significant. That’s what has happened for me on the issue of refugees in my local area, and it’s something I’m very proud of.

Building on an original council motion that I proposed to help settle Syrian refugees, St Albans has become a place that truly welcomes those fleeing danger. The latest step on this road is the council seeking City of Sanctuary status.

In 2015, as St Albans District Council’s only Green councillor, I heard about Greens in Worcestershire who had helped persuade their council to apply for funding under the UK Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. A pale shadow of the UN’s international project to resettle Syrians, this go-it-alone scheme in the UK nevertheless presented the chance for 20,000 especially vulnerable people in camps in Syria to find refuge here. 

The UK scheme was unusual because it offered funding but individual councils had to proactively apply for it. So it was piecemeal and the uptake by that date had been slow. By June 2015, only 200 Syrians had been resettled. It was clear that more local councils had to step up.

While the funding details of the scheme were still being finalised by the Government, I created an online petition calling for the county council to “support the efforts of district councils and voluntary/charity groups in Hertfordshire to welcome at least 50 Syrian refugees, under the government scheme”. The petition got over 1,000 signatures in just a few days. Then I researched, wrote and presented a motion to St Albans Council.

The motion won unanimous support and housing officers started to develop the idea. Working with neighbouring district and borough councils, and Herts County Council, we got 10 out of the area’s 11 principal local authorities to sign up to work together on a bid for funding.

The authorities also cooperated in identifying private sector landlords who could provide homes for the Syrian families.

I was delighted that the councils were getting behind the idea. People saw the terrible scenes on TV of millions of displaced people in Syria and wanted something to be done. Now, we had the opportunity to play our part in actually doing something to help.

It took over a year for everything to come together, but then the first Syrian families arrived. In the meantime, Amnesty and other local groups had created a large support network across the county, called Herts Welcomes Syrian Families. Working with the Refugee Council, this volunteer group proved a vital resource for helping the families to settle in, including helping with English lessons, household items, shopping and companionship. They also raise money and have a hardship fund.

Today, over 50 Syrians have been resettled in St Albans district, and we've led the way for the rest of Hertfordshire to follow suit.

In 2019, Herts Welcomes Syrian Families changed its name to Herts Welcomes Refugees since the organisation is now helping refugees who come to Hertfordshire from all over the world. It’s a registered charity and has 500 supporters across the county. In the last 12 months, the group has helped 400 people. It’s currently helping local families to welcome refugees from Ukraine.

Now, St Albans is applying to be a City of Sanctuary, to recognise that our district is a safe haven for people forced to flee their homes.