Ben Pruchnie / Getty Images

British grass-roots groups step up aid to refugees while government stalls

UK remains divided on how to alleviate crisis, with fears that an influx of people would alienate voters

LONDON — Michael Sheldon has been volunteering for a grass-roots relief organization in London, called Help Refugees, since he heard about them through social media last week.

“I was getting very frustrated with the government's attitude [toward] refugees,” said Sheldon, a 59-year-old British actor, as he packed crates of donations, filled with food and shoes and clothes, in a storage facility in northern London.

Help Refugees was founded only three weeks ago, but it has already raised $87,000 in cash donations and filled 14 storage rooms with goods to be delivered all over Europe. It is one of a multitude of spontaneous movements that have sprung up as concerned Britons try to compensate for their more reluctant government.

The British government has been comparatively slow in responding to Europe's refugee crisis, apparently fearing that an influx of people would alienate voters. The United Kingdom is divided on the question of whether to accept more refugees. In a recent opinion poll by the BBC, 40 percent of people surveyed said they wanted Britain to allow in more, 31 percent said Britain should take fewer refugees, and 26 percent said the number should stay as it is. In the absence of a nationwide consensus on how and whether to help, many ordinary Britons are taking things into their own hands.

“We call it a pop-up humanitarian organization,” said Tanya Freedman, a TV producer, and a volunteer coordinator for Help Refugees as she directed a bustling group of volunteers at a storage facility in the London suburb of Finchley. “People have risen up to help.”

The stacks of donations were a reflection of the needs on the ground as well as the preferences of middle-class Londoners: halal pot noodles, canned soup, organic tomato puree. A stray box of organic oat-flower tea peeked out of a crate.

Freedman said contributions ballooned after photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Shenu (reported elsewhere as Aylan Kurdi), were published all over the world and stirred many to action. Volunteers have been taking the goods across the English Channel to a refugee camp in Calais, France, and as far afield as the Greek island of Kos. Through Facebook and Twitter, the organization reached out to those working on the ground to find out what was most needed, from sleeping bags to waterproof clothing.

“We’ve got networks all over Europe now,” said Heydon Prowse, a 34-year-old writer who last week went to Kos and Thessaloniki to distribute goods with volunteers from Greece and Germany. “People are just doing it.”

Despite the enthusiasm on display at Help Refugees and other grass-roots organizations, immigration of any kind remains an explosive issue in the U.K.

After a public outcry over Shenu’s death, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain would take in 20,000 Syrians over the next five years under a special relocation scheme for vulnerable people. Previously, only 216 Syrians were resettled under that scheme. An additional 5,000 Syrians have been granted asylum in Britain since 2011 through the usual process. The intake is still relatively low. Germany, for example, is expecting about 800,000 refugees this year. The much smaller Sweden has absorbed tens of thousands of asylum seekers — the highest per capita rate in the European Union. In contrast, Britain has received only 25,771 asylum applications from June 2014 to June 2015, according to the Home Office.

While Germany has called on its European partners to take their share in a quota system, Cameron has urged leaders to fund large camps closer to Syria, such as in Lebanon and Jordan, and discourage people from making the journey to Europe.

‘We call it a pop-up humanitarian organization. People have risen up to help.’

Tanya Freedman

volunteer organizer, Help Refugees

In September the U.K. announced it would take in up to 20,000 Syrians directly from refugee camps outside Syria over the next four years.
Ben Pruchnie / Getty Images

Anti-immigration rhetoric spread across the political spectrum in the run-up to Britain's general election this spring, with mainstream parties fearful of losing votes to the right-wing U.K. Independence Party. At the time, Cameron pledged to limit annual net migration. But even the Labour Party, which might be thought more open toward economic refugees, promised to be tough on non-EU immigration and benefits claims from EU foreigners. Labour even sold a mug printed with the slogan “Controls on immigration,” which attracted outrage and ridicule from its own ranks.

The tune may change with Labour's new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. One of his first acts after being elected last weekend was to attend a pro-refugee rally in central London. In a speech at the rally, he told the government to “open your hearts and open your minds and open your attitude towards supporting people who are desperate, who need somewhere safe to live, want to contribute to our society and are human beings just like all of us.”

Corbyn's message of inclusiveness may speak to multicultural London. In 2013 foreign-born people made up 37 percent of inner London’s population, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

Entrepreneurs have highlighted this diversity as a source of creativity and growth, for example in the capital’s tech startup scene. Whether the message will resonate in other parts of Britain, especially with the many white working class voters who ditched Labour in favor of the U.K.Independence Party in the last elections, remains to be seen. An opinion poll published by the right-wing Daily Mail in September showed a somewhat more hostile picture than the BBC poll, with 45 percent of respondents saying Britain was taking in too many Syrian refugees.

In the capital, many of those embracing refugees are aware their views may not be representative of the whole country. Ben Stimmler, a 31-year-old lawyer, was one of the thousands marching along Hyde Park on Saturday in support of refugees. His father went to Britain as an 8-year-old on the Kindertransport, the relief trains that took Jewish children to safety from the continent until the outbreak of World War II. The Kindertransport remains one of Britain's proudest moments, and the irony that Britain is now being less open to refugees than Germany is not lost on Stimmler.

“Britain has a rich tradition of taking in refugees, but there's also a national narrative that’s hard to erode,” he said. A member of the Labour Party, he was particularly worried about the gulf between the concerns of middle-class, liberal Londoners and the rest of the country.

“There’s a feeling that the white working class has not been listened to, and we’ve perhaps been too quick to tarnish people as racist,” he said. Looking around at the vibrant crowd of marchers with their banners, bongo drums and “Welcome” chants, he added, “London is not the country. It’s very easy for us to forget that.”

At the storage facility, Freedman was locking away the last boxes of canned potatoes. Help Refugees has just launched a call for funding to extend the relief effort into the winter.

It is planning to dispatch more trucks full of food, rubber boots and walking shoes, donated via an Amazon wish list. It also wants to help build more substantial shelters for the refugees in Calais waiting for an opportunity to enter Britain.

Winter is coming, and the need for support is likely to rise. Asked how much longer she will give her spare time to the organization, which is run entirely by volunteers, Freedman said, “I don’t know. I just want to help.”

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