A far-right rally met in Durham city centre last Saturday in order to protest against refugees and Islam. Groups such as Bishop Auckland Against Islam and North East Infidels organised the protest in response to the provision of housing for Syrian refugees in the county. This protest was met by a counter protest led by County Durham Anti-Racist Coalition and United against fascism North East. The counter protest event information stated:
“We will not allow racism to parade through our city unchallenged and declaring our support for refugees fleeing persecution and violence.”
We have a long standing tradition of free speech in the UK and to ban marginalised voices would go against the values of a liberal democracy. It is worth noting how small the actual protest was itself, with only a handful of protestors actually attending, and the counter-protestors vastly outnumbering them. This sends a strong message that these types of views are very much in the minority.
The facts speak for themselves as well; only 122 individuals have been housed by Durham County Council under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, out of a total population of around 522, 597 in the region; the Syrian refugees have had a miniscule effect on the overall population of the county. There is also a moral argument to be had, that surely as one of the most prosperous nations in the history of humanity that the UK has a moral duty to offer sanctuary to those fleeing violence and persecution? The truth is that the UK has taken a fraction of refugees taken by other major nations such as Germany which has accepted 300,000 refugees, with hundreds of thousands waiting to be processed, with the UK only accepting 20,000 by 2020.
Clearly the UK could do more to help and as last week’s protest showed there is still resistance. The main concern raised by these groups is their fear of increased terrorism brought by the refugees, although there is virtually no evidence to suggest that refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in a country. Another point usually raised by critics is that the increasing levels of refugees put pressure on local infrastructure and housing. On this point I’m in agreement, but the finger of blame should be pointed at our government not the vulnerable people fleeing persecution. The number of affordable social housing being built has actually decreased in this decade, falling from 36,700 in 2010/11 to only 1,102 2016/17. Clearly this is an issue which needs to be addressed with more investment and a new housing building strategy which will decrease homelessness and benefit local people and refugees alike.
Overall animosity in Durham towards migrants is in the minority and was exemplified during the overwhelming numbers of counter-protestors last week. This may not be the case outside of student towns like ours and so these views shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly. Engagement and dialogue is the only way that these concerns can be addressed and the responsibility to address these concerns lies with our elected government and not vulnerable refugees.
Image by Hefin Rees Edwards