3. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice: Refugee Week: Our home

– in the Senedd at 2:57 pm on 18 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 2:57, 18 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 3 is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice on Refugee Week: our home. I call on the Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths. 

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 2:58, 18 June 2024

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. This week marks Refugee Week, a celebration of the contributions sanctuary seekers make to Wales. Refugee Week brings together people from all backgrounds to create better understanding within our communities, and promotes integration and equality for all. The theme for this year’s Refugee Week celebration is 'our home'. Everyone has their own sense of what home means. It may be the place where you grew up or the place where you gather with your family. For most sanctuary seekers arriving in Wales, they have been denied these experiences of home, often in very cruel and painful ways. Sanctuary seekers are not just geographically displaced; most will have lost their families, possessions, careers and connections.

Home should also be the place where you feel safe and valued, and this is what we seek to ensure in a nation of sanctuary. Despite the loss sanctuary seekers have experienced, we should reflect on the assets they have—their talents, experience, resilience and culture. We seek to harness those assets to build a shared future and home. Wales has shown time and again over the last century and more that it is a country that welcomes people from across the world. This has been demonstrated so powerfully in the last two years by Welsh households directly sponsoring 4,300 Ukrainians to come to the UK. A further 800 Ukrainians have visas and could also travel to Welsh host sponsors. We owe a debt of gratitude to all Homes for Ukraine hosts who have embodied the role of ambassadors for the nation of sanctuary vision on behalf of the Welsh Government. Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do in providing homes and a warm Welsh welcome.

We also support and fund hosting arrangements for a wider group of asylum seekers through our partners, Housing Justice Cymru. We want to harness the enthusiasm and experiences of Homes for Ukraine hosts and create a sustainable opportunity for sanctuary seekers to be accommodated, regardless of where they come from.

In addition to the Homes for Ukraine individual sponsor route, we've operated a Welsh Government supersponsor route since March 2022. Over 3,300 visa holders have since arrived in Wales, with the majority initially accommodated in our initial accommodation estate and then moved on to longer term homes across Wales. The team Wales approach between the Welsh Government, local authorities, household hosts and others has been critical in making the supersponsor route such a success.

We recently closed our final initial accommodation site in Denbighshire, with successful move-ons for those who were remaining at the site. We are immensely proud of the teamwork that has enabled so many Ukrainians to find safety in Wales. I encourage all Members to read the Audit Wales report on the scheme, which was published in March this year, highlighting the way partners worked together in very challenging circumstances.

We are extremely proud of our history of welcome. However, there is still a lot to achieve if we can ever wholeheartedly declare Wales as a nation of sanctuary. Individuals arriving from Ukraine still need us to focus on ensuring equality of opportunity and good awareness of changes to UK Government schemes that may impact on their ability to stay in the UK. I'm committed to ongoing engagement with Ukrainians and the UK Government to ensure this focus is maintained.

Beyond Ukraine, there are thousands of sanctuary seekers from across the world living in Wales. We continue to work very closely with the Home Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Ministry of Defence to ensure Afghan citizens arriving in Wales receive the support they need and deserve due to their service to UK armed forces during their time in Afghanistan. We continue to fund the British Red Cross to help refugees living in Wales be reunited with their loved ones through the UK family reunion scheme. The Welsh Government takes a children’s rights approach by ensuring families can be reunited in our communities.

We are the only Government in the UK funding this work. Refugees in Wales will never truly feel at home without their loved ones, and living without them can cause mental ill-health and financial insecurity. It is a benefit to our communities and a privilege for us to be able to support the work of the British Red Cross. We continue to push for a family reunion scheme with fewer barriers, taking the lessons learned of the now-closed Ukraine family scheme, to ensure families are reunited as quickly and as often as possible.

The UK Government is responsible for the asylum system in Wales. However, we have an ambition to make Wales a welcoming home for asylum seekers whilst they remain here. We have continued to provide funding to the Welsh Refugee Council and its partners to deliver our Wales sanctuary service and move-on services, as well as advocating for improvements to asylum processes to align with Welsh policies and our wider vision. I could say much more about asylum processes and legislation. However, I am conscious of the UK pre-election period, and discussion on some of these points may be more fruitful later in the year.

We are alert to the threat posed by far-right influences and the atmosphere of intolerance this can create. We have seen protests outside accommodation sites, and I want to reiterate there is no home for hate in Wales. We know we can do more to communicate what is meant by the nation of sanctuary vision and to find more effective ways of fostering good relations.

I am pleased the Welsh Government has been able to support the Nation of Sanctuary Awards again this year, which took place last night. The nominees and winners are excellent examples of the contribution sanctuary seekers make to Wales. Their stories are Welsh stories. It is our privilege to provide them with a home in our community of communities, and we in Wales are strengthened by doing so. Diolch.

Photo of Tom Giffard Tom Giffard Conservative 3:04, 18 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, the statement today references how successful Welsh Government policy has been on helping refugees, particularly those fleeing from Ukraine, in recent years. It is right that countries should help refugees and asylum seekers wherever possible, and ensure their safety and their prosperity. It is also right that their future should be considered as a priority, including integration into society and personal development with regard to skills and education. So, I regret that there was nothing in this afternoon's statement on Welsh Government policy that ensures safe and secure integration into our society. And also, there was no consideration of how this Welsh Labour Government could prioritise learning for those individuals and communities.

You will be aware, Cabinet Secretary, that in Llantwit Major there have recently been 90 temporary homes built on a former primary school site for the purpose of housing Ukrainian refugees. You will also know that there has been some strong local opposition towards the development and residents have now set up a local action group. Opponents believe that the houses not only look but feel like a prison and are dismayed by the fact that they were not consulted on the proposals for the site, with no engagement with the local community. Rather than consulting the community and taking them along with the process, the Vale of Glamorgan Council have spent £25 million on buildings that are lying dormant until planning approval is granted and decisions have been made.

Cabinet Secretary, this site now has the potential to create a hostile public feeling against refugees who may be housed there. There is always the potential risk of increased tension when refugees are being found accommodation. Therefore, steps need to be put in place where the community is taken along with the decisions so that the sanctuary Wales is offering is not somewhere that is hostile to those seeking refuge. What steps is this Welsh Government taking to ensure local authorities are being sensitive to the local community when housing refugees?

Additionally, transport for refugees and asylum seekers is a crucial offer on which many rely for their day-to-day business. It's my understanding, however, that the welcome bus ticket scheme has now ended, and many asylum seekers in Wales find themselves in positions where they cannot afford to travel. I'm sure you can appreciate, Cabinet Secretary, that the harder it is for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate and find work, without proper help and provision, social problems and other issues such as crime occur, because people find themselves in desperate situations.

Another major issue is that refugees and asylum seekers can easily become targets for exploitation as they look to find an income outside of regular channels. Being in such a vulnerable position, they are unfortunately prime targets for modern slavery. Would you agree with me, Cabinet Secretary, that it is imperative that public transport is made available and that proper provision is made to help those who need it to integrate themselves into our Welsh communities? What proposals do you now have to make public transport a free option for refugees and asylum seekers?

Education is the final point I wanted to address today. It's a vital component of anybody's development, and the best possible standard should be made available, along with suitable support for those who provide education. We know that there are many demands made of schools accommodating refugees and asylum seekers. Primary schools in particular have been under enormous pressure having to deal with the range of languages spoken. In some schools, there are up to 44 different languages used, and that obviously presents a very difficult scenario for headteachers on how to reallocate resources in order to account for that. Teachers also have to face the issue that children are sometimes moved after a relatively short period because their status has changed. There is continuous disruption for refugees and asylum seekers in this context, and there must be better support and guidance offered to everyone involved.

The truth is the Welsh Labour Government doesn't have sufficient levels of data, like in many other areas, to help them draw a picture of the situation and allow for strategies to be thought about and solutions to be found. There's a real need to increase resources to help schools manage it, so that the ones that deal with these issues day to day can do it in the best possible way. So, Cabinet Secretary, what is this Welsh Government doing to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are offered proper support and guidance for their own unique situations, and how is the Welsh Government ensuring that sufficient levels of data are collected so that schools and other public services understand their own positions and how they can help in whichever way that they can? Diolch. 

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 3:08, 18 June 2024

Thank you very much for that series of questions. I'm going to start with transport, because I agree with you that transport is really important. We're very proud of what the welcome ticket scheme did contribute for over two years. I remember travelling back from Cardiff to Wrexham on a train following Senedd business probably about a year ago now and meeting somebody who was a refugee who had taken the time to travel from Holyhead down to Cardiff. So, I absolutely accept that it's not just for employment purposes, which you specifically referred to, but also in order to get to know the country, if you like.

It was a very important scheme and we're very proud of what it achieved. It was introduced at pace, and it was part of our response as a Government in relation to the Ukraine war. We reckon there were about 1 million journeys taken. The scheme was a condition of the £200 million emergency funding package that we provided to the bus industry. So, whilst we absolutely recognise the benefits of it, unfortunately the first phase did finish at the end of March.

When I came into the portfolio, my predecessor, Jane Hutt, had already started to look at what we could learn from the first phase of that welcome ticket, and our intention is to use that information to develop the next phase of the scheme, to make it perhaps a bit more sustainable. Because it was introduced at pace, perhaps we hadn't been able to look at it holistically. And to make it a bit more fit for purpose as well, and to ensure that the limited resources we obviously have are focused on those most in need. So, we're working with key stakeholders, and, as I say, we do intend to launch the next phase of the welcome ticket later on this year. Unfortunately, I can't provide you with a firm timescale at the moment, but just to reassure you we are looking at that.

In relation to education and many languages being taught in school, I think our schools are dealing with that very well. It's obviously a matter for local authorities. I was in a school in my constituency last week where I think there were 33 languages, and the school has adapted because of the support they've had, not just from the local authority, but also from the Welsh Government.

You referred to something in the Vale of Glamorgan. I don't think the way that you portrayed it is accurate, and the local Member for the Vale of Glamorgan is agreeing with me. I do think it is really important that, when anything in the way that you referred to, in relation to buildings, or—. You'll be very well aware that asylum seeker and refugee policy is a reserved matter for the UK Government, and when the UK Government have tried to house refugees or asylum seekers in specific buildings, it is absolutely vital that you work with the local community, because otherwise you do get that intolerance at times, you get wrong messages, you get people coming from afar to bring their hate message, and we really don't want to see that. As I said in my opening statement, there is no home for hate here in Wales.

I hear what you say about data. It's really important that we try to make sure we've got robust data wherever possible. I know officials have been working with our partners to ensure that data collection can be strengthened. I think that covers everything you asked me. Thank you.

(Translated)

Janet Finch-Saunders took the Chair.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 3:12, 18 June 2024

(Translated)

Thank you for the statement. Plaid Cymru believes that the emphasis on the importance of housing and the home during Refugee Week is vitally important.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Welsh Refugee Council's Nation of Sanctuary Awards. I'd like to say 'well done' to all the winners and nominees, but especially to congratulate the Birth Partner Project, which won the Nation of Sanctuary Award for the wonderful work supporting women seeking sanctuary who would otherwise face birth alone. I wish you'd been there, Cabinet Secretary, not only because it was an inspirational evening, celebrating the contribution and achievements of sanctuary seekers and refugees in Wales and those that support them, but also because the chief executive officer of the Welsh Refugee Council, Andrea Cleaver, made some very important points in her speech about Wales as a nation of sanctuary. She said that the Welsh Government's laudable desire to ensure Wales is a nation of sanctuary must be more than an ideal. She likened it to a bridge—yes, supportive, welcoming, and open, but with dangerous planks missing from it, which must be filled. She referenced, for instance, the cruel and impractical 28-day eviction notice period from asylum accommodation given to those granted refugee status, which can often lead to terrible stress and even homelessness. Those living, of course, in the private rented sector in Wales enjoy the protection of no-fault eviction notices of six months. What does 'nation of sanctuary' actually mean if those who have leave to remain are not treated equally and with compassion and understanding? How is the Welsh Government addressing this issue, given housing is your responsibility?

Yesterday, in evidence to the Equality and Social Justice Committee, you revealed the Government is no longer intending to refresh the nation of sanctuary plan, although it is now five years old. It was concerning to hear this admission at the beginning of Refugee Week, and many people I spoke to last night in the Nation of Sanctuary Awards were dismayed to hear this also. The plan was published in 2019. I'm sure you'll agree it was a very different time and context for sanctuary seekers, both domestically and internationally. It contained over 130 commitments to support people seeking sanctuary in Wales. In the progress report published earlier this year, the Government said of those actions that over 99 per cent are in progress or completed, and that throughout this year you would be undertaking engagement to consider how to refresh that plan. Your predecessor, as Minister for Social Justice, explained that the aim for the next plan was to focus more heavily on the principles that will guide this Government's decision making, with fewer but more tangible outcomes and actions. So, I'd like to know what's changed, Cabinet Secretary. Why will there now be, in your words to the committee yesterday, an 'update', not a refresh? What exactly does that mean?

Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, required to navigate and engage with the complex legal process of seeking asylum, all while experiencing trauma and upheaval. Guardians can ensure that children understand and can exercise their rights, explaining processes and services, advocating for them where necessary. Calls for a guardianship service in Wales have been made since 2005, with the most recent call made in 2023 in a report commissioned by Welsh Government. During the fifth Senedd, a committee also recommended that Welsh Government should introduce a guardianship service in Wales. The establishment of a scheme like this has also been a clear expectation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for over 20 years. In its 2023 concluding observations, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child again recommended that such a service be introduced for all unaccompanied children. The Children's Society, the Bevan Foundation, the Children's Legal Centre Wales, and the British Red Cross have called on the Government, urging them to introduce such a service, available for all unaccompanied children who are already in Wales and to those on arrival in Wales. They say that, between 2020 and 2023, only 257 unaccompanied children, or 43 per cent, received support specifically for engaging with the process of seeking asylum. It could have so many benefits: advocating for the child, promoting their best interests, improving legal outcomes for them, identifying and preventing exploitation, trafficking, radicalisation, protecting their human rights, supporting integration, improving educational outcomes, and there will be benefits, of course, for those professionals working with unaccompanied children, such as cost savings and reducing workloads.

The nation of sanctuary plan commits to fund local authorities to support a pilot in relation to this, but it has never been implemented. In Scotland, however, a guardianship service has been established, and it has been proven to be extremely beneficial to young people. Considering the findings of the Bevan Foundation also, that has found that the situation in respect of immigration and asylum legal services has worsened drastically in Wales since January 2023, there are—of course, we know, because of this—unaccompanied children routinely being left—

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru

—without representation and appeal. So, Cabinet Secretary, will you and your Government finally introduce a guardianship service here in Wales, like in Scotland, because you cannot profess to take a children's rights approach if you do not?

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour

Thank you. I'm going to start—. First of all, I'd like to say, and I mentioned it in my original part of the statement, that we were really pleased to support the Nation of Sanctuary Awards last night. I too would like to congratulate all the winners and nominees. I think it's really important that we recognise them in this way.

I'm sorry to hear that you and others were dismayed about the comments I made in committee yesterday around the nation of sanctuary plan and vision, but I am glad to have this opportunity to say my commitment to ensuring Wales is a nation of sanctuary remains resolute, and that goes for every Cabinet Secretary and every Minister in this Welsh Government.

You asked, 'What's changed?' I suppose what's changed is I've come into portfolio. Obviously, we have the plan, which, as you say, was published back in 2019. There are lots of actions that have been completed. So, what I have asked officials to do is to look at what we needed to do. Now, it might be that at the end of all this work we do need a refresh, but at the moment, for me, we have to focus on delivery. We have spent the last two years delivering, and I want to continue to do that. But as I say, lots of actions have already been completed. Some of the actions in the plan are very long term, so we need to look at those and see if they need to be in there. But we're working with the third sector to consider if there are any gaps in terms of delivery, and if there are gaps, what we need to do to fill those gaps. I think it’s really important we continue to speak with people who have lived experience of seeking sanctuary.

One thing I am looking at with all the plans—there are a lot of plans in this portfolio, and if you look at the LGBTQ+ plan, it has a tracker, which, for me, shows the transparency. It’s really transparent as to what we are doing with that action plan, and I’ve asked officials to have a look to see if it would be worth putting such a tracker in every plan, including the nation of sanctuary plan, to see if that then will help everybody to be able to access what is happening within the plan. So, the vision, the plan: nothing has changed in respect of that, but, for me, we’ve got to continue to deliver on that. But I just want to reassure people there’s no need at all for dismay; that plan is there. Delivery is what’s important, and I will ensure that I update colleagues as we go through this piece of work.

You referred to guardianship and unaccompanied children. I think you also referred to advocacy, so we know that all children with care experience in Wales have a statutory right to advocacy. I am aware of the call to develop a separate unaccompanied children guardianship scheme, similar to the one operating in Scotland. So, officials have met with Scottish Government colleagues to discuss the scheme, and they’re considering also the report by the Children’s Society, which also called for this. So, what I’ve asked officials to do—it’s a considerable piece of work—is to carry on doing that piece of work, assess what options we have and then send me some advice on that. I will also need to work very closely with the Minister for Social Care if we are to have such a guardianship scheme.

Photo of John Griffiths John Griffiths Labour 3:22, 18 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, I was very pleased today to host the Jo Cox Foundation here in the Senedd, and, as you know, they work to bring people together and they’re working with Refugee Week on a great walk as part of the Great Get Together and I think it’s really important that their values inform the way that Government and organisations operate, and I’m very pleased to say that in Newport I think we have some really good examples of that where we have Newport Live, as the leisure trust, taking forward a Momentwm project that partly gives cycling skills to refugees and asylum seekers. And as we’ve heard already, transport issues are very important in terms of accessing services, work, education, training, and so on, so having those bikes, being able to cycle and cycle safely I think is crucial. And they also work with the Gap project around Newport Live’s Positive Futures project, which uses sport to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into our community. They’ve been running weekly football sessions, for example, for quite some time. So, I wonder if you would just recognise some of these examples of good practice, because in all our communities, as Members of the Senedd, we want to see these values in action in terms of integration and that warm welcome.

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 3:23, 18 June 2024

Thank you. Yes, I would actually absolutely recognise those specific cases of, as you say, best practice. I visited Newport Live with you; it was a different scheme that we were looking at, but I could see the amazing work that they do, and that integration is so important if we are to make sure that people understand what we mean by nation of sanctuary. It is really important that people who come here, if they flee persecution or war, feel they are able to integrate in the community in the way that they would want to, and we certainly want them to do so. I know there are lots of themes in the work that we support via the Welsh Refugee Council. There are lots of examples in relation to that. I wasn’t aware of the event that you sponsored today in Jo Cox’s memory as part of her foundation, but I think, again, that’s really good, and it’s good that we still recognise the amazing work that Jo Cox did.

I didn’t answer the housing question, sorry, for Sioned Williams, and I think that is a discussion I need to have with the housing Minister, because I think it is really important, as you say, that we are able to protect people in the same way we protect Welsh people, that we protect people who are coming here looking for sanctuary, and I will certainly take that forward.

Photo of Carolyn Thomas Carolyn Thomas Labour 3:24, 18 June 2024

I'm proud that Wales is a nation of sanctuary, helping to ensure people are met with kindness, understanding and to help them fit into the community that they choose to live in. It can be very lonely and tough, living in a different country, away from family and friends, many having to learn a different language and trying just to fit in, especially if carrying the burden of trauma, as many refugees are.

I'm worried that elections are being used to polarise people, to grow hate instead of kindness, to turn their backs on community and being together, especially as people are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, health appointments and adequate housing. So, Cabinet Secretary, what response would you give to this in spreading the message about what nation of sanctuary does actually mean? Thank you.

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 3:25, 18 June 2024

Thank you. I just mentioned to John Griffiths that sanctuary seekers are almost always escaping persecution. They're often trying to be reunited with their family members. I think what is really important, and, for me, this is the most important message of Refugee Week, is that the words that we use matter. People are not illegal, they're not simply statistics. Each individual has that story of trauma, and I'm sure that we've all in our surgeries and in our constituencies and regions met people who are completely traumatised and completely desperate. As you say, to leave your country where you understand and are aware of everything, your loved ones are there, your job is there, to end up in a country that some may never even have heard of before must be incredibly difficult to come to terms with. So, you're right about kindness and compassion. I think that's really important. I go back to my earlier answer to Tom Giffard about how this is why it's so important that our stakeholders, our partners do engage with communities so that we can get away from that intolerance that, unfortunately, we sadly hear of.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour 3:27, 18 June 2024

I too had the privilege to attend the Nation of Sanctuary Awards with Sioned Williams, and I want to thank the Welsh Refugee Council, the Welsh Rugby Union and Wales & West Housing Association, who I think were the main sponsors of what is becoming an important milestone in the social calendar. I think that we have so much to be proud of. I reflect on the words of Carolyn Thomas about the impact of the general election and some of the more toxic comments, but I think we have so much to be proud of and to be confident about, given how well we are becoming a multicultural nation. So, the national poet for Wales is Hanan Issa, a wonderful and extraordinarily talented Welsh-Iraqi poet; the chair of the Welsh Language Society, who was presenting the award for the Welsh language learner of the year, is Joseff Gnagbo, originally an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast; and the top award went to Birth Partner Project as a nation of sanctuary organisation, which ensures no asylum seeker in Cardiff is giving birth alone. I wondered if you could talk to the Cabinet Secretary for health about how we could expand this project to Swansea, Wrexham and Newport, because these are the main populations where asylum seekers are housed initially, and it would be wonderful if we ensured that—. I don't want any woman, to be honest, to be on their own without somebody to stand up for them at their most vulnerable time, and if we could ensure that the wonderful work being done by Laura Santana and many other volunteers is spread across Wales, that would be a really fantastic outcome.

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 3:29, 18 June 2024

Yes, absolutely. I would be very happy to speak to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care. I think the point you make around no woman being on their own when they give birth is really important, and I mentioned, to come to this country and land in a new country where you know nobody, if you are pregnant, that's another layer of difficulties that you have to face. So, I was very pleased when I saw the winners to see that scheme come to the top, and I'll be very happy, as I say, to have a discussion to see how we can spread it to the other three main dispersal areas of Newport, Swansea and Wrexham, because it's not just Cardiff, is it, where women are facing such difficulties. So, yes, I'll certainly be happy to do that.