Aberdeenshire's work to welcome vulnerable refugees to the north-east to continue

With the first stage of Aberdeenshire Council’s refugee resettlement programme now complete, work is to continue to support vulnerable families in their journey to become new Scots.


Aberdeenshire’s resettlement scheme began in October 2015, following a national pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees in the UK by 2020.


Since then, there have been six phases of a complex and carefully-managed action plan that has seen 58 families – a total of 210 people – settling safely in the area.


The success of the programme has led Aberdeenshire Council to pledge to continue this work and to make the council’s refugee resettlement team a permanent fixture. 


The national and international attention the programme has drawn has played a part in that. Most recently, Council Leader Cllr Jim Gifford spoke before the House of Lords’ Home Affairs Sub-Committee about the authority’s management of refugee resettlement.


During the session, he explained how the authority initially faced a steep learning curve when planning how best to support the new Scots upon their arrival.


Rather than simply focusing only on housing needs, the project team explored all aspects of integration with communities, taking account of education, job opportunities and access to services.


Speaking after the session, Cllr Gifford said: “Migration is not something that is new in Aberdeenshire, of course.


“The north-east has seen decades of economic migration, particularly in support of some of our key industries, where the incoming population has contributed hugely to the success of the area and continues to do so.


“What we faced with the resettlement programme was a very particular need, taking account of the intense trauma experienced by refugees and the need to help them integrate fully into our communities.”


To support this work, a strategic group was formed to co-ordinate the arrival and resettlement of families in the first phase of the programme.


The group included representatives of a range of council, health and social care services, along with faith groups.


One of the first tasks was decide how and where to home the new Scots and an authority-wide search began. It was agreed not to use social housing due to the scale of existing waiting lists, and instead accommodation was sought from the private sector.


And in terms of location, it was decided to focus resettlement in central Aberdeenshire, given its connectivity with the city for access to halal shops, mosques and the Arabic-speaking community. 


The first families arrived in Scotland between February and April 2016, during which time the refugee resettlement team was formally established.


Later that year, the Al-Amal Project was constituted to act as a voice and support mechanism for new families. The group quickly became an active partner, attending airport arrivals, helping families to settle into their new homes, and providing emergency out of hours support where required.


“What was particularly pleasing to see was just how quickly and openly our communities welcomed their new neighbours,” said Cllr Gifford.


“And in turn our new Scots have become an active and valued part of community life. We’ve all learned a great deal over the past few years and want this excellent work to continue, and at the evidence session it was made clear that access to ongoing funding will be an essential part of that.”


Leading the Refugee Resettlement Team is co-ordinator Katie MacLean, who spoke before the authority’s Communities Committee as the initial programme reached its final phase at the end of 2019.


She told councillors that the families who have come to Aberdeenshire had seen improvements in health since arriving in Scotland and that several had moved into employment.


“Most of our Aberdeenshire new Scots are Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by war or fear of persecution,” said Katie.


“Some have lived in tented camps, others find housing in towns and villages but most live in dire financial, environmental and social circumstances with limited access to food and employment. 


“Most families find experiences in border countries can be as traumatising as being in Syria, so families arriving in Scotland are consistently relieved, emotional and reassured that they are now safe.”


As well as providing safety and security, the opportunities that have arisen since the start of the programme have also been embraced.


In April last year, employment training and work experience was made available to new Scots in Aberdeenshire by Starbucks, in conjunction with the Scottish Refugee Council and the resettlement team.


And in May a delegation from Finland was hosted, exploring the successes and impacts of the partnership approach to refugee resettlement.


Sharing personal experiences has been important too. In September, a group of 30 Aberdeenshire Syrian women took part in a United Nations High Commission for Refugees project to explore how resettlement impacts on women and how processes can be better supported and protected.


The council’s programme to date has been completely funded by the Home Office, which has announced an extension of the programme.


Aberdeenshire’s efforts are now to continue under a global resettlement scheme to provide families with safe passage to the UK, with a focus on refugees from Syria and the Middle East.


As well as meeting the needs of the new Scots, there have been plaudits for the resettlement work too. The Al-Amal project’s chairman, Dured Alhalabe, won a prestigious Young Scot Community Award in 2017 for his work with the group.


And the resettlement team has been recognised twice at the Inspiring Aberdeenshire awards. In 2017 Katie was presented with the Inspiring Leader Award, and the Refugee Resettlement Team was given the Heart of Aberdeenshire Caring Award last year.


Communities Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling said: “The amount that has been achieved over the past five years has been staggering.


“Not only has the programme seen dozens of families arrive safely in Aberdeenshire, our towns and villages have embraced their new neighbours and helped them find their place in the community.


“Many of our new Scots have suffered trauma that is difficult to comprehend but since arriving here the improvements in health and the sense of safety they feel have quickly become apparent. It’s an amazing transformation and we want to maintain the momentum.”


And that momentum looks set to continue, with the full council supporting the request by Communities Committee to reaffirm the commitment to supporting the resettlement of vulnerable refugees beyond 2020, in line with Home Office frameworks and funding arrangements.


As the resettlement team looks ahead to phase seven of the programme, landlords across Aberdeenshire have been contacted by colleagues in the private housing sector to check the availability of potential properties.


It’s expected that Aberdeenshire Council will resettle an average of 12-15 families per year, with the resettlement team being made permanent to allow the work to continue.