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Cambridgeshire County Council appoints Alex Bulat ‘migrant champion’

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A councillor who proposed a migrant champion for Cambridgeshire has been invited to take on the role herself.

Cambridgeshire  County Council voted in favour of appointing a migrant champion last December.

The proposal was put forward by Cllr Alex Bulat as part of a series of initiatives to support asylum seekers.

The decision to create the post was approved by the county council’s communities, social mobility, and inclusion committee at its meeting yesterday (Thursday, 23 March).

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Today a council spokesperson confirmed that “Alex Bulat will take up the new role and is part of a wide series of actions intended to make Cambridgeshire a welcoming place for people who have come here from abroad”.

Chief executive asked to write to Home Secretary

Last December the council also requested chief executive Stephen Moir to write to the Home Secretary to press for safe legal routes for people to seek asylum.

Chief executive Stephen Moir: “One thing irritates me most is when someone deals with a complaint and then we think about that as a process and not the person at the end of it.”

Chief executive Stephen Moir

The council’s objectives are to commit to the development of a county-wide place of safety pledge, work with partners to support the welfare of destitute individuals or families and establish a member migrant champion role.

Better funding for local authorities to support those housing asylum seekers is also being called by the council.

The new migrant champion role will include:

  • Acting as a political spokesperson for the council on asylum and immigration issues
  • Being a single point of contact for councillors on issues relating to asylum and refugeeism
  • Being an internal advocate for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants within the council
  • Corresponding with political leaders at Cambridgeshire’s district and city councils on matters relating to asylum seekers and refugees.

Support schemes for migrants, such as the Afghan resettlement scheme and Homes for Ukraine, are run at a district level but are co-ordinated by the county council.

Yesterday’s meeting also saw the council commit to working towards a Council of Sanctuary, making Cambridgeshire a “welcoming place of safety for all and proud to offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence and persecution”.

Library of Sanctuary

This follows Cambridgeshire libraries undertaking a process to become an awarded Library of Sanctuary which recognises its role in creating a warm and welcoming environment for people who are new to our communities, including refugees, migrants, people seeking sanctuary and international students.

“This involves reducing barriers of access to public services and connecting people with reliable information,” said the council spokesperson.

“Moreover, to tackle ‘hostile environment’ policy on migration, the council will now be writing to district and city councils asking them to consider what information to provide to the Home Office where there is no legal duty to do so where this may impact the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Cambridgeshire.

“But where it is required to do so by law, Cambridgeshire County Council will continue to provide information to the Home Office and will encourage its partners to do the same.

Cllr Bulat said: “Cambridgeshire has a proud record of accommodating and supporting people from all backgrounds, including many who have fled persecution and have come to the UK seeking safety.

“I cannot begin to imagine the horrors that people seeking safety in the UK have seen, and it is only right that we support them as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

Cllr Alex Bulat became Britain's first Romanian-born county councillor after the 2021 local elections

Cllr Alex Bulat became Britain’s first Romanian-born county councillor after the 2021 local elections

“This can only happen if they do not live with the constant fear of deportation, which is why the county council will do all it can to protect asylum seekers and refugees and will urge our partners to do the same.

“And by creating a new migrant advocate position and pushing for a Council of Sanctuary recognition, we are showing our commitment as a tolerant, compassionate county.”

Cllr Tom Sanderson, chair of the communities, social mobility, and inclusion committee, said: “The UK has stepped up in the hour of need for many people fleeing places including Ukraine and Afghanistan.

“We have seen on our TVs the horrors they have suffered, and we have rightly offered sanctuary and support.

“But there is always more we can do, so I am delighted the committee has agreed to step up the council’s efforts to make Cambridgeshire an even more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.”

Below is the speech by Cllr Bulat, a Labour member for Abbey ward, Cambridge, to last December’s meeting which opened up the debate on appointing a migrant champion.

Alex Bulat speech to county council last December

There could not be better timing for this motion because this Sunday on the 18th of December we celebrate the United Nations International migrants day.

It is a day for all of us to reflect on the social economic and cultural contributions of migrants but also on the very pressing challenges we face in the world.

Conflict war disease and disasters forcing many people out of their homes. No human is illegal.

The UK is a party of the 1951 refugee convention and for those interested article 31 of the refugee convention is essential reading.

I am really proud of our compassionate response as a county towards people from Syria, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, most recently Ukraine and many other countries.

But we cannot underestimate the challenges that we face as more legal routes have been closed over time.

We have seen increased numbers of Channel crossings even in the freezing temperatures these last few days and also the very hot days in the summer.

Whilst we sat in this lovely building or the comfort of our safe homes, people in desperate circumstances continue to make those journeys.

In addition to people seeking asylum, we also have seen the highest net migration on record this year – over half a million – so that these people who come through the flagship points-based immigration system of this government.

So, I hope we can really all see now that ending freedom of movement post-Brexit was of course not the secret ingredient to deliver the unachievable tens of thousands migration target.

While local authorities try to do their best to support new residents with ever squeezed local budgets what does the central government do?

Please let me list a few achievements of central government

1: Placing asylum seekers in unsuitable accommodation without proper consultation with local authorities

2: The Home Office was recently found to be conducting hundreds of immigration raids during lockdown including in care homes

3: Not allowing asylum seekers the right to work which is essential to integration speaking about integration while taking ages to process asylum claims and thus forcing asylum seekers to rely on 40 quid a week or less of benefits while skill shortages remain in pretty much every sector of our economy

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4:  No time limit on immigration detention unlike many other countries and horrible conditions of overcrowded and public health risks

Millions of taxpayer money is being spent to appear tough on immigration and presumably save what is left in the opinion polls.

It did not surprise me at all to see recently that even a group of Home Office staff wrote to the Home Secretary through their union saying that the only solution to this crisis is to create safe passage.

So, there’s much more I can say about the government’s asylum and immigration policies, but I have tried my best in this motion to avoid strong language in the written form of the motion as it focuses on our local response and what we can positively do within our limited control as the local authority

The motion therefore includes recommendations on three main themes

On our practices encouraging the council not to participate in hostile environment immigration practices so that our residents can seek advice and access services without fear.

On our partnerships it suggests the council joins networks such as the no recourse to public funds and the City of Sanctuary local authority networks to learn, collaborate and share good practices on those challenges faced by all local authorities across the UK

Last but not least on our communications.

The motion proposes developing a place of safety pledge as well as a migrant champion role within the council.

Overall, the motion recognizes that they will have a growing pressure posed by the government’s full dispersal scheme and the conversation following on for that on all local authorities across the UK.

And it ultimately calls for adequate funding from central government and to look at the fairness of the funding distribution as all areas have different needs

I will end on this note

No human chooses where they are born, I didn’t choose where I was born no one in this room did.

But we do choose whether we dream of a world of Windrush scandals and planes flying to Rwanda or a world with safe legal routes and an immigration system that treats all lives with dignity and respect.

I certainly choose the latter option and I sometimes do dream myself that the Home Secretary would change her mind and choose it too.

 

Among those opposed to the appointment of a migrant champion was opposition leader Steve Count. Here’s what he told the December meeting of the county council.

A motion was put by opposition leader Cllr Steve Count together with public questions and a petition at full council today calling for a local poll at the same time as council elections in May.

Cllr STEVE COUNT: “I am the son of migrants
My father came from Latvia, my mother came from Germany. I might look to everybody here as if I’m English 100 pc through and through, but my parents had a hard time coming over here, so I understand the things that are being said”.

The first thing I want to do is to congratulate Alex Bulat on a lot of sensible stuff in this motion.

Eighty per cent of the good stuff that was in there I agreed with.

My heart goes out to genuine asylum seekers and the way we look out after them and we should embrace them and give them every opportunity to discover the facts behind their case and behave appropriately.

Unfortunately, some of the other stuff the other 20 per cent. You say you designed it to be not inflammatory to the Conservatives but there was so much in there which I’ll talk about in a moment that I can’t actually support this motion

And it’s a shame because I’d like to have worked with you on this to actually put forward a motion that we could all support, but this doesn’t go there.

I want to congratulate Cambridgeshire County Council officers and the other authorities here.

We have done a sterling job in welcoming, looking after and accommodating genuine asylum seekers and also the non-genuine ones whilst their cases are heard; asylum seekers that may not end up being asylum seekers at the end of the day.

So, I just want to pass on my thanks for the resources that we’ve been able to put in and actually the reception they’ve received in this great county of Cambridgeshire.

But I want to talk about one specific point really bringing that out why I can’t support this motion. It’s been mentioned already and it’s the direct call in the recommendation to withhold our partners, to withhold information from the Home Office so that people can’t be deported or detained.

It stops slightly short of breaking the law but surely if you if you want to accelerate the speed with which we deal with asylum claims genuine asylum seekers and stop the illegal migrants then we need to get as much information as possible.

Putting a Blocker in there just encourages illegal immigration in the boats coming across; at the moment there are 12 000 people came across from Albania.

Albania doesn’t have a war at the moment

Albania doesn’t have a war at the moment; it’s basically an economic migrant situation the vast majority of which when they get to the end of the process are in fact refused and 14 000 have been deported so far over the years.

Once you get hold of the information to withhold that information and call the Home Office basically the enemy it’s not something I can agree with.

It’s not how things are done. These are civil servants going about their day-to-day work and we shouldn’t be getting in their way.

What we should be doing is helping them ascertain the true status of whether somebody’s a genuine asylum seeker and warrants asylum or whether an illegal migrant and actually deportation is perhaps the right answer.

And what I also worry about with this is ‘Project Fear’ because what we have now is there will be tweets at the end of the day saying how bad the Conservatives are how much we hate foreign people which is simply untrue.

I am the son of migrants

My father came from Latvia, my mother came from Germany. I might look to everybody here as if I’m English 100 pc through and through, but my parents had a hard time coming over here, so I understand the things that are being said.

I relate to the things being said but as we had it from Councillor Tierney you need to draw a line somewhere.

We have a system that embraces looking after people that come from war-torn countries and I respect, and I appreciate that.

We should not have a system that just lets everybody turn up and undermines the actual living of the people that are living here and that is what worries me.

So, I can’t support this and the big stickler apart from all the attacks on the Conservative policies the big stickler for me is actually asking our partners to withhold information so that even legal migrants are unable to stay in this country.

I can’t support that.

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