SHAME: Portsmouth turns its back on asylum seekers

As Portsmouth councillors convene in the council chambers, campaigners rallied outside to show their support for refugees after the Tory council shamefully proposed a motion committing Portsmouth to being a refugee free city. Portsmouth residents were making deputations to the council begging the Conservative administration to review their closed minded approach to the current refugee crisis partly caused by their own parliamentary party.

Speeches were being made inside in a calm and thoughtful manner, but outside tensions were rising as anti-refugee protesters and their opposition collide. Police strategically built a wall of officers between the protesters as they began yelling and screaming at each other. Members of the public were being urged by pro-refugee campaigners to join their group on the rally. Whereas the ‘no refugee’ team were happy with their cosy group of 6.

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Homemade banner made by anti-refugee protesters in Portsmouth.

It was interesting to observe the actions from the pro-refugee campaigners, their chants in particular. The chants were things from “say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” to “Nazi Scum, who’s streets? Our streets” – that’s right, these were the good guys! You must be thinking ‘gee, if that’s what the pro-campaigners were saying, what are the anti-refugee protesters saying?’… well nothing. That’s right, the anti-refugee protesters said nothing, on the odd occasion they’d start chanting, but 90% of the time they were silent.

As I overlooked the protest, I recognised a PCSO who I went to school with and couldn’t help but say hello. Whilst doing so we were approached by a woman who insisted the anti-refugee protesters were breaking the law by pinning a “racist flag” to a government building. I couldn’t help but remind her that a) the banner isn’t racist b) the council isn’t a government building and c) it’s freedom of speech, they’re doing nothing wrong.

I was expecting an intelligent reply, but oh boy was I wrong. Before she walked away she leant forward and screeched “you’re one of them! You racist tramp”… And shamefully, my first thought was “Yeah, I’m the ‘tramp’ … don’t you look pleasant in you Primark see through leggings and Reebok classics” But I resisted the urge and began to laugh at the idea of me being a racist.

*rant over, back to the meeting*

Now, inside the council chambers, they finally got to the motion. The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth called Deputy Leader of the Council, Luke Stubbs (Conservative) to propose that the Tory council tell the government Portsmouth cannot and will not take any more refugees in the city. Councillors are invited to make their contributions to the debate, early on Julie Swan (UKIP) makes the point that she will not be supporting the proposed motion as it is.

Leader of the Council, Donna Jones (Conservative) is worried. Could she lose this vote? With Labour and half the independents on the council showing their support for the Lib Dem-Led campaign to throw this motion down the pan and the third largest group on the council showing concern for the Tory proposal, Donna needs to act fast to get support from the UKIP group.

She bounds to her feet, “My Lord Mayor, a point of order”… the public watch in anticipation, what trick which she pull… “My lord mayor, this motion asks the council to write to the government asking them to review Portsmouth’s position on taking in refugees and asylum seekers, not that the council refuses to take any”. Umm, actually Donna that’s not true. Check out the full motion here.

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Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Donna Jones.

But outside, things were getting more heated as anti-refugee protesters began to leave. Passionate pro-refugee campaigners felt it was their duty to challenge the protesters on their departure, which wasn’t welcomed. Police ushered the crowd along but a rage quickly irrupted as you’ll see in my video here.

As the anger outside is dying down, that’s not the case inside. Councillors have been debating this issue for a little under an hour now and it seemed to be going in favour of Donna Jones and the Conservatives. 14 speakers later, 3 coffees and one amendment (that didn’t pass) we have a result.

Lib Dems, Labour and an independent unanimously opposed the motion and want to welcome refugees. However, Conservatives and some UKIP councillors with the aid of one independent had enough votes to overthrow the Lib Dems and Labour pact and push this motion (turning refugees away) through. There was one abstention from the vote, UKIP councillor Julie Swan.

Portsmouth City Council does not welcome refugees. The motion to remove Portsmouth from a government list of authorities that will house asylum seekers has been accepted by the council.

So, what does this mean for Portsmouth? Well, umm, not very much. The Conservatives naivety here is pitiful, do they truly believe they can influence the government on such an emotive issue like this? During the debate, one Conservative councillor bellowed “but we just simply don’t have the money to care for them”. Well let’s look at some facts about asylum seekers:

  • Asylum seekers and refugees do not get large handouts from the state.
  • Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support (Refugee Council, Chance or Choice? Understanding why asylum seekers come to the UK, 2010).
  • Not one single unaccompanied asylum-seeking child has needed a school place in Portsmouth since 2012.
  • Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on.
  • Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. It is nearly always ‘hard to let’ properties, where other people do not want to live.
  • Asylum Seekers do not receive more benefits than pensioners in the UK (UK Parliament briefing paper, 2012).

So where is the damage to the local council? I can’t see it. What Portsmouth City Council has done here is set a precedent for other local authorities who are led by right-leaning, narrow-minded politicians to say NO to supporting the most vulnerable coming into this country. It’s a sad day for our city, it’s a sad day to be a citizen of a city that turns its back on the most vulnerable.

As winter approaches and hundreds of children are left out to face off the elements with no source of heating or hot water, I hope Donna feels comfortable in her heated house in Drayton, overlooking her two children playing whilst her husband makes a nice hot cup of tea, in that same moment I hope she prays that she is never in a situation where she relies on someone else to quite literally save her life. Because today her council refused to save the lives of the most vulnerable, her council turned their back on the children, woman and men who have been through hell to get here after running away from a life of war and heartache.

Shame on Donna, shame on Portsmouth.

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