By Kate Smart, director of Asylum Welcome

Oxford has been home to refugees for hundreds of years. As international travel became more possible during the 20th century, the numbers arriving became more noticeable. Asylum Welcome was established more than 20 years ago, in response to refugees arriving in Oxford fleeing the worst that human nature can devise – from countries including the former Yugoslavia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of those we help are unaccompanied children who have made dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Most recently, the brutal war in Syria created a refugee exodus that hit the headlines.

In September 2015, this inspired some Oxford friends to call a rally outside the Bodleian. They expected a few dozen to turn up, instead – despite short notice – a few thousand warm-hearted people marched and waved banners in support of refugees. Oxford’s rally was the first of many such pro-refugee rallies in the UK in 2015.

Three years on, what’s been achieved?

Oxford now has a Syrian community of several hundred. Among these are almost 30 families accepted by Oxford City Council from the Government’s resettlement scheme (and Oxford is praised as a model for successful resettlement of Syrians) but far more of the Syrians are spontaneous arrivals.

Having lost so much, and with continued bad news from their homeland, it is not easy for them to rebuild their lives or to learn to speak a new language. They are making a valiant effort helped by the goodwill and practical support of local people.

Syrians are also working hard to look after each other – most realise the importance of encouraging mutually supportive ties so that individuals can turn to the community for help and children grow up feeling secure.

The Syrian refugees who are making Oxford their home have a wealth of talents: for examples as engineers, academics, craftspeople, entrepreneurs, writers, chefs and social workers. They tend to be given Refugee Status which means that there is no legal barrier to employment: they can use their talents to enrich the lives of the wider Oxford community.

While Syrians are the fastest growing refugee community in Oxford, Asylum Welcome continues to see refugees from a mixture of different nationalities. Many of these are still trying to make a legal case to be given Refugee Status and during this uncertain period they suffer hardship and even homelessness and destitution.

Asylum Welcome is particularly concerned when destitution affects young people, single mothers and people with mental and physical health conditions. In the last year we have seen the situation worsen as the policy known as the ‘hostile environment’ makes it more difficult to access accommodation and local services.

Asylum Welcome works closely with lawyers to take every opportunity to improve the legal rights of refugees so that they avoid destitution and can plan a better future. Given the opportunity, they have a lot to offer the local community.

Three years on from Oxford’s heartfelt rally for refugees there is much to be proud of and much still to do. Oxford’s response to refugees has been compassionate, respectful and effective.

Where refugees have been given legal rights to work, study and access services, they are enriching our community and supporting each other. Asylum Welcome is enabling them to make the most of those opportunities, while also alleviating the suffering of those whose situation is insecure.