Summary of Meeting Agenda Item 7 – Westhill & Elrick Community Council, 13/04/2023
Westhill & Elrick Community Council (WECC) is made up of volunteer community councillors, who work non-politically in a number of different ways to promote and protect the quality of life for residents of Westhill and Elrick. Westhill & Elrick’s (Ward 13) four elected Coucillors are also members of the Community Council but without voting rights.
As a Statutory body we communicate regularly with Aberdeenshire Council (the Council) and we (along with other community organisations e.g. churches) were first made aware of the planned arrival of 173 male asylum seekers around the 15th of March 2023. There was no prior consultation or public announcements made but information related to this has filtered into the public domain by various routes including our own Web posts (https://westhillelrick.org/) on 30th March and 5th April 2023.
In the interim there has been no further specific information on the asylum seekers provided by the Home Office or the Council. However elsewhere there have been further developments. The Council have been active in contacting community groups e.g. churches and those with previous experience in working with asylum seekers, to identify practical ways that help can be offered.
There have been a range of posts, expressing differing views on Westhill & Elrick related Facebook Pages.
Also our local Westminster MP Mr. Andrew Bowie, has issued a statement online. He also offered to attend our Meeting, an offer that was readily accepted.
As per our previous statement on 30th March, WECC fully support the aim of the Council, “to work in partnership with the Home Office and their agents Mears, to mitigate any negative impacts on the Westhill community and maximise the strengths, goodwill and resilience in our community”.
With this in mind we are concerned that the lack of information taken with the lack of initial consultation has led to some strong views about the situation and some serious concerns for the safety of women and children of Westhill in particular. Accordingly we tabled an Agenda item (7) for our meeting on the 13th April to discuss the situation. The notes below capture the main aspects of this part of the meeting and topics discussed. The formal Minutes of the whole meeting will be circulated in due course.
Present at the meeting were 14 community councillors, 10 members of the public (4 in person, 6 on Zoom); plus 4 (Ward 13) elected councillors, Andrew Bowie MP and Inspector Gareth Hannan (Garioch Community Policing Team).
WECC welcome the contributions of all and in particular participation of members of the public as it helps maintain better representation of the spectrum of views held on this issue.
Please note – Inspector Hannan had previously been invited to the meeting regarding separate matters within Westhill as discussed earlier in the Agenda, but stayed on for the discussion regarding the Asylum Hotel.
- ASYLUM SEEKERS
- At time of writing (18th April), no asylum seekers have yet been transferred to the Hampton by Hilton Hotel.
- Plan is for 173 between 18-45 to arrive over the next 8/9 weeks in groups of 20.
- All male – due to those arriving across the Channel being predominantly male.
- They will be a complete mixture from highly educated professional people to unskilled workers.
- Only basic personal details will likely to be available in confidence to MEARS e.g. name, country of origin, date of birth, occupation, reason for applying for asylum, family contacts in UK.
- MEARS’ experience indicates (depending on circumstances) typically some 75% will eventually be assigned refugee status. The remainder tends to be economic migrants who will be refused residency.
- Because of their age, they are likely to be fit and healthy individuals with few medical needs.
- They can undertake voluntary work but not paid work.
- Those waiting for more than 12 months for their application to be processed may apply for a time-limited work permit.
- Indicative processing time will be 6-12 mths tbc.
- ON LACK OF CONSULTATION – Generally extreme disappointment was expressed at the total lack of consultation from the Home Office (HO) or the Council. Advised that this is HO policy and is applied across GB. All present agreed that it would be helpful to now have definitive and regular communication from the Home Office.
- Andrew Bowie MP – was offered the opportunity to make a statement to the meeting, which he did explaining his position as already expressed online. He empahsised that he has consistently taken and expressed the view that Westhill is not suitable to house this number of asylum seekers. He discussed his reasoning with those present, and added clarification that he has been passing residents’ feedback to the Immigration Minister. He then explained that Home Office policy is not to issue any form of communication to communities or community support groups. The role of community integration is primarily fulfilled by their contractor, Mears.
He continues to reiterate his position that he thinks that Westhill was an inappropriate location for such a large group of asylum seekers and will continue to lobby the Home Office and Government Ministers to that effect.
He has also since met with officials from Aberdeenshire Council who have been placed in a similar position, to work out how best to respond to the situation our community now finds ourselves in. He believes that the community of Westhill and Elrick with support from the Council, community groups and other humanitarian agencies, will rise to the challenge of welcoming these new arrivals.
- The role of Aberdeenshire Council – in this process was discussed. Aberdeenshire Council has no authority or decision-making powers in relation to asylum seekers and accommodation, but are working with community groups to minimise negative impacts and maximise community resources.
- HOTEL LIFE – Questions were raised regarding day-to-day life for those housed within the hotel. It was noted that they have no recourse to public funds, so cannot claim benefits etc. but will receive £9-10p per week for personal expenses. They will receive 3 cooked meals a day and have access to laundry facilities. They will be dependent on charitable donations e.g. for clothing and footwear. Once the asylum seekers arrive and their needs are assessed by Mears, we as a community will have a clearer idea as to what their priority needs are. For example, we were informed that a person in Banchory is willing to help English speakers become English teachers. Details tbc.
Concerns were also raised over what there is to do for these men during the days, as they are not allowed to seek employment, although they can volunteer, and there are not many facilities for them to use in the surrounding area. Without sufficient amenities or activities, there are concerns for the mental wellbeing of those being housed in the hotel.
Postscript – After the meeting closed one member of the table tennis club volunteered to teach table tennis.
- FEARS FOR SAFETY – regarding the significant fears for the safety of women and children, with such an influx of single men into the area. This was explained by a member of the public who said there are women (and potentially others) who feel unsafe walking around after dark currently, and adding in a large number of men to the area may increase that fear.
Inspector Hannan added clarification that there have been no significant incidents regarding 100+ male asylum seekers resident for over a year, at a similar property within Aberdeen City. In his experience of Aberdeen there is some evidence that they are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Postscript – This chimes with a view expressed by the MEARS Manager who has stated, that in his experience, most asylum seekers by far, are peaceable law-abiding people, with a willingness to fit in to whatever host community they find themselves in.
- OTHER SUPPORT NEEDS – Further concerns were raised about the pressures on healthcare, policing and other local amenities. The needs of the asylum seekers are unknown at this point, and will remain unknown until they arrive and have been assessed by Mears. Only then will WECC and other support organisations be in a position to offer and provide specific support.
- CHALLENGE – Most people present agreed that the majority of people will want the best for anyone seeking asylum, and feel sympathetic to the situation that they find themselves in. Westhill and Elrick is a very welcoming area, with a number of community groups ready and willing to help those who arrive in a variety of different ways. It was discussed how faced with the conundrum of wanting the best for all people, but having real concerns about safety; pressure on local amenities and concern for the wellbeing of those being housed in hotels; how can all these priorities co-exist with one another.
The challenge now is how to work on each of those points to alleviate concerns and provide the best outcome for all involved. It was agreed that if the Home Office is intent on going through with this policy in Westhill, then it is a better for our community to offer a hand of welcome to achieve successful and harmonious integration for however long this takes.
** Might you be interested in becoming a Community Councillor?
The 3 year term of office for the current community council is ending soon so nominations are currently being sought to fill 17 vacancies with a closing date of 18 May. Details can be found here:
Your Community Council – Getting Involved – WESTHILL & ELRICK COMMUNITY COUNCIL (westhillelrick.org)