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British families open their homes to refugees

Since the tiny, lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach last week, kind-hearted people from all over Europe have gone out of their way to do what they can to help those affected by the biggest humanitarian crisis to have hit the Continent for decades.

Aylan was one of millions trying to flee the war in Syria and his image has prompted people all over Europe to demand that their governments do more to help those in crisis.

So far Germany has led by example, revealing plans to accommodate 800,000 asylum seekers this year. On Monday over 10,000 new refugees arrived in Munich to a warm welcome, before being taken to reception centres for registration and to await transfer to shelters across the country.

By stark contrast U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticised. His Government’s pledge to resettle only 20,000 refugees over the next five years was deemed “pitifully short of what is needed.” The PM defended the decision, stating that he believed it was “a generous and correct approach to take” but a huge number of British citizens don’t agree.

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Today over 1.4 million signatures and calls for action collected by aid agencies, refugee charities and campaign groups will be presented to MPs to send the message that more radical action is required.

“The message could not be clearer,” Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, told The Independent. “This petition is part of something much bigger. In hundreds of ways in hundreds of places, the British people want to welcome refugees.”

We can all help in many ways: donating money or items needed to keep the refugees safe, warm and comfortable; volunteering for a local refugee charity (find a list of U.K. refugee charities here) or protesting (the Solidarity with Refugees March to Downing Street takes place on Saturday, Sept. 12 at 12 p.m.)

If you want to do even more how about taking a refugee into your own home? It’s a big step but one that many people are willing to take to help ease the suffering of an extremely vulnerable person. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told The Scotsman that she would be “absolutely happy to [accommodate a refugee] as part of a bigger, wider, organised approach.” Bob Geldof said he could accommodate three families in his Kent home and another in his flat in London and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä offered to give a family a home in his country pile.

But you don’t need a mansion to be able to help — simply a spare room.

Christian charity the Boaz Trust has been working to accommodate destitute asylum seekers in the Greater Manchester area for the past decade, which up until recently has been a difficult task. However that changed last week and the charity says it has been inundated with offers of help.

“We’ve never had so many inquiries,” Boaz’s chief executive Ros Holland told The Guardian. “We had someone from Gloucester call up the other day saying: ‘I know I’m not in Manchester, but I’ve got a spare room. How can I help?’ Someone else phoned up from Edinburgh. It’s been quite overwhelming.”

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While the vast majority of people who have contacted the Boaz Trust want to offer a bed to a Syrian refugee it’s actually asylum seekers from other countries who really need accommodation today, this week, this month. In the past year the largest number of asylum claims came from Eritreans and Pakistanis, with Syrians the third-largest group. Only 216 Syrians have been granted humanitarian protection under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which started in March 2014. According to the Home Office 4,000 Syrians have been given asylum in the U.K. since the humanitarian crisis began but this includes many who were already living here and were unable to return home because of the war.

Syrian refugees who come to the U.K. as part of the latest Government initiative (20,000 refugees over five years) will have their applications fast-tracked as it is accepted that they cannot realistically be sent home. After the initial screening process, Syrian asylum seekers will be placed in accommodation by an outsourcing company contracted by the Home Office.

Scottish charity Positive Action in Housing Ltd is encouraging people to sign up as hosts to help build up its database of those willing to offer up space or a room in their home to someone who is destitute for a few days, weeks or longer and also to send a message to the Government: #refugeeswelcome.

Alison Swinfen, an education professor at the University of Glasgow, has hosted asylum seekers from different countries for the past three years.

“I would absolutely recommend volunteering, it’s transforming in so many ways,” she said. “My advice would be that it’s really important to remember that the people you welcome are just normal people who need to sleep and eat. Keeping a good routine and normal structure I think is important, not stepping out of your own routine and not going overboard. Some of the folk you’ll stay in touch with and they’ll be friends for life potentially, others won’t be which is just normal, because you’re dealing with normal people.”

Visit Naccom, the U.K.’s National No Accommodation Network, for details of charities running hosting schemes for asylum seekers.

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