Cymru i Bawb – A Wales for all

This month marks the two-year anniversary of war breaking out in Ukraine, of millions of children being displaced, and of many of those children finding solace and protection in Wales.  I recently met with a group of young people in south Wales, who had all fled their home countries, on their own, to seek sanctuary here. These were teenagers aged between 15 and 18, all with their own hopes, dreams, ambitions and potential, as well as clear trauma and heartbreak from what they had experienced and left behind.

Later on in a primary school, I met with another group of children, who had also moved to Wales fleeing war, although this time with their families. Here, the children were immersed in a rich and vibrant school with over 40 spoken languages, and were clearly adapting to the changes they faced with all the resilience characteristic of young children.

My own role as Children’s Commissioner is limited to the issues devolved to the Welsh Government. Reserved matters like asylum and migration come under the remit of the Children’s Commissioner for England Rachel de Souza, but on which close collaboration between our offices is crucial. All children who live in Wales have the same rights, and this includes children who’ve come to Wales seeking protection. They include rights to be safe, to an education, and to reach their full potential.

Indeed, Wales has declared itself a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ and has a long history of welcoming people and children from other countries including those fleeing Nazi persecution in World War 2, and more recently children and families from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. I myself came to Wales as a refugee baby from Chile, so I have personal experience of this welcome and sanctuary. But it must be very different to arrive somewhere as a baby, with one’s own family, compared to what it must be like to arrive alone as a teenager.

For the teenagers I met the pain of their dislocation was clear to see, as was their incredible determination and resilience. I heard of their hopes to learn English more quickly and progress in their education, but also about the challenges of the high costs of food and transport. I was desperately sad to hear they were often harassed because of their race, religion or migration status. But I was glad they were supported by caring support workers who were doing their best to help them navigate a complicated system. The normality and warmth of school life was clearly providing them with a blanket of protection to help them heal from their trauma. It was plain to see how the school had provided that nourishment, and also how it had helped all of its pupils to learn about and understand about the universality of children’s rights and the importance of that warm Welsh welcome.

It was fantastic to read many more examples of this welcome to refugees in Estyn’s recent annual report, where they detailed how schools, colleges, and local authorities have supported refugee children and their families to access their rights. This includes through delivering an after-school club that brings families and agencies together for easy access to help and advice, and a school using specific literature to support refugee and asylum seeker integration.  Across Wales, many schools have been awarded ‘Schools of Sanctuary’ status, which they achieve through a ‘Learn, Embed and Share’ process and meeting minimum criteria. There is also important work going on across many schools to progress towards becoming Anti-racist, and last week, I spoke at a regional event of primary and secondary school leaders, all attending to consider the ways that they can use their school curriculum to support a culture that celebrates and promotes diversity and can create a Cymru i Bawb – a Wales for all.

But despite these positive examples, there are some really concerning undertones on a societal level, including an increase in anti-refugee and racist rhetoric as well as racist behaviour. Immigration is likely to be a key area of debate both in the UK and across the Atlantic during election years, and history shows us that these debates, often fuelled by misinformation, can harm people’s lived experiences in school, work, and their communities.

In an increasingly unstable world, it is more important than ever that all children are educated about refugee, asylum and migration issues. Too many myths and misconceptions abound and this is potentially dangerous, both for us as a society and for individuals including children who could become the targets or victims of hostile attitudes. While this is of course a wider social and political issue, requiring change on many levels, schools are uniquely placed to help shape the lens in which children view the world and the people they share it with.

At the school, community and political levels, the Welsh response to the Ukraine crisis was and continues to be inspiring, and this builds on a long history of positive welcome. I want to thank every school who has done their utmost to not only give refugee children the warmest welcome, but to make sure that every child knows the importance of that warm Welsh welcome. Let’s all get behind their efforts to create a Cymru i Bawb – a Wales for All.