Britain should take our share of Syrian refugees

All three parties should consider making a much stronger, long term commitment to refugee resettlement in their manifestos.

Tim Finch is associate director at IPPR

As today’s PMQs showed, there is a political head of steam building up on the issue of the UK resettling refugees from the Syrian crisis.

Pressed by Ed Miliband, David Cameron’s refusal to countenance offering any resettlement places seem to waver a bit, with the PM deploying some contorted defences, including that the UK had accepted a thousand Syrian asylum seekers – i.e refugees who have arrived here under their own steam (incidentally, when was the last time a prime minister actually boasted about accepting asylum seekers, I wonder?).

Another defence was that accepting a “small quota” would not solve the larger problem – the larger problem being a refugee count of 2.4 million and rising.

Here David Cameron was picking up on the fact that Labour has only called for the UK to take 500 Syrian refugees via resettlement, a response which has been criticised as inadequate, not least on these pages.

However, there is another way of seeing this.

The UK shouldn’t be acting alone in its response to the Syrian refugee crisis. If ever there was a time for the EU to be acting in concert, it is now.

A joint EU resettlement programme has been mooted for some years, so it is shameful that the worst humanitarian crisis of our time has not spurred action. But even now a country like the UK, joining up with the Germans who are the only EU state to have responded adequately, could and should be taking a lead in getting a pan-EU commitment.

If that happened, then ‘small quotas’ (even as low as five hundred per EU state) would convert into more than 10,000 extra places. Still a small response, but each place would transform the life of an individual currently living in crowded camps.

The UK and the EU should also be asking themselves what might be the consequences of not acting? The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, are genuinely concerned that if the richer countries don’t help out, then the countries currently bearing the burden – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – might start turning a blind eye to irregular movements of Syrians beyond their borders.

That could mean the EU facing much greater unmanaged asylum flows – and the Lampedusa tragedy last year shows how dangerous that could be. Europe’s leaders should realise that the Syrian refugee crisis has strategic implications, not just humanitarian ones.

Of course, if the UK was to change its stance, there are logistical issues to consider in resettling refugees. For the last ten years, the UK has run a small resettlement programme called Gateway Protection, taking up to 750 refugees each year from various camps around the world.

It’s generally been a successful programme, but one of the consistent problems is finding enough local authorities who are able to accommodate those arriving. Housing is one issue, but so are the very high support and integration needs of refugees who are vulnerable and often traumatised.

Resettlement is a managed way of providing refugee protection and as such more popular with the public (and politically viable) than spontaneous arrival. But it does require funding to make it work.

As we emerge out of the economic crisis, a much stronger commitment by the UK to resettling refugees is surely the way forward. Asylum – and immigration generally – have been politically toxic for years, but the public still show support, even pride, in welcoming refugees. Resettlement is one of the best ways of honouring that.

So yes, Britain should be taking a lead and acting quickly on Syria, but it should also be thinking beyond the crisis. In which context, all three parties should consider making a much stronger, long term commitment to refugee resettlement in their manifestos.

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