The UK has a long record of admitting and supporting refugees.
The UK has a long record of admitting and supporting refugees
With nearly 55 million people internally displaced or living as refugees, forced migration is at a 15 year high. Syria is the source of the world’s largest refugee crisis and its neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with nearly 3 million refugees.
In the past governments in developed countries would have offered sanctuary to some of the most vulnerable refugees from any large-scale refugee crisis.
But this is not happening.
Throughout British history, governments have, at certain times admitted groups of forcibly displaced people who are deemed particularly vulnerable. Three hundred years ago this country admitted 13,000 impoverished Germans who had been displaced by failed harvests and the 1701-1714 War of Spanish Succession.
This group became known as the Poor Palatines and debates between Whigs and Tories about their settlement may seem familiar to the modern observer.
As refugee protection regimes developed in the 20th century, vulnerable groups of displaced people admitted through quota systems became known as programme refugees. They have included Poles (1946), Hungarians (1957 via Austria) and 24,500 Vietnamese refugees admitted between 1979 and 1992.
The latter group were accepted under the successive Thatcher governments, despite her initial reluctance to bring them to the UK. Many of the children of these Vietnamese refugees are now enjoying considerable career success.
More recently, 2,500 Bosnians and 4,000 Kosovar Albanians were evacuated to the UK, with the UK government and local authorities working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to organise their settlement.
Today, most refugees coming to the UK are not admitted through quota schemes, rather they arrive as individuals or as a family and have to apply for asylum. On the basis of this application they are granted refugee status, other types of leave to remain or are refused asylum.
Asylum applications have decreased significantly from the early years of the 21st century and there were 23,507 lodged with the Home Office in 2013, of which 1,669 came from Syrian nationals. Other EU countries have received larger numbers of Syrian asylum-seekers, including in 2013 Sweden (23,500), Germany (29,940) and Bulgaria (3,225).
Over the years the UK has also given offered sanctuary to small groups of programme refugees, outside the large evacuations such as the 1999 Kosovar Programme. This arrangement was increased and formalised by home secretary David Blunkett through the Gateway Protection Programme.
Vulnerable refugees are identified by UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration. Many of them have spent years languishing in camps after fleeing conflicts in countries such as Burma, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.
On arrival in the UK these refugees are entitled to a 12 month integration programme delivered by local authorities and non-governmental organisations such as the Refugee Council. There is an annual quota of 750 people admitted through the Gateway Programme, small in comparison with the United States where 70,000 refugees are admitted through quotas.
Nevertheless, there is cross-party support for the programme and at a local level councillors from all the main political parties have voted to take in these refugees.
It can be seen that the UK has a long record in admitting and supporting vulnerable refugees. Its generosity has usually been measured in thousands. That this government has only admitted 50 Syrian refugees seems particularly parsimonious and a break with past tradition.
Over 80 per cent of the world refugees live in poor countries and one of the founding principles of United Nations is that its member states should share responsibility for humanitarian problems. A desperate UNHCR has appealed for EU countries to take in 30,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Next week, Parliament will again debate the UK’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Those who consider that sharing responsibility for supporting refugees is an important and progressive principle can ask their MPs to attend the debate and push for greater generosity.
Jill Rutter writes on migration and is vice-chair of the Migration Museum whose exhibition on German migration opens in September. She is also a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.