Why our government must be more generous with Syrian refugees

Support for the Syrian Resettlement Programme is one small act that the government could take to show that compassion is a core British value.

Support for the Syrian Resettlement Programme is one small act that the government could take to show that compassion is a core British value

Back in July, I wrote about the plight of Syrian refugees and the failure by the UK government to take its fair share of the most vulnerable of them.

Despite promises made in January 2014 to set up a new Syrian Resettlement Programme, the government had admitted just 50 Syrians by the summer.

Since then just 40 more refugees have been admitted by the UK, far fewer than most other developed countries.

In a week’s time, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will convene a meeting on the Syrian refugee crisis. The organisation will ask for financial support for refugees and the internal displaced in the region, and also appeal for governments to evacuate the most vulnerable.

I think our own government’s response to this request matters, not just for the refugees concerned, but for wider society.

The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the largest human displacements ever. Only the refugee crises of the Second World War, Indian partition and Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence exceed it, in terms of numbers of people who have been forced to flee.

Today 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Syria, and nearly 3 million people are refugees in the region, mostly in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Many of the displaced have been forced to move several times in this ever-changing conflict. As winter approaches, life in a Middle East refugee camp is cold and unpleasant.

Comparatively few Syrian asylum-seekers have made it to Europe – under 150,000 since 2011. Most endangered Syrians simply do not have the resources to pay smugglers to take them out of the region. Apart from 20,000 Syrians taken by Germany, few refugees have been evacuated from the region through programmes or quotas.

In these cases, vulnerable refugees are identified abroad by UNHCR, their paperwork sorted overseas, then they are admitted to a third country as part of a resettlement programme or quota. Programme refugees usually receive integration advice and assistance in their new countries of settlement, much of which is provided by charities.

In the UK, the Refugee Council is the largest charity providing help for programme refugees. Founded in 1951, the organisation has helped previous quota groups such as the 2,500 Bosnians and 4,000 Kosovar Albanians admitted through UNHCR resettlement programmes in the 1990s.

The UK has taken in a total of 90 people through its Syrian Resettlement Programme and processed another 3,700 asylum applications from Syrians who have made their own way to the UK since 2011.

The national debate about migration is highly charged at the moment and this has undoubtedly made politicians less willing to stand up for Syrian refugees. But overall asylum applications are low in the UK and the Refugee Council is calling for the government to be more generous and increase the numbers coming through the Syrian Refugee Programme.

The Refugee Council’s request is important for those evacuated to the UK, who usually have additional vulnerabilities such as a disabled family member. But I think the Syrian Resettlement Programme has wider significance. It aims to help a tiny number of the world’s most vulnerable people and as such is a marker of compassion in politics.

This week we heard that health service managers and politicians have allowed 1,700 mental health beds to close and seen a mentally ill teenage girl left in a police cell for two days because there was no hospital bed available anywhere in the UK.

Arguably, this is an example of a lack of compassion in politics and policy. We want our nurses, doctors and health service managers to act compassionately; the Stafford Hospital scandal shows what happens when they do not.

If we want to be treated compassionately ourselves, our leaders must set an example through their words and decisions. Support for the Syrian Resettlement Programme is one small act that the government could take to show that compassion is a core British value and something worth defending.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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