Syrian refugees – too little, too late

Those concerned about the plight of refugees need to keep up the pressure


David Cameron has just announced the government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The UK is to offer resettlement for up to 20,000 Syrian refugees.

This sounds generous, but there is one important caveat, as the quota will run over a five year period.

The refugees will be evacuated from the countries bordering Syria. Here they are widely dispersed in overcrowded accommodation, much of it in urban areas. Priority will be given to unaccompanied children, single parents, the elderly, disabled and survivors of sexual violence.

Once in the UK they will be dispersed to host local authorities, where they will receive a package of integration support, the costs of which will be reimbursed out of the overseas aid budget, at least for the first year. So far about 40 councils have indicated that they will take in refugees.

There are many questions to ask. We do not know how many places will be offered this year – will it be 4,000 in the next 12 months or will it be more? We do not know how broad the evacuation criteria will be.

The details that have been announced suggest that the response is a relaunch of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, announced last year. This prioritised victims of sexual violence, the elderly, victims of torture, and the disabled. By June 2015, just 216 people had been evacuated to the UK under this scheme.

Reasons for the low take-up include problems identifying those eligible for evacuation – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees generally has responsibility for this, but its resources are limited. Survivors of sexual violence are particularly unwilling to come forward.

Many vulnerable people may also want to stay in the region, with the support of extended family and in Arabic-speaking countries. Many experts fear that the problems that beset the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme will be repeated and few refugees will be resettled in the UK. Definitions of vulnerability will be used to exclude people and restrict numbers.

The prime minister has also reiterated the government’s unwillingness to resettle refugees already within the EU, arguing that to do so would act as incentive to use people smugglers and make perilous sea journeys. In absolute terms, this is the right approach, but pragmatically, thousands of people have already made the journey and are now living in desperate conditions in Greece and southern Italy, and closer to home in Calais.

Cameron’s response has been prompted by the public concern for the welfare of refugees, after the death of Aylan Kurdi. Charities such as the Red Cross and Save the Children have seen increased donations. Members of the public have also collected donations food and clothing and driven with them in convoys to Calais. As I write this blog, 427,509 people had signed a Parliamentary Petition calling for the UK to take more refugees.

The British public has shown its overwhelming sympathy to desperate refugees. We need to use this good will and keep up the pressure on Cameron. The UK has taken in large numbers of refugees in the past – the 30,000 Hungarians who arrived in early 1957 came over a period of weeks.

More recently, the experiences of the Kosovar programme shows that the UK can evacuate and deal with large numbers of people. In early 1999 nearly 4,500 Kosovars came to the UK over about 12 weeks, evacuated by the UNHCR from refugee camps in Macedonia. Criteria for evacuation were broad, although many of the Kosovars already had family living in the UK

The Refugee Council, the largest NGO working with refugees in the UK was initially given responsibility for leading the Kosovar evacuation. However, when it became apparent that the numbers of refugees would be in the thousands rather than the hundreds, the Home Office took responsibility for the coordination of the resettlement programme while local authorities were responsible for managing the reception and support for the refugees.

On arrival to the UK, the refugees were met at the airport by teams who included immigration officers, local authority staff and interpreters. After initial processing, the refugees were bussed to reception centres and from there into empty housing. The selection of the areas that they went to was determined by available housing. The public in the receiving areas was also informed about the refugees’ arrival and their reception was usually warm.

Those concerned about the plight of refugees need to keep up the pressure. We need to argue for generous criteria for evacuation and we need to campaign for a larger quota. In six month’s time we need to hold the government to account for the numbers it has taken. And we need to keep up the pressure for EU-wide strategy and help for refugees in Greece and Italy.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.