Nick Clegg says the UK is one of the most “open-hearted countries” in the world when helping refugees – but is resettling 500 of the “most vulnerable” Syrians really enough?
Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed plans on Wednesday to help resettle 500 Syrian refugees.
But Prime Minister David Cameron has resisted signing Britain up to the UN sanctuary programme, arguing that it is not the solution to a crisis which has seen millions of Syrians flee their homes in a three-year civil war.
He stressed that the UK was already the world’s second-largest bilateral donor in the crisis, providing £600m to help victims of the violence in Syria and neighbouring countries.
After coming under pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, he told MPs at prime minister’s questions last week that he was ready to consider taking in refugees in cases of extreme hardship.
Now Mr Clegg has said: “I am pleased to be able to announce today that the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
“The coalition government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria”.
Since civil war started in Syria nearly three years ago, 2.3 million people have fled the country, more than half of them children.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is aiming to resettle up to 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the “most vulnerable”.
To date, around 20 countries, including the UK, have indicated their interest in receiving refugees on humanitarian admission or resettlement.
The total official and unconfirmed pledges so far stand at more than 18,300 places.
Germany’s Humanitarian Assistance Programme provides for up to 10,000 places for Syrian refugees, and as such is the biggest relocation programme currently in existence for the crisis.
However, no figure is being put on the number of displaced people the UK will take, but coalition sources say no more than about 500 refugees would be permitted entry.
The scheme would be in addition to two long-running UN programmes and asylum applications made directly to the UK.
Mrs May said: “We expect this to be several hundred people, refugees, who will be coming, but we haven’t set a quota precisely because we want to look at particular needs.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the scheme was a “big reversal” but that “compassion and common sense have won through”.
But she said the UK should be working with the UN to decide on numbers rather than setting up a “parallel programme” of its own.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is a good thing that the government has completely reversed its position – just seven days ago they were refusing to do anything at all to help with providing sanctuary in this way.
“But it is slightly surprising that they are still refusing to sign up to the UN programme and to do this alongside other countries.”
However, some critics have said that the scheme is a “smokescreen” to hide current government policies on immigration.
To qualify for resettlement, you must now be the most vulnerable. It’s disempowering – Katy Long
Dr Katy Long, Lecturer in International Development, Edinburgh, told Channel 4 News: “While Cooper is right to question the numbers, she’s fully on board with the idea that offering resettlement places demands exceptional suffering.
“In many ways, it’s this trend that worries me most, for it carries with it the implication that a normal crisis is no longer enough.
“To qualify for resettlement, you must now be the most vulnerable. It’s disempowering. It is not enough to just be a refugee.”
Publicly, the UK likes to think of itself as a “humanitarian leader”, however the reality is “very different”, Dr Long added.
She said: “We cling to the insistence that refugees aren’t migrants: that they are victims, not workers. And in the end, that’s why we cling to the familiar humanitarian tropes about refugee resettlement.
“Resettlement needs to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. And to be truly meaningful, this conversation needs to go beyond tired humanitarian tropes.”
Heaven Crawley, director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR), also told Channel 4 News: “Any plans to resettle Syrian refugees needs to be more than just a gesture designed to make us feel better about the terrible things that are going on in Syria.
“We have a moral responsibility to help our fellow human beings on a scale that makes a difference not just to the most vulnerable but to as many as possible.
“And if the government intends that these people should remain in the UK on a temporary basis only then there is no reason at all why we can’t offer protection to thousands rather than hundreds of Syrians, as other countries have.”
Anne Stoltenberg, Project Development Manager at Migrant Voice added: “Migrant Voice welcomes the news of the UK government’s decision to offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees as is this country’s long standing tradition.
“However given the large number of refugees from this conflict and the number of refugees already being helped in other countries, we hope that the government will live up to its responsibility and strive to increase the number of individuals they will help.”
Chaher Roumieh, from Migrant Voice, who was born in Syria, said: “I think the UK government has made a good decision, but I think they need to take more refugees than the suggested number.”
What are resettlement and humanitarian admission?
Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State which has agreed to admit them as refugees with permanent residence status.
Humanitarian admission is a similar, but expedited, process providing protection in a third country for refugees in greatest need in the region. Residence under humanitarian admission may be either permanent or temporary depending upon State legislation.
From which countries does UNHCR carry out resettlement and humanitarian admission?
The programmes are implemented in countries neighbouring Syria and in the wider region hosting the largest numbers of Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as other countries in the region and beyond as needed.
Who can benefit from resettlement and humanitarian admission?
UNHCR is working closely with resettlement and humanitarian admission countries to prioritize the most vulnerable, including women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and/or torture, refugees with medical needs or disabilities, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex refugees at risk, vulnerable older adults, and refugees in need of family reunification.
Refugees who face serious UNHCR 18 December 2013 2 threats to their physical security, particularly due to political opinion or belonging to an ethnic or religious minority group, may also be prioritized. Vulnerable refugees are identified through registration data and community outreach by UNHCR and its partners.
UNHCR is enhancing its capacity to identify vulnerable refugees and to streamline procedures for referral.