Dr Rowan Williams calls for public to “keep up pressure” on Government over Syrian refugees

  • @Jamie_Merrill

The former Archbishop of Canterbury has called on Britons to continue pressuring the Government to accept more Syrian refugees and dismissed voices who describe “vulnerable” asylum seekers as a “drain on our resources”, The Independent can reveal.

Writing for The Independent website, Dr Rowan Williams’ intervention came as the Government announcement that the first of “several hundred” Syrian refugees arrived in the country today, as part of a new scheme to resettle vulnerable Syrians.

Dr Williams welcomed the scheme and said the “arrival of a small number of refugees from Syria” was in tune with British tradition dating back to the Kindertransport and more recently the Kosovan conflict, but called on the public to “keep up the pressure” on the Government to do more.

He said: “It may suit some to portray the arrival of refugees as another drain on our resources. Indeed, this has been said at every important point in the last century when Britain stepped up to shoulder its moral responsibilities to those at mortal risk. And at every point the compassionate and hospitable instinct of the British people triumphed over the negative voices and sour predictions.”

His powerful call to action came after the Government announced the details of the new Vulnerable Person Relocation (VPR) scheme for the first time.

The scheme, which was announced in January by David Cameron, will see “several hundred” Syrian refugees resettled in the UK over the next three years.

A Syrian family at a refugee camp in Turkey. The UK scheme will target the most vulnerable cases (Getty)

It came about after a concerted campaign by Labour and a coalition of aid agencies forced the Government to perform a major policy U-Turn and open the UK’s doors to vulnerable women and girls who had experienced or were at risk from sexual violence, the elderly, the disabled and survivors of torture.

The campaign, which was supported by The Independent, included an “unprecedented” open letter signed by 25 aid agencies and refugee groups. The letter, published in this newspaper, urged the Government to join 18 western countries backing the UNHCR’s resettlement programme.

Announcing the first arrival yesterday Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said, “We believe this VPR scheme will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable Syrians by giving them protection and support in the UK.

“We also remain committed to providing regional support to those affected by the crisis. We have donated £600 million to the relief effort so far, making the UK the largest bilateral donor after the USA.”

The scheme, which has the support of several local authorities across the country, is smaller than first thought however, and the call by the former Archbishop of Canterbury will add to the pressure from aid agencies for the Government to accept more Syrian refugees.

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, which led the campaign, welcomed the announcement, but said “It’s disappointing to hear that it [the VPR scheme] will only support several hundred people over the next three years when the ongoing need is clearly colossal.”

He called for the UK Government to be “bold and ambition” in response to the more than 2.5 million refugees who have fled the conflict and the UNHCR’s call for 130,000 people to be resettled globally over the next three years.

Jan Shaw, Amnesty International UK’s refugee programme director, told The Independent: “The lucky few are getting vital, life-saving help [escaping] from a horrendous nightmare. We hope this help will extend to many more.”

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria three years ago, the UK has received around 3,800 Syrian asylum seekers, however aid agencies point out most of these are “fit young men” who have been able to travel across Europe or pay for the services of people smugglers.

The Syrians who arrived yesterday are understood to have been “medical” cases, while the next group of vulnerable Syrians, including victims of torture and sexual violence, are expected to arrive in April.