Labour fury at Government decision not to send minister to Syria summit

Campaigners dismayed at Britain's unwillingness to admit vulnerable Syrian refugees

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Labour has called on the Government to reverse a controversial decision not to send a minister to a major United Nations conference on Syria’s refugee crisis next week.

In a letter to the Home Secretary Theresa May, Labour’s Yvette Cooper said that Britain is “badly failing to uphold its moral duty” by refusing to send a senior member of the Government to the ministerial-level summit in Geneva on Tuesday.

The shadow Home Secretary also called on the Government to sign up to the UN body’s ambitious drive to resettle 130,000 vulnerable Syrians. She said that the admission of less than 100 Syrians into Britain this year was “shameful” given the “horrifying nature of the conflict”.

Next week’s UNHCR conference is being seen as crucial by aid agencies as winter arrives in Lebanon and Jordan, where many of the 3.2m Syrians who have fled their country are taking refuge.

However,neither the Home Office nor the Foreign Office will be sending a minister to the conference, where several European nations are expected to increase their resettlement pledges.

Instead, to the dismay of campaigners, Britain will be represented by a Foreign Office diplomat and is not expected to make any further resettlement pledges.

International lawyers and aid agencies increased the pressure on Government tonight, labelling the decision as a “snub” to the United Nations body, which they say is battling with the fallout from the “worst humanitarian crisis of our generation”.

In January, following a concerted campaign supported by The Independent, the Government carried out a major U-turn and committed to admitting up to 500 Syrian refugees. However since then however this pledge has been downgraded to “several hundred” of the most vulnerable Syrians.

These low numbers are in stark contrast to other European countries, including Germany which has agreed to resettle more than 20,000 refugees. Last month a coalition of charities last month called on David Cameron to welcome up to 10,000 vulnerable Syrians to Britain.

Professor James Sweeney, a human rights lecturer at Lancaster University Law School, said Britain’s failure to send a credible representative to Geneva reflects a reluctance to participate in the resettlement of refugees.

He said: “It reinforces that Britain is going its own way when it comes to the refugee problem in Syria and illustrates how reluctant we have been in resettling Syrian refugees under the auspices of the UN resettlement scheme.”

The Government has repeatedly stressed its £700m in humanitarian relief to helping states in the region cope with the influx of refugees. However Prof Sweeney, who recently chaired a UN conference on European responses to Syria, said: “The UK’s position is dangerous, because it suggests that rich states can buy their way out of giving protection to refugees.”

Maurice Wren, the chairman of the Refugee Council said “history would be a cruel judge” of the Prime Minister if he did not respond to calls to accept more Syrian refugees.

A Government spokesperson said: “The UK has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, having pledged £700m, making us the second largest bilateral donor. Our support has reached hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

"Since the crisis began we given sanctuary to more than 3,000 Syrian nationals and their dependants. In addition, through our Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, we are working closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those most at risk and bring them to the UK. The scheme is helping those in the greatest need, including people requiring urgent medical treatment and survivors of torture and violence."