Syria crisis: Britain's response to humanitarian disaster 'woefully inadequate', says coalition of leading charities in open letter to David Cameron

Exclusive: Immigration figures will show that the UK has only taken in 100 refugees, say organisations

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Britain’s response to the Syria refugee crisis has been “woefully inadequate”, according to a coalition of aid groups and charities who are urging the UK to resettle 10,000 refugees.

In an open letter to David Cameron published by The Independent, more than 30 organisations attack the Government for accepting around 100 Syrians - despite committing to welcome many more.

They urge the Prime Minister to “take the lead” in providing safety for Syria’s most vulnerable people.

After four years of conflict 3.2m refugees have fled Syria in what aid agencies have called the “worst humanitarian crisis of our generation”.

Western governments have been asked by the UN to accept just 100,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from the region. Britain initially resisted these calls, instead highlighting the aid it is offering in the region.

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. Since then however this pledge has been downgraded to a commitment to resettle “several hundred” of the most vulnerable Syrians, and Thursday’s quarterly immigration figures are expected to show that only around 100 Syrians have arrived under the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary said Government’s record was “shameful”. She said: “Theresa May promised Britain would help up to 500 refugees. But whilst other countries have done their bit, Britain hasn’t.” The low number welcomed under the VPR scheme are in stark contrast to other Western countries, including Germany which has agreed to resettle 20,000 refugees and the US which has already granted visas to 9,100 Syrians as part of an “open-ended resettlement” policy.

The unprecedented letter is the first time that major aid agencies, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, CAFOD and Christian Aid, have openly attacked Government policy on Syrian resettlement and placed a figure on the number of refugees Britain has a duty to resettle.

The letter reflects dismay among aid agencies that Britain has been so slow to accept refuges while countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are struggling to provide for 3.2m Syrians with the approach of winter and sub-zero temperatures.

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A Syrian refugee family at the Al-Nihaya camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal (Getty)

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, which organised the letter, said: “Syria’s story is one of death, destruction and displacement. While the prospects for peace appear more remote than ever, the future for Syria' refugees is bleak. Unable to return home, these people’s lives depend on the compassion and generosity of countries like ours. We must not turn our backs on Syria’s refugees.”

In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley alone more than 140,000 Syrians are living in makeshift shelters 900 metres above sea level, while earlier this week it emerged that Jordan was allegedly forcing some refugees to return to Syria.

Justin Forsyth, chief executive of the Save the Children said Syria’s neighbours are “struggling under the burden” while “Britain is offering sanctuary to so few.”

On Wednesday, in an intervention one aid agency source described as a “strong challenge to the UK to do more”, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres told The Independent that the refugee crisis in the region “needs a much stronger international response than what we have seen so far.”

Mr Guterres said: “A growing number of Syrian refugees in the region are very vulnerable… and we urgently need additional resettlement and humanitarian admissions places for them, now and over the coming months.”

His most forceful intervention yet comes two weeks before a UNHCR ministerial-level conference in Geneva, which will see the UNHCR call on Western countries to help resettle 100,000 Syrian during 2015 and 2016. However the British government has declined to send a minister to lead its delegation, which will instead be represented by a diplomat from the Foreign Office.

 

The letter to David Cameron comes as the latest immigration figures, released on Thursday, are expected to underline his party’s failure to meet their own net migration target of getting immigration below 100,000 by the general election.

Refugee charities are urging the government not to allow domestic politics to overshadow the crisis in Syria. Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, said: “Our government has a responsibility to rise above domestic politics and see this for what it is: Britain giving safe, often temporary, homes to people in the direst of need.”

A Downing Street spokesman 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. This funding is providing support including food, medical care and relief items for over a million people affected by the fighting in Syria, as well as to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

“We will always consider legitimate asylum claims and, 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.”

Case study: The family forced to flee Syria after seeing their father executed

Before Tayma, 38, and her seven children (pictured top of the page) fled Syria 10 months ago she had  “everything anyone could ever want” with a healthy family, a loving husband, a productive farm and an eighth child on the way.

Then soldiers came in the night and executed her husband in front of her and threatened her children with rape. She soon found that her sister and six-month-old niece had also been killed, forcing her to flee her farm and take refuge over the border to northern Lebanon.

She said: “One night we heard a noise outside, so my husband got up to see what was happening. I sensed that something was not right, so I woke the kids up and took them to the farm. While I was outside, I saw an armed man dragging my husband on the floor and then shooting him. I screamed hysterically at my children to run away.

“The man emptied his bullets into my husband’s chest and walked towards me. He said that if I don’t leave right now, he will give my daughters to his men and he will make me watch them get raped and tortured. I collapsed on the ground, tears streaming down my face... I crawled towards my husband’s body desperately calling his name; I didn’t realise that my daughter, Diana, was behind me all the time until I saw her sitting next to her father drenched in blood, crying and calling him to wake up.”

When Tayma eventually arrived in Lebanon she was seven months pregnant and “terrified”. She is one of 1.3 million refugees in Lebanon, a country with a normal population of less than 4.5 million. Like thousands of vulnerable refugees arriving in the tiny but swollen country, she was forced to live in a shack with no doors, running water or a bathroom. It was only with help from Save the Children that she managed to install proper windows and a door.

She said: “When I saw the living conditions here, I thought of going back to Syria. But then I figured it’s better to live in a stable or an abandoned house than put my children’s lives in danger.”

Jamie Merrill