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.
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.
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
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Yemeni refugees carry water to their tent at the Mazraq internally displaced people's camp in the northwestern province of Hajja
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A displaced man from Yemen's Saada province amid UNHCR tents at a camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mazraq in Yemen's Hajja region, 360 kms northwest of Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees queue to get food aid at the Marzaq internally displaced people's camp in Harad in the northwestern province of Hajjah
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Displaced Yemenis from al-Jaachan Al-Ansin, a village in the province of Ibb, some 200km South-East of Sanaa, stand next to their tents in a makeshift refugee camp in Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees walk to a refugee camp in the southern Saudi province of Jizan after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
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Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey at the Cilvegozu crossing gate of Reyhanli, in Hatay. The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) said, in an annual report released on World Refugee Day
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Syrian refugees walking among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey
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South Sudanese refugees waiting for food in the Kule refugee camp near the Pagak Border Entry point in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia
9/41 African refugees
African refugees live homelessly at a temporary shelter beside a road on World Refugee Day in Sana'a, Yemen. The number of African refugees who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, most of them are Somalis
10/41 Iraqi refugees
An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq's cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law - its strict version of Shariah
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Refugees queue to register at a temporary camp in northern Iraq
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A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
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A child refugee from the northern province of Raqqa in Syria, reacts from the cold weather in a Syrian refugee camp beside the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley
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Boys help their father remove snow in front of their tent in the Azaz refugee camp
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A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
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A child refugee stands next to a home constructed using a billboard in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugee baby Rim in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugees arriving at a camp near Bossangoa, 190 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Forty-one thousand people fled their homes following mass executions in the area
Juan Carlos Tomasi/Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
19/41 Syrian refugees
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
20/41 Iraqi refugees
A women and a girl wash at a tap at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint in Kalak. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region
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Families arrive at a Kurdish checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp in Kalak
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to Isis fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades
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A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region
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A displaced Iraqi woman washes her family's laundry as the children shower outside their tent at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil
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Iraqi refugees from Mosul arrive at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad
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The international Red Cross said that the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area 'is lined with thousands of people' waiting for boats so they could cross the Nile River and that the gathering of displaced 'is the largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far'
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People unload the few belongings at Minkammen, that they were able to bring with them to the camps
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Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor
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Many people had spent days hiding out in the bush outside Bor as gunmen battled for control of the town, which has exchanged hands three times in the conflict, and remains in rebel control
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A young boy pulls his suitcase of belongings as he walks to find a place to rest after getting off a river barge from Bor
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A displaced family camp under a tree providing partial shade from the midday sun
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A boy carries a fish, caught from the nearby Nile river, in a cardboard box on his head back to his relatives to eat
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A mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up in the morning after sleeping in the open
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Four-month old Haida Majzub was born in the Ajuong Thok refugee camp inside South Sudan. The camp, in northern Unity State, hosts thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains, located across the nearby border with Sudan
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A girl fills a container with muddy water in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp
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The clashes in South Sudan began when uniformed personnel opened fire at a meeting of the governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
37/41 Myanmar refugees
45 year old Dilbhar looks towards the camera as she stands in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. She escaped to Bangladesh from the Bodchara village in the Mondu district of Myanmar
38/41 Myanmar refugees
32 year old Mahada Khatum, 5 year old Hasan Sharif, and 9 year old Umma Kulsum sit outside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. The family escaped violence and discrimination from the Zomgara Baharchara village in the Meherulla district of Myanmar
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Hamid and his daughter Rajama sit inside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. They fled to Bangladesh from the Dhuachopara village in the Rachidhong district of Myanmar
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Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
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Afghan people carry relief supplies received from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
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.”
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