The first of “several hundred” Syrian refugees to be brought to Britain as part of a Government scheme to relocate some of the most vulnerable people fleeing the bloody civil war are expected to arrive with weeks.
The high-profile scheme was announced in January after concerted political pressure by the Labour Party and a powerful coalition of aid agencies and charities.
The campaign, which was supported by The Independent, forced the Government to perform a major 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.
David Cameron was forced to overrule objection from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, after sustained pressure and an “unprecedented” open letter signed by 25 aid agencies and refugee groups. The letter, published in The Independent, urged the Government to join 18 western countries backing the UNHCR’s resettlement programme.
At the time the Prime Minister said the UK act with “the greatest urgency” in offering the “most needy people” a “home in our country”. Now responding to a written parliamentary question from shadow home affairs minister David Hanson, Home Office minister James Brokenshire, said the Government has “worked with partners including the UNHCR and local authorities to ensure that the support, services and accommodation they [the Syrian refugees] need are in place before they arrive in the UK”.
However Britain did not join the UNHRC programme to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees. It has spent the last eight weeks establishing its own Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, to the dismay of some refugee organisations who have accused the Government of “dragging its feet”.
The Independent now understands the new scheme could take as long as three years to relocate “several hundred” refugees, rather than a figure of 500, which many aid organisations had hoped for.
David Hanson, shadow immigration minister, told The Independent that “while it’s welcome that some of the most vulnerable women and children displaced by the terrible Syrian conflict may soon be able to enter the UK, it is unacceptable that after the Prime Minister promised to act swiftly it’s taken the Government nearly four months to accept refugees because of their insistence on setting up their own separate scheme."
A spokesperson for The Refugee Council, which helped co-ordinate the letters in The Independent, said “For each man, woman and child who comes to the UK through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, their resettlement place will be life changing, if not life-saving.
“We hope the Government will continue to respond to the growing need in the region by facilitating the timely arrival of a substantial number of refugees to enable them to rebuild their lives in safety.”
Timetable of a U-Turn
- December 26: The Independent reveals that David Cameron is under pressure to reverse the Government’s rejection of UNHCR request to allow some Syrian refugees to come to Britain. Labour calls for 400-500 Syrians to be allowed in.
- January 6: Nick Clegg defends the Government’s policy but says that more than 1,000 Syrians have been allowed entry as asylum-seekers in past year. Refugee groups point out that most of the 2.4m people in camps in neighbouring countries have no prospect of reaching Britain to claim asylum.
- January 18: Letter signed by 25 aid agencies and refugee groups, published in The Independent, urges the Government to join 18 western countries backing the UNHCR’s resettlement programme. They ask: “ How can we call on Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open to refugees if we keep our own under lock and key?”
- January 20: Labour tables emergency Commons question. Mark Harper, Immigration Minister, comes under fire from Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs after saying that joining UNHCR scheme would be a “token” gesture.
- January 22: David Cameron softens the Government’s line when Ed Miliband raises the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions. The PM says he is ready to see some of the most vulnerable refugees come to UK. To keep up the pressure, Labour announces Commons debate and vote a week later.
- January 23: The Independent reveals that Nick Clegg has been pushing behind the scenes for weeks for the Government to admit hundreds of Syrians, and is now “hopeful” of persuading the Conservatives.
- January 24: 55 peers from all parties call for Britain to sign up to the UN programme. In a letter published in The Independent, they say the scheme is a “moral imperative” and the only “durable solution”.
- January 26: William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, tells the BBC that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is preparing to announce plans to help “particularly vulnerable” refugees.
- January 27: Mrs May confirms that an announcement will be made before Wednesday's Commons debate called by Labour.
- January 28: Nick Clegg confirms that hundreds of Syrian refugees will be allowed in, including women and girls at risk of sexual violence; the elderly; the disabled and survivors of torture.
- March 20: Home Office Minister James Brokenshire confirms the Government intends to bring the first Syrians on the vulnerable persons relocation scheme into the UK by the end of the month.