The first of “several hundred” Syrian refugees will arrive in Britain tomorrow, The Independent can reveal.
Somewhere in the region of “10 to 20 refugees” are expected to arrive in Britain tomorrow morning as part of a Government scheme to relocate some of the most vulnerable people fleeing the country’s bloody civil war.
The Syrians, who are all believed to be medical cases, will be the first to arrive under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, which 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 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.
This came after 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.
Speaking in January the Prime Minister said the UK act with “the greatest urgency” in offering the “most needy people” a “home in our country”. Since then the Government has worked with the UNHCR and local authorities to provide support, services and accommodation for “several hundred” Syrian refugees.
The figure of 500 refugees was initially reported, however it is now believed the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme will only assist “several hundred” refugees over a period of up to “three years”.
Ed Thompson's images of Syria's refugee crisis
Ed Thompson's images of Syria's refugee crisis
1/11 At a mosque in Chhim
A local sheik took in two orphan girls (one of whom can be seen peeking through the curtain), whose parents were shot in Syria. He says: "They were in agony, they were helpless. God knows how they found their way from Syria.
"They told me that their parents got shot, along with everyone from their family, and they escaped. They are so young, it's a miracle they are still alive. I did my best to take them in and help them.
"They are still in shock and are very depressed; they had nightmares and would run out screaming from the room. I don't know what to do with them except take care of them."
2/11 Sharing their stories
The images were taken by British photojournalist Ed Thompson at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon last December
3/11 At a mosque in Chhim
Amer, the father of this little girl, says:"One day my brother and I, our wives, the kids, my father, we decided to escape from our town in Homs. We were being attacked from every side, and as we got in a taxi, we got hit on the road.
"We managed to get out and run but then a second shell fell next to us and I was hit. When I recovered, we [escaped] to Lebanon.
"We decided to come to Chhim and thanks to the mosque, we have at least shelter. My brother registered us at the United Nations; they helped for two months but after that they stopped. Without surgery, they'll have to cut off [my leg]. Life has come to a stop for us."
4/11 Breaking through the political soundbites
Thompson and Sammy Hamze, a 20-year-old Lebanese art student studying in London, spent six days in Chhim, western Lebanon, interviewing refugees in camps, those taken in by Lebanese families and those forced to pay steep rent for squalid properties
5/11 Personalising the crisis
Thompson wanted to draw attention to two startling statistics: that of the nearly one million (official) Syrian refugees displaced in Lebanon, almost half are children; and around one in five, according to Unicef, are less than five years old
6/11 Lost innocence
What shook Thompson most was that the children, although appearing older than their years, were still so young. "They are innocent, completely innocent," he says now. "One father told me to look at his family; he could barely feed his son. They had been through hell, walked through hell and got to hell. All they want to do is go home."
7/11 Abandoned families
The conflict that has torn Syria apart has raged for almost three years, left more than 100,000 people dead in its wake and driven nine-and-a-half million from their homes
8/11 Huge risk
Thompson is so worried about both the security of the people he photographed, and their families back at home, that he does not want to disclose their exact location. Their stories are what he wants told
9/11 A life in limbo
People live under the mosque or in makeshift tents, scrabbling for food and recounting what they have lost
10/11 Syrian refugees living in rented houses, Chhim
Ahmad Taher (pictured with his children) "I live here in this cave under this building. Even the poor Lebanese won't live here. It's infested, it's dangerous and I have two children living here. I'm trying my best but conditions are very hard; eight people live in this room.
"Everything here is killing us slowly. We are poorer than the poor and everything we have here was donated by the townspeople. When we left from Qusair, Syria, we were shot at; my wife broke her leg as well. Somehow I managed to carry her and the kids to safety here. But what can I say? I don't know what to say any more."
11/11 Syrian refugees living in rented houses, Chhim
Yaseen Abdulatif El Dos (pictured with his children): "We are living a very hard life; we have nothing. Soon I will have no money to support my family. The water is contaminated. Everything we have here in this room is from the garbage.
"We had a wonderful life in Syria. Nine people live here in one room and I'm paying $300 rent, and now that winter is here, we are very cold. There's nothing to keep us warm. There's one bathroom open to the kitchen and there is no door.
"Here's a joke: a rat came in one day and went into the house and he found out that there are Syrian refugees living here so he cursed his head off and left, because we were not Lebanese and had nothing to give him."
Few details of the scheme have been announced, but it is expected that the Syrian refugees will be houses by a number of local authorities across the county. More details are expected to follow on tomorrow.
Last week The Independent reported that some aid agencies have criticised the Government for failing to join the UNHRC programme to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees.
It has instead 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”.
David Hanson, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, welcomed the arrival but said: “It's shameful that the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict have had to wait four months for help all because David Cameron insisted on a parallel system to that run by the UN.”
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, and a signatory of the letter, said,:“The arrival of Syrians to the UK who have suffered so much will make a huge change, offering them the opportunity to try to recover from unimaginable horror. It is essential that they are properly cared for and are made extremely welcome."
He added: “However, they leave behind thousands of other Syrians similarly vulnerable and traumatised. Britain and other countries must not ignore them. We hope that the government will act to increase the size of the programme, and that the arrival of these refugees from Syria is only the beginning."