As the Syrian conflict becomes ever more desperate, vulnerable refugees need our help. The Independent has rightly championed the UN’s humanitarian programme to resettle those too vulnerable to survive or cope in camps. But the British Government’s refusal to sign up is wrong. And ministers’ objections look increasingly thin. They should rethink before next week’s Parliamentary vote.
Already over 2m refugees have fled their country – over half of them children. The devastation and human tragedy is dire. Most of the help is rightly being provided in the region – and Britain has shown welcome leadership by providing £600m of aid.
But the UN has also asked for help to resettle a limited number of very vulnerable refugees - abandoned children who have no protection, torture victims suffering immense physical and mental distress, people needing medical help, mothers of young children who have lost husbands and other relatives or who may have been abused. And that’s where the British Government’s refusal is so disappointing.
Eighteen other countries have agreed to help – including our European neighbours, Australia, Canada, and the USA – taking the UN well on their way towards their target. So why are ministers so resistant to provide this limited help?
First Home Office ministers and the Conservative Party chair argued that the UN programme was “tokenistic.” But that’s clearly nonsense. Of course, only a minority of refugees will be helped because only a minority need this support. And it certainly won’t feel tokenistic to a desperate child given a home.
Then the Deputy Prime Minister suggested Britain was doing its bit by giving asylum instead. But asylum seekers have to get here and most of these vulnerable refugees can’t travel alone.
Both the Home Office and the Prime Minister have said they are providing support in the region instead. But it shouldn’t be an either-or. Countries should do both. Britain’s aid is vital – but while most people need support in the camps, some struggle to cope. And it’s really important that Theresa May doesn’t resist every refugee programme, however small, because of the Home Office net migration target which wrongly includes refugees within it. This isn’t about border control, or immigration policy, it’s about sanctuary for those fleeing persecution.
On Wednesday, under pressure, the Prime Minister said he would look at the issue of people who don’t belong in camps. Then why not sign up to the UN programme? That will help them and encourage other countries to do more too. It’s harder to ask Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to keep their borders open, and help millions of people, if Britain refuses to take in a few hundred of those in greatest need.
Labour will call a vote in Parliament next week on joining the UN programme, but this issue has always had strong cross-party support. All party leaders agree we have a moral obligation to help those suffering in the Syrian conflict. That’s why I urge the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to change their minds now and act.
Yvette Cooper is the shadow Home Secretary
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