For refugees like Hani Arnout and his family, resettlement to the UK has truly been a life-changing experience.
Back in Syria, Hani was jailed and tortured by extremists and missiles rained down around the family home, now destroyed, near Damascus. He braved snipers, checkpoints and other dangers to escape, and eventually found safety in Jordan. But life there was harsh and uncertain, return not an option. Friends and family are now scattered, some forever lost.
Hani, 34, his wife and three young kids were among a small number of refugees identified by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and given a chance to rebuild their lives here through resettlement to the UK. He is among those refugees who have been embraced by local community sponsorship groups up and down the UK. And his family are now settling into life in the West Country.
Today, there was welcome news from the UK on refugee resettlement. The Home Office said it would replace its main programme, the Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which focuses on victims of the Syrian war, and two other smaller programmes, with a global scheme. The UK will welcome between 5-6,000 refugees in 2020-21, maintaining the current level of resettlement to the country. Hopefully, that commitment will be expanded in the years after.
Why is this so positive? It’s a really encouraging sign of international support for refugees at the start of Refugee Week, placing the UK firmly among the leading resettlement countries. It also increases the geographical diversity of UK resettlement. Needs are huge in Syria, but they are also acute in Bangladesh, swathes of Africa and other regions like Central America. It makes sense to offer a consolidated, flexible programme that responds where needs are greatest.
The UK also plans to create a new process for emergency resettlement, allowing it to react quickly when and where there is a heightened protection need and lives are at risk. This might mean, for example, that more of those languishing in appalling detention conditions in Libya might have a chance of being evacuated and quickly resettled to safety.
The community sponsorship scheme, under which Hani’s family came to the UK, enables local groups to directly support refugees in the UK, and this will continue. The programme, nascent and small but growing, has been a success, giving refugees a head start on the road to restarting their fractured lives and bringing communities together.
To be sure, resettlement is only a solution to a fraction of the world’s more than 25 million refugees - new data on refugee numbers for 2018 will be released this week before World Refugee Day on 20 June. Typically, less than 1% of refugees are ever resettled. In 2019, it is estimate that 1.4 million refugees residing in 65 refugee hosting countries worldwide, will need resettlement.
UNHCR is now finalising with States and partners a three-year strategy on resettlement and other avenues to safety to increase the pool of places, encourage more countries to participate in resettlement, and improve access to protection. The plan will be released in early July.
The UK announcement comes as states and international actors focus on the Global Compact on Refugees. This non-binding international agreement provides a blueprint for governments, international organisations and other actors including the private sector to ensure that host communities obtain the support they need and refugees can lead productive and independent lives in exile, and building skills that may help them reintegrate if and when it is safe to go home. The Compact, agreed in December,calls on States to offer more resettlement places, through existing programmes or establishing new ones.
Across the UK, the contribution of refugees to society is marked every June by Refugee Week, starting right now. This nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events is a chance to celebrate the contribution of refugees and those who support them like civic groups and local authorities, to this country, and foster better understanding among communities.
Supporting refugee inclusion is not easy; it often takes time and requires specialised support. But refugees like Hani, who now works locally as a handyman, are keen to contribute to society and stand on their own feet again.
We should provide them every chance to do just that.
Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor is UNHCR's Representative to the UK
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