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Home Office under pressure to re-open refugee resettlement as hundreds left ‘languishing in unsafe situations’

Six hundred people trapped in host countries since March despite UK charities being ready to help them

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 03 September 2020 19:41 BST
Charities say the government must resume refugee resettlement – which has been paused for six months – amid concerns the coronavirus pandemic had fuelled socio-economic vulnerabilities among refugees in countries hosting refugees in the Middle East
Charities say the government must resume refugee resettlement – which has been paused for six months – amid concerns the coronavirus pandemic had fuelled socio-economic vulnerabilities among refugees in countries hosting refugees in the Middle East (Getty)

Ministers are coming under mounting pressure to reopen the UK’s refugee resettlement schemes as charities warn vulnerable refugees are being left to “languish in unsafe situations” while these routes remained closed.

The programmes, which are the only safe and legal way to Britain for most refugees, were closed on 12 March because of coronavirus. No refugees have been resettled in the UK under the schemes since then.

Despite this, the immigration minister claimed on Thursday that the programmes provided a safe alternative to crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Chris Philp said there were “plenty of legal routes by which people can claim asylum”, adding: “I think we do more than our fair share while protecting vulnerable people.”

He also told the House of Commons the UK had been resettling people “directly from conflict zones”.

Charities have said they created plans to facilitate the safe arrival of refugees during the first month of the pandemic – but that the Home Office has since failed to tell them when the process could resume.

The Independent understands that when resettlement was paused in March, there had been plans for more than 600 refugees to arrive who were subsequently blocked, meaning they remain in host countries where the pandemic has exacerbated already poor living conditions.

Other developed countries, including Italy, have resumed resettlements after pausing them during the lockdown. According to the UNHCR, at least eight out of 17 resettlement countries are currently receiving refugees, with 597 resettled overall between 1 April and 31 July.

Campaigners accused the UK government of prioritising holiday travel over refugees, and warned that the rise in dangerous small boat crossings could be linked to the lack of safe routes to the UK. More than 5,000 have completed the perilous journey from northern France so far in 2020.

They also criticised the Home Office for blocking refugee arrivals while continuing deportations. The Independent revealed earlier this month that 285 people were deported from the UK on charter flights between April and June, along with 374 escorts, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £1m.

Louise Calvey, head of resettlement at charity Refugee Action, which usually works with local councils to facilitate the arrival of between 50 to 100 refugees each month, said: “We’re incredibly disappointed by a lack of information on the Home Office’s plans to restart resettlement.

“Like many of the other refugee organisations in the UK, we are ready to help an arrival while balancing public health concerns. We have developed a Covid arrival plan and are able to support families with necessary public health measures, such as quarantine.

“Travel corridors re-opened some time ago. We understand that the Home Office have recommenced removal actions. In light of this there can be no significant reason why we cannot plan for the safe arrival of refugees.”

Between April and September 2019, the UK welcomed 2,732 refugees via its resettlement schemes. In June last year, the Home Office announced that the UK would accept between 5,000 and 6,000 refugees under it in the financial year 2020-21 under a new programme which would merge the existing ones.

However, this new programme – known as the UK Resettlement Scheme – has not yet started due to the cessation of resettlements, casting doubt over whether it will meet its aim to welcome 5,000 refugees by 31 March 2021, and prompting calls for the Home Office to extend it beyond this date.

A briefing published by the UNHCR last month warned that the coronavirus pandemic had fuelled socio-economic vulnerabilities among refugees in countries hosting refugees in the Middle East, which charities said highlighted the urgency to resume UK resettlement schemes.

The UNHCR said the Beirut explosion has pushed displaced families further into poverty, while in Yemen, phone call requests from refugees and asylum seekers for financial assistance have increased by 30 per cent in the north, compared to the weeks before.

The Independent understands that plans to resume resettlement were put to immigration minister Chris Philp by civil servants in June, but charities and community groups continue to await an update from him.

Citizens UK, an organisation that works with the community sponsorship scheme – a subset of the resettlement scheme which allows community groups to support refugee families directly – said its member organisations were “ready and waiting” to welcome resettled refugees.

“While we recognise the importance of putting safety first, every week a vulnerable family is unable to come to the UK is a week where they are left languishing in an unsafe situation,” a spokesperson for the organisation said.

“We call on the government to reopen the scheme urgently, and to commit to extending it beyond March 2021.”

Kate Brown, co-director of Reset Communities and Refugees, which also facilitates arrivals under the sponsorship scheme, urged the Home Office to resume refugee resettlement “as quickly as possible”.

Refugees wait to cross over Turkish border to Greece

“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, groups of friends and neighbours have come together to create community sponsorship groups to sponsor refugees to come to the UK. Many groups have now submitted applications to the Home Office to sponsor refugee families and have received approval to do so,” she said.

“But these families cannot be welcomed until flights resume. Communities across the UK are ready to welcome refugees again.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are working on detailed plans to recommence refugee resettlement, and continue to discuss these plans with international and domestic stakeholders.

“Our plans for restarting depend on a variety of factors, including the lifting of restrictions imposed by the governments of host refugee countries, local authority and central government capacity, and recovery of the asylum system from the impact of Covid-19.

“We resettle more refugees than any other country in Europe and are in the top five countries worldwide. Since September 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 vulnerable refugees, with around half being children.”

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