Vital services for refugees arriving in the UK are being wound down because the Home Office has failed to restart its scheme bringing vulnerable people to Britain, The Independent has learned – limiting the number of families that can be given a new start in the UK even when the programme resumes.
Charities and organisations that support refugees have warned that unless the government urgently resumes its resettlement programme, which was paused on 12 March because of the coronavirus and remains closed despite being the only safe and legal route to the UK for most refugees, they will be forced to make redundancies.
The Independent understands that several local authorities that take in dozens of refugees each year are having to consider axing services that are crucial for those arriving under the scheme to integrate in the UK.
Local councils have written a letter to the home secretary calling on her to take “urgent action” to resume the scheme, which takes in about 5,000 people a year, saying that the tragic death of a Kurdish-Iranian family in the Channel last week must serve as a “wake-up call” that without safe and legal routes to safety, “more lives will be lost”.
The letter, signed by 16 London council leaders, informs Priti Patel that they are ready to welcome families into their communities, and see “no reason” why the UK should “lag behind” other European countries.
Other developed countries have resumed their refugee resettlement schemes after pausing them during the lockdown. Between August and September, 300 refugees arrived in France, while Spain welcomed 140 refugees in September. Between June and September, the US resettled 4,000 refugees.
Toni Soni, director at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, which is contracted by the local authority to assist newly arrived refugees under the scheme, said the delay was starting to create budgeting problems for the charity, and forcing them to consider making redundancies.
“We need to plan ahead for new arrivals coming to the city. We’ve got all those plans in place and we’re waiting to deliver. We didn’t think it would take this long. It’s just going on and on,” he said.
“We won’t be able to sustain this situation on a long-term basis. If there’s no cohort of people coming through, then that funding will dry up.”
Mr Soni added: “If we would’ve followed the example of other European countries who have reopened their schemes, these people would have been here by now. But now we’ve got the problem of the second lockdown and we don’t know what that means. It’s the unknown that is the difficulty.”
When UK resettlement was paused in March, there had been plans for more than 600 refugees to arrive, who were subsequently blocked. They were due to fill the remaining spaces on the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which is drawing to a close, and a new programme called the UK Resettlement Scheme was then due to start.
Gudrun Carlisle, services director for Horton Housing Association, an organisation that provides housing, healthcare and support for refugees under the resettlement scheme in Yorkshire, said they too were being forced to consider laying off staff.
She said: “We share the concerns about the people who are affected by the pause in the resettlement programme. We hope that the arrivals start again, but understand it’s difficult under the current circumstances.
“Due to the current situation, we have had to engage staff in the redundancy process and we are looking to redeploy employees in other areas of the business where and when we can.”
One local authority migration lead, who didn’t want to be named, but whose council has taken in a significant number of refugees under resettlement, said: “We need the Home Office to restart arrivals, otherwise we will have to wind it all up, and the question will be, will we go back into doing it again? I don’t know.”
Another said: “As we get nearer to the end of the financial year, we need clarity from the Home Office about their intentions for the programme so that we can be ready, otherwise we’re not going to be able to take part in it.”
A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent that as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it had been “harder for the UK along with many other countries to resettle refugees” but that the department expected arrivals to resume “as soon as conditions allow”.
The letter to Ms Patel on Friday from London councils, led by Lewisham, states: “We see no reason as to why our country should lag behind our European neighbours and our ally across the Atlantic. Britain can and should be better than this.
"Where there is a will, there is a way. Local authorities across London and elsewhere are willing – we urge you to help save lives and restart the resettlement schemes without delay.”
Raising concerns about potential cuts to refugee services, Louise Calvey, head of resettlement at charity Refugee Action, which is contracted by a number of councils to support refugee arrivals, said: “Local authorities are ready to resettle and people on government programmes are desperate to be resettled.
“However, refugees are stuck overseas in danger and poverty while councils face making unnecessary cuts because the Home Office refuses to restart resettlement or offer any tangible information on when it may restart.
“The home secretary herself has said that a lack of safe and legal routes forces people into the arms of smugglers. It’s time she honoured her words and restarted the flights.”
It comes after The Independent spoke to a number of refugee families in Lebanon who were due to be transferred to the UK in March before their flights were cancelled because of the temporary closure of the scheme. They said they were living in unfurnished housing and struggling to afford food after having sold most of their possessions and left their jobs in preparation to move to the UK.
Campaigners have accused the UK government of prioritising holiday travel and deportation flights over refugees, and warned that the rise in dangerous small-boat crossings could be linked to the lack of safe routes to the UK. About 7,000 people have completed the perilous journey from northern France so far in 2020.
Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, warned that further delays to the resumption of UK resettlement would “inevitably result in a loss of specialist skills and knowledge built up over many years” across local councils, charities and other organisations.
He added: “There is a growing frustration amongst local authorities, NGOs and other stakeholders on the lack of communication from the government as to how and when resettlement will resume.
“Given the fact that so many other countries have been able to resume their resettlement programmes, it is increasingly difficult to understand why the UK has not been able to do so.”
Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, echoed his concerns, saying the UK couldn’t afford to lose the “strong networks of support” between local networks that have worked together for years to make the UK’s resettlement programmes a success.
“The home secretary recently proposed that we need to establish more safe and legal routes to the UK. This resettlement programme is a prime example of one of these,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has always provided sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny and the home secretary has been clear that the UK will introduce a new asylum system that will focus on welcoming people through safe and legal routes.
“Since September 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees through our resettlement schemes, with around half being children, and we expect arrivals to resume as soon as conditions allow.
“Just last month, a further 28 asylum seekers were transferred from Greece to reunite with family under the Dublin Regulation.”
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