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Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

'Nour' is one of only 90 refugees Britain has accepted. She talks to Jamie Merrill

Jamie Merrill
Sunday 25 January 2015 21:26 GMT
Syrian refugee ‘Nour’ with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK a year ago when the Government agreed to resettle ‘several hundred’ people under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme
Syrian refugee ‘Nour’ with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK a year ago when the Government agreed to resettle ‘several hundred’ people under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme (Andrew Fox)

The safety of a modest flat in the West Midlands and the care of a British midwife for the birth of her fifth child is a debt Nour knows she can never repay.

That is because the young mother is one of the fortunate group of less than 100 refugees who have been resettled in the UK as part of a scheme offer sanctuary to the most vulnerable victims of Syria’s four-year civil war.

In 2011, when the fighting broke out in northern Syria, she used her basic first aid skills to help treat survivors as – in her words – “homes were shelled to rubble”.

Her activity soon came to the attention of the regime, leading to her imprisonment and torture. Her crime was to have dared to have helped injured civilians caught in the middle of the conflict.

“They beat people in front of me until they died,” she told The Independent. “They beat me with electric cables every day. They beat me day and night with the back of a rifle. They wanted me to admit to being a terrorist because I helped people who were hurt.”

After a period of detention – she is not certain how long the regime kept her – a prisoner swap reunited her with her four children. (The fifth, a girl, was born in England in December.) She fled to Lebanon, where she lived in shacks and shelters, before the United Nations arranged for her to come to Britain last July. She was one of the first Syrians to arrive.

Nour isn’t her real name. Her parents are still in Syria and at risk of reprisals. But now – on the first anniversary of the Government’s decision to accept some Syrian refugees – she takes the brave step of speaking out to ask Britain to welcome more.

Last January, following a concerted campaign supported by The Independent, the Government committed to resettling 500 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Since then, though, its pledge has been downgraded to a commitment to resettle “several hundred” Syrians over several years. Latest immigration statistics show that just 90 Syrians, including Nour, have arrived under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme.

Frustrated by the Government’s lack of action, Refugee Council, Amnesty International and Oxfam today publish an open letter to David Cameron urging the Prime Minister to take the “simple, yet historic” choice of offering refuge to more victims.

The letter is signed by the Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, Grayson Perry, Sting, Bella Freud, Dan Snow, Juliet Stevenson, Ken Loach, Micheal Palin, Stephen Frears, Vanessa Redgrave and Vivienne Westwood.

It says: “We couldn’t have been more disappointed when we discovered the scale of your ambition for Syria’s refugees… Resettling ‘several hundred people’ just isn’t good enough for a global leader.”

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, said: “The UK often prides itself on its history of offering sanctuary to refugees but this Government can’t hold its head high when it comes to the most vulnerable refugees from the conflict in Syria.”

Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, added: “The question is, does David Cameron want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who rationed his compassion to a few hundred people?”

The signatories to today’s letter to David Cameron, say they are “ashamed” at the size of Britain’s resettlement effort. This follows a call in November made by 30 leading aid and refugee agencies in the Independent for the British Government to resettle up to 10,000 refugees from Syria by the end of 2015.

Aid agencies are keen to stress that resettlement would be temporary. Nour, who has received additional support from the charity Citizens UK, said she had a “sense of relief” at leaving “constant fear” behind, adding that she was “grateful” to the Midlands council that has resettled her and 50 of her compatriots.

She said: “I’ve been treated so well here. But Britain should take more Syrians… There are many more people more at risk than me. Britain should offer them sanctuary to take them away from the fear. Britain should make them safe – just until the regime falls or there is peace. I love Syria; there is no doubt I will go back when I can.”

Meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and the surrounding region is continuing to get worse, with the number of refugees in the region swelling to more than 3.7 million, many suffering from unusually severe winter conditions in the region.

The UN’s Refugee Agency UNHCR is calling on governments from around the world to offer 130,000 by the end of 2016, with other countries including Germany, Canada and the USA promising to resettle tens of thousands.

In a pointed intervention, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the “exceptional situation requires exception measures” from Western countries.

He told The Independent: “Syria has become the defining humanitarian challenge of our time, and the massive refugee influx has had an enormous impact on the neighbouring countries which urgently need more support. We are also calling on other states to make available far more opportunities for Syrian refugees to find safety beyond the region, not only as a life-saving protection measure for very vulnerable people, but also as an important signal of solidarity with the neighbouring countries.”

The Government is keen to stress that Britain has been at the “forefront” of the humanitarian response to the crisis and has pledged £700m. But some councils currently outside the VPR scheme – including Kingston and Malvern – have come forward offering to accept additional Syrian refugees.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said Mr Cameron should be “ashamed” of the Government’s record, which was in “stark contrast” to other Western countries. She said: “The UNHCR is asking some of the wealthiest countries in the world to help orphaned children, women who have been raped, people who have fled their homes with serious medical conditions and – whether through callousness or incompetence – the Government is just not doing enough.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “Since the crisis began we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to over 3,400 Syrian nationals and dependents. In addition, through our Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, we are working closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those most at risk and bring them to the UK.”

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