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Refugee resettlement: are we doing enough?

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

PSE’s Rosemary Collins analyses the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report into the UK’s response to the migration crisis, and whether the public sector is doing enough to support Syrian refugees.

The saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ never proved truer than last September. The sight of the pictures of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who was among those drowned off the coast of Turkey, caused public outcry in Britain and around the world. 

Within days, the then prime minister, David Cameron, promised the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. These would be chosen from among the most vulnerable groups, including women, children, refugees with medical needs and disabilities and survivors of violence and torture. 

But almost a year on, and with the UK having undergone seismic political shifts in the meantime, a worrying new report suggests that the public sector is failing to meet its duty to support Syrian refugees. 

The Home Affairs Select Committee report into the UK’s response to the migration crisis shows that just 1,602 people were accepted under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPS) as of March 2016. 

The UK only just met its target to accept 1,000 refugees by Christmas 2015, with the thousandth person arriving on 16 December. The committee noted that this achievement was largely due to the then minister for Syrian refugees, Richard Harrington, whose post was abolished after Theresa May took office as prime minister in July. 

Uneven settlement 

A totally even settlement of refugees would mean each local authority takes responsibility for around 50, but responsibility has been unequally spread so far. Just 71 authorities, or 18% of the total, have taken any refugees. These vary between Coventry, which has resettled 105, and Kingston-upon-Thames and Mid Sussex, which have taken just three each. 

In total, just 33 refugees have been settled in four of the capital’s authorities (Kingston-upon-Thames, Islington, Camden and Barnet), whilst Scottish authorities have taken 610 and the Yorkshire and Humberside region has taken 171. 

Avoid silently encouraging a two-tier system 

Keith Vaz MP, chair of the committee, said action must be taken to “avoid silently encouraging a two-tier system” and called the decision to abolish the minister for Syrian refugees “disappointing”. 

“Focus on this issue is vital if the target of 20,000 is ever to be met, which the current figures show to be unlikely,” he said. 

However, Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s asylum, refugee and migration task group, called the report “out of date” and said the LGA was “confident” that the 20,000 target would be met. 

In addition, the committee said the SVPS does not grant refugees indefinite leave to remain in the country. Instead, refugees are given humanitarian protection, which entitles them to stay in the country for five years. At the end of that period, the government will review their case. If it judges that “the situation in their home country has improved and their reason for asylum no longer stands”, it will seek to return them to their country of origin. 

The committee said that “a system of limited time periods for providing refuge” may break the UK’s obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on the status of refugees. It recommended that the government “comprehensively” reviews the situation in Syria once each refugee’s five-year period expires. 

Time to show help has not changed 

Of course, the UK is now undergoing an unprecedented historic shift following June’s vote to leave the EU. For example, the Le Touquet agreement, which officially places the UK-France border in Calais instead of the Kent coast, could be abolished. The committee warned that this would lead to more migrants coming to Calais and Kent and urged the government to make preserving the agreement a priority. 

Paul Hook, head of campaigns at charity Refugee Action, warned the government not to abandon its commitment to refugees following the referendum. 

“The UK can and must go further to welcome more refugees to Britain and ensure those refugees are properly supported to rebuild their lives once they’re here,” he said.

“Whilst Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours is at a crossroads, our role in the world as a country with compassion and respect for those that need our help has not changed.”

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