The first “10-20” Syrian refugees arrived in the UK in April 2014. They were granted temporary refugee status on the UK government Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme for Syrian Refugees (VPR scheme) – the other 2.5 million are still in limbo in countries neighbouring Syria. And their numbers are increasing daily.
Due to the ongoing Syrian civil war, the estimated number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has now risen to 2.5 million. This year, the UNHCR predicts that there will be a sharp increase in these numbers, estimating a possible rise to a terrifying 4.1 million by the end of 2014.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, warned that financial, economic and technical support are now not enough, and that resettlement is becoming a necessary long term solution. The UNHCR therefore called last year on the international community to take in 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees by the end of 2014. Many states responded – Germany being the most generous with a resettlement offer of 10,100, and the United States giving an open-ended offer. The camps accommodating the Syrians are at breaking point, as are the host countries. With conditions in the makeshift camps deteriorating rapidly, a lack of food, clean water, adequate shelter and basic healthcare are of serious daily concern. Overcrowding is fast becoming their biggest problem, showing no signs of relenting: one camp in Lebanon is registering 1,000 new refugees a day. Indeed it is overcrowding that is now causing tensions between host countries, citizens and the refugees; in Lebanon, for example, a fifth of the Lebanese population is now made up of Syrian refugees. This overwhelming influx has prompted talks in Lebanon of setting a limit to the number of refugees granted refuge.
In stark contrast, the UK refused to take part in the scheme at all – arguing they had already pledged a generous amount of money in aid (to date, the government has pledged £600 million, the second highest pledge after the United States).
This is true, but in the current situation it is clear that large financial pledges are now not enough.
A Government U-Turn on this decision occurred only after a powerful coalition of specialist refugee charities wrote an open letter on 17th January 2014 urging the UK government to participate in the UNHCR scheme, and a similarly worded open letter to the British Prime Minister from peers on 23rd January. These events remain instrumental to Teresa May’s January 29th statement confirming a unique UK resettlement scheme (the VPR scheme) running in parallel with – but not actually with – the UNHCR scheme.
The UK government agreed at the beginning of 2014 to take only 500 refugees over a 3 year period after engaging in negotiations with specialist charities.
While May’s move is welcomed, many feel it is too little, and that the UK could do more to help. Maurice Wren, CEO of Refugee Council, voiced the common concern: ‘it’s disappointing to hear that the government will only support several hundred refugees, when the ongoing need is clearly colossal’.
The government insist that the VPR scheme is ‘designed to focus on need rather than to satisfy a quota,’ and this is why an emphasis on numbers in this case is wrong. Let’s be clear: the subjects of these schemes are all victims of war, each with their own terrifying and traumatic story, and half of the 2.5 million refugees are children. Given this, it follows that an emphasis on numbers is actually crucial to alleviating the pressure on neighbouring countries. It is unsettling to think that UK government policy makers feel this is an acceptable response to the crisis.
Looking to the future, mainly due to the generous offers from Germany and the US, the UNHCR feel they will fulfil their initial target of resettling 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, and it is looking to future programmes. The UNHCR has now announced that they will extend the plea to Western countries to welcome a further 100,000 Syrian refugees during the course of 2015 and 2016 – though at present it seems unlikely that the UK government will take part, judging by events so far.
The UK should be helping to lead the way and creating an example, not doing the bare minimum as a tick box exercise. Indeed, the hypocrisy in asking neighbouring countries to continue to welcome displaced Syrians, but not actually opening the UK’s borders speaks for itself. As the concerned international community, we cannot contain the problem any longer, we must become fully committed to long term solutions to this crisis.
Apart from the resettlement scheme, there are other efforts the UK Government could be making. The UNHCR has stressed that governments can offer alternative solutions to resettlement, including: reuniting family already in the UK, scholarships for Syrian students, and medical evacuation for life-saving treatment. None of these have yet been set into motion in the UK.
In whatever form it is, the UK government’s response to finding a long term solution to this crisis surely must be more than 10 resettled refugees a month and money pledged in aid.