THE Prime Minister’s pledge to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years is a “very slim response”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said this week.
As Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, he joined aid agencies and intergovernmental organisations in calling for a more ambitious response.
The number taken by the UK was “going to have to rise”, he said, unless conditions within refugee camps were “dealt with significantly”. He went on to argue that “a problem of this scale can only morally and credibly be dealt with by widespread European collaboration.”
After years of resisting calls to take more Syrian refugees, David Cameron relented this week, agreeing that it was “absolutely right that Britain should fulfil its moral responsibility to help those refugees, just as we have done so proudly throughout our history”.
The UK will now take 20,000 refugees over the course of the next five years. They will be taken from camps in the Middle East, after being identified by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
This approach contrasts with that of Germany, which expects to take at least 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, and with calls from the European Commission for countries to resettle refugees already on the Continent.
Christian Aid’s head of advocacy Laura Taylor, urged the Prime Minister to be “more ambitious”. The charity is calling for all EU states to put in place “a fair and mandatory sharing of responsibility for refugees arriving in Europe”.
The UK is not part of the Schengen agreement, which abolished internal borders between many European countries, and, despite reports that “entry countries” such as Greece have been overwhelmed, the Government has resisted calls to accept a quota of refugees already in Europe.
The International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, argued this week that Syrian refugees wanted to remain in the region and rebuild their lives there.
Defending Mr Cameron’s decision to take refugees from camps rather than Europe, she said: “The right thing for those who do need to leave the region . . . is to do that in a safe and secure way, rather than to simply feed the business of the people-smugglers.”
The 20,000 refugees to be accepted under the latest scheme will be granted a five-year humanitarian protection visa, which entitles them to access to public funds, the labour market, and the possibility of being reunited with family members. The cost of supporting them for the first year will be met from Department for International Development (DfID)funding.
Councils cannot be forced to accept refugees, but several have already pledged to do so. Council leaders have stressed, however, that sustainable funding is a necessity, given recent cuts to their budgets, and existing pressures on public services.
“It is extremely heart-warming to see so many people wanting to help vulnerable people in crisis by opening their homes and offering care and safety,” said David Simmons of the Local Government Associations asylum, refugee and migrant task force; “but this is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”
“Councils need a commitment from Government to provide full funding to support individuals and families until they are granted asylum or they are safely returned to their own country. Local communities that open their doors at a moment of crisis should not be left to pick up the pieces when funding runs out and the world’s attention has moved on.”
The Prime Minister has said that, in deciding whom to resettle, the UNHCR should consider the vulnerability of Christians. The Archbishop of Canterbury raised concerns in the House of Lords on Monday that “significant intimidation and radicalisation” in refugee camps meant that Christians were not to be found within them.
This scenario was confirmed by the chief executive of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce. “Many families choose not to settle in refugee or Internally Displaced Persons’ camps due to fear,” she said.
“This is especially true of the Christian minority, many of whom have already faced persecution at the hands of their neighbours. It is essential that aid and resettlement programmes work beyond, as well as within, the camp structures, collaborating with faith and minority NGOs as well as with the UN and DfID.”
In response to the Archbishop’s criticism of the Government’s response as “slim”, Baroness Stowell of Beeston argued that the UK should be proud of the fact that “no other European country has contributed as we have over the past few years”.
The UK has pledged more than £1 billion in aid: its largest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis, and more than the rest of the EU put together.