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Cameron turns down plea to take children crossing Europe alone

29 January 2016


In the debris: children walk among damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, last Saturday

In the debris: children walk among damaged buildings in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, last Saturday

THE UK will resettle unaccompanied refugee children living in Syria and the neighbouring countries but will not take any children who have fled to Europe, the Government has announced.

The Home Office confirmed on Thursday that it will work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify “exceptional cases” of children in Syria and neighbouring countries who are in immediate need of shelter. The Government has not identified how many will be accepted, or a timescale. Charities, led by Save the Children, have called for at least 3000 unaccompanied children to be taken into the UK (News, 22 January)

The Prime Minister told MPs on Wednesday that agreeing to take in children who have made the journey from Europe would encourage thousands more to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in boats.

He went on: “Yes, we should take part in European schemes when it is in our interests to do so, and help to secure the external European border; but we are out of Schengen, we keep our own borders, and under this Government that is the way it will stay.”

Mr Cameron has been under pressure from Church of England Bishops, charities and campaigners, as well as Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, to do more to address the migrant crisis in Europe. Last year, he agreed to take in 20,000 refugees by 2020 from camps bordering Syria. In his defence, he told the Commons on Wednesday that the UK had given more financial support than any other country to refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but agreed that more could be done.

The announcement came after more than 120 religious and humanitarian organisations, including World Vision, the United Methodist Church, and the World Council of Churches, signed a joint international appeal to join together to bring an end to the conflict.

In an open letter published last week, the heads of 129 organisations and UN agencies called on individuals and governments to “add your voices in urging an end to the carnage. To urge that all parties reach agreement on a ceasefire and a path to peace”.

The war in Syria is now entering its sixth year. About 250,000 people have been killed, and some 13.5 million in the country are in need of relief. “The bloodshed continues. The suffering deepens,” the appeal states. “The world needs to hear a collective public voice.”

Members of the public are being encouraged to raise awareness of the impact of 60 months of conflict by publicising the statement and a 60-second video on social media. The full text of the statement is available in English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.

Other signatories include the heads of the World Health Organization, the Women’s Refugee Commission, the World Food Programme, Save the Children, and Oxfam.

The Director of International Affairs for the World Council of Churches, Peter Prove, said on Tuesday that the extent of suffering and death caused by the conflict was “utterly unconscionable”.

“Perhaps this [crisis] will finally galvanise unified and effective action by the international community to address its root causes, in order to stop the fighting and to set Syria on a path to peace,” he said. “Military means — least of all aerial bombing campaigns — cannot achieve this.”

The appeal, he said, represented a “collective expression of moral outrage” that the crisis had been allowed to continue: “It is time to set aside partisan political differences, to respond compassionately . . . and to resolve the root causes of this humanitarian catastrophe.”

The appeal came as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi — who also signed the appeal — committed the organisation to increasing the number of community centres in Syria by more than half, in order to protect those displaced by the continuing crisis. The UN estimates that more than half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, making the situation the world’s largest displacement crisis.

Mr Grandi was in Damascus on Thursday of last week, where he appealed to all those involved in the conflict to allow humanitarian agencies “unimpeded and regular access” to besieged areas.

His first stop was a health clinic run by a partner of the UN Refugee Agency, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Last year, its network of clinics treated more than 300,000.

The High Commissioner presented the organisation with seven new ambulances. He later visited one shelter within a school that is now home to 70 families.

“I was very happy to see many community-based organisations from here are really doing their utmost; not just to provide relief to the people, but also opportunities for the children to play, for women to have some activities, even to learn some skills,” he said.

The UN Resident/Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Yacoub El Hillo, said at a humanitarian review in Geneva on Tuesday: “Syrians are losing hope that the world cares.”

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