THE Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, and refugee representatives have welcomed plans to reopen the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), but have warned that further resettlement commitments and refugee support are needed.
Baroness Williams told the House of Lords on Thursday of last week: “I can confirm this afternoon that the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme will restart as soon as possible. It has to be safe to do so, but it will restart.”
The scheme is due to restart in January.
Last month, Archbishop Cottrell co-signed a letter to the Telegraph urging the Government to reopen the scheme. It was also signed by representatives of the Jewish community, the Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Salvation Army.
Archbishop Cottrell said on Wednesday: “This is an immensely valuable scheme, and one in which many churches have participated in welcoming Syrian refugees to our communities. I would like to offer my thanks to those churches and to encourage others to explore the possibilities provided by sponsorship schemes.
“I do note, however, that the VPRS is only a very small part of the wider picture of refugee resettlement, and that we still await news on the restarting and funding of other, larger, schemes.
“All parties agree that safe and legal routes for refugees are a necessary step in confronting the crisis in the Channel and elsewhere, and so I hope that this will prove to be the first of several announcements as the UK lives up to its reputation and history as a place of welcome and refuge for the world’s most vulnerable.”
The Policy Officer at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK, Dr Sophie Cartwright, said that restarting VPRS was “a very small step” on its own. “We must hope that it is part of a bigger, sustained commitment to refugee protection — including, as a minimum, the resettlement of the 5000 refugees who were due to be resettled here between April 2020 and March 2021.
“We call on the Government to significantly and permanently expand resettlement, create other safe and managed routes, and commit to a just and humane asylum system. Having been forced to flee their homes, refugees are too often made to live in limbo or faced with further barriers, physical and legal, before they can begin to rebuild their lives. If we are serious about protecting refugees, we have to make it easier for them reach safety, as well as ensure a person-centred and open asylum determination process.”
The chairman of the National Refugee Community Sponsorship Council, the Revd Gareth Jones, who is Vicar of St Mary’s, Great Ilford, in Chelmsford diocese, where he is also refugee co-ordinator, said on Tuesday: “Whilst we welcome the recent announcement, we also call upon the Government to commit to resettlement beyond its current targets. It is sobering to learn that the future of resettlement via the new UK Resettlement Scheme is not now dependent on the current pandemic, or a spending review, but is a fully political decision awaiting ministerial review.
“UKRS and Community Sponsorship are safe and legal routes for refugee resettlement; it is only with the continuation and growth of these routes that tragedies such as those we have seen over recent months in the English Channel will be prevented. We can and we must do better.”
The Home Office reports that more than 19,750 refugees have been resettled through VPRS already, just short of the target of 20,000.
Writing in the Church Times online this week, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Home Office, Chris Philp MP, said: “It was with great sadness that we, along with the UN and countries around the world, had to pause resettlement programmes, owing to Coronavirus restrictions brought in to protect public health. . . We have always said we would reopen these routes when it is safe to do so.”
He continued, however: “Reopening resettlement routes is by no means a silver bullet, and it will not stop people from making dangerous Channel crossings overnight. Even when we were resettling more refugees, people were entering the country on lorries and in small boats. Increasing safe routes will not stop ruthless people-smugglers exploiting vulnerable people’s desperation.”
Speaking on behalf of the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, in the Lords last week, the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, supported an amendment, tabled by Lord Dubs, to the Government’s Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, which would enshrine the legal right to family reunion for child refugees. His earlier amendment to the Bill was rejected in the House of Commons (News, 16 October).
Bishop Chessun said: “While a review of safe and legal routes is welcome, these steps do not directly deal with what will happen when the UK leaves the Dublin system at the end of the year. Nor does a review safeguard existing routes, which we already know to be worthwhile and effective. These high standards and guarantees in refugee protection will fall away and the routes will close down. . .
“We are asking for a concrete commitment to walk down the path of justice and mercy for those seeking refuge, most especially unaccompanied children.”
Baroness Williams replied: “As we are leaving the European Union, Dublin will come to an end, but we will not close any of our existing routes.”