Syrian refugees and the UK

In July 2013, the United Nations estimated that more than 100,000 people had been killed in the conflict in Syria. Since then the UN no longer makes estimates. More than 9 million Syrians need help in the country, 6.5 million of whom are internally displaced. 2.4 million Syrians have fled abroad. 2 million Syrian children cannot go to school.

The UNHCR estimates there will be 4.1 million refugees from Syria by the end of 2014, the largest refugee population in the world, with 1.6 million in Lebanon (the total Lebanese population is about 4.5 million); 800,000 in Jordan (total population 6.3 million); 1 million in Turkey and 400,000 in Iraq.

Lebanon, with its fragile politics and overwhelming refugee flow, is a particular worry.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees calls for more help

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has set a goal for 30,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted to other countries by the end of 2014, with focus on the most vulnerable.

According to the UN, categories of vulnerable people include:

  • women and girls at risk
  • survivors of violence and/or torture
  • refugees with medical needs or disabilities
  • LGBTI refugees at risk
  • vulnerable older adults
  • refugees in need of family reunification and
  • those who face serious threats to their physical security, especially due to their political opinion or belonging to a minority group.

He urged states to offer places for resettlement or humanitarian admission (a faster process for those in imminent danger) in addition to their normal asylum policy, so that refugees from countries other than Syria would still have a chance to find asylum. Many countries have signed up to the programme, but the number of places offered still falls 10,000 short of the UN target.

In a newspaper interview in January, António Guterres called on EU countries to accept far more than they have so far, and in an open letter to the Prime Minister, 25 charities including Oxfam and Amnesty International praised the UK’s efforts but called on the Government to participate in the programme:

The UK deserves credit for its leadership in providing assistance to refugees in the region, including £600m in aid, helping millions of families survive. However, given the scale and the gravity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding across the region, we would urge the UK to join the 18 other states participating in UNHCR’s global resettlement programme.

The European Commission has also urged EU member states to do more, and says that €6,000 are available from the Commission for each Syrian refugee accepted.

The UNHCR has requested $4.2 billion for its 2014 regional response plan, to help support Syria’s neighbours in handling the refugee crisis. So far, 4% of this has been funded.

UK government policy

The UK Government policy has been to send substantial amounts of aid to help Syria’s neighbours cope with refugees, from where it will be easier for them to go home as soon as possible. The UK provided a total of £500 million for Syrian relief effort up to January 2014, the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.  At the second donor conference for Syria, held in Kuwait, the UK pledged a further £100 million.

In 2013 the UK was the third biggest bilateral donor to the UN’s Regional Response Plan after the US and Kuwait, and has provided 80% of the funding so far for the 2014 programme.

In the year to September 2013, the UK had accepted 1,100 Syrians as refugees, the third highest number in the EU after Germany and Sweden. These are people who have managed to get to Britain. The UK has so far declined to participate in the UNHCR resettlement programme, which would take people out of the camps in the region. Ministers say that to accept a few thousand refugees would be inadequate, given the millions of people in need, and that countries might think that their obligations are over when they have fulfilled a quota.

However, the Opposition and some Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, including Liberal Democrat ministers, have called for the Government to volunteer places under the UN programme.

The UNHCR Syrian refugee programme is one of the subjects for the Opposition Day debate on Wednesday 29 January, which will be followed by a vote. On 23 January Prime Minister David Cameron said that he was “open-minded” about the matter, perhaps suggesting that a change was imminent. On Monday 27 January, Home Secretary Theresa May said that the Government was looking at ways to ‘enhance the support we are already giving’ and ‘announcements will be made’ before Wednesday’s debate, suggesting again that the Government intends to accept some vulnerable refugees.

 Author: Ben Smith