After discarding a previously pledged target the Home Office is being strongly urged to commit to welcoming a specified number of refugees under the new resettlement programme, in line with international norms.
The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) which ended in March 2021 committed to welcoming 20,000 refugees from Syria between 2015 and 2020. However, two years ago, the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced a new ‘global resettlement scheme’, which he said would resettle in the region of 5,000 in its first year, once the VPRS ended.
The Home Office has however, scrapped this target, saying in its new immigration plans, which were announced in March, that it will ‘maintain its long-term commitment to resettle refugees from around the globe’ – but without a specific number and no given time-frame.
The department has said the numbers will instead be kept under review, ‘guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups, as the UK recovers from Covid’.
The UNHCR, which works with countries across the globe to facilitate refugee resettlement has however raised alarm regarding the absence of a numerical commitment, warning that it would complicate the process.
A UNHCR spokesperson said: “Having clarity on the number of refugees that are arriving via resettlement now and in future years is important for managing the programme – for UNHCR as well as local authorities and partners, who need clarity to be able to retain skilled staff. It also helps manage refugees’ expectations.
“We hope that the UK will continue to welcome at least as many refugees as it did in the years before the pandemic – around 5,000 a year – as an important commitment to burden-sharing for what is an acute global problem being made more urgent by Covid”.
Bambos Charfalambous, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, reiterated these concerns, calling on ministers to ‘back up’ their plans to treat refugees fairly with ‘concrete commitments’.
He went on to say: “Giving no specific numbers for resettlement schemes threatens to undermine the UK’s tradition of helping those seeking sanctuary”.
Refugee charities and local councils in the UK also raised alarm, warning that without a numerical target, local planning on resettlement would be made more difficult.
Chief executive of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, said: “These schemes live and die on a concrete target. Without one, local councils cannot properly run services to help refugees integrate into their communities”.
Councillor Kevin Bonavia, Lewisham Council’s member for democracy, refugees and accountability, which is currently housing more than 30 resettled families said that without binding targets it would make it difficult for councils like his to ‘plan ahead’. The council, which plans to resettle up to 100 more families, had not been informed of how the new programme would work, and that the lack of a national target was likely to lead to delays, ‘with properties being lost if arrivals are sporadic’.
“Targets matter, Councils that have refugee resettlement programmes need to plan ahead. This involves locating suitable homes, often seeking offers from the local community, and procuring integration support from professional providers”.
“Without binding targets we are at real risk of failing in our ambitions”.
This comes after the Home Office was accused by the organisers of Refugee Week, ‘using’ the occasion, which spans from 14-20 June, to defend its New Plan for Immigration, which they said would in fact ‘reduce the level of protection’ the UK gives to people seeking sanctuary.
UK resettlement paused in March 2020 because of the pandemic and was not resumed until November – months after other developed countries such as France, Spain and the US had restarted their schemes.
A total of 353 people were resettled in the UK in the year to March 2021 93 per cent fewer than in the previous year.
Priti Patel, Home Secretary, has said that under the new plans for immigration, refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes will be denied an automatic right to asylum and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through. She said the Home Office would ‘expand the global reach’ of resettlement efforts in order to discourage people from embarking on unauthorised journeys to the UK.
Chief executive of the Refugee Council Enver Solomon said that without ‘clear plans, a timescale and crucially, without specific targets’ minsters’ proposals around the future of the scheme would ‘ring hollow’.
Director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, Naomi Phillips said: “While we welcome the ambition for a global resettlement programme, we know that for it to be successful there needs to be a clear commitment to resettle at least 10,000 vulnerable women, men and children, with a multi-year plan and budget to support this”.
Chris Philp, immigration minister said: “While the pandemic has meant that resettlement activity has been disrupted over the last year, no one should be in any doubt of our commitment to build upon our proud history of resettling refugees in need of protection”.
“The numbers we resettle will be kept under review and we will be guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups as we recover from Covid to provide places and support refugees to integrate into their communities and thrive”.