As the Syria crisis enters its seventh year, civilians continue to bear the brunt of a conflict marked by unparalleled suffering, destruction and disregard for human life. This crisis, and wider instability across the world, is driving thousands of refugees and migrants towards Europe’s borders.
The UK has been at the forefront of the international response and has pledged £2.46 billion to help address the humanitarian crisis, complemented by continued diplomatic efforts in the region to end the conflict. Our direct support has reached hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. By meeting basic humanitarian needs and helping to create new opportunities we aim to help Syrians to build a life in neighbouring countries.
As part of our comprehensive approach to the Syria crisis, the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) was launched in January 2014 and expanded in September 2015. In 2016 the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state. The scheme, to date, has focused on Syrian nationals because they formed an easily identifiable cohort of vulnerable refugees who have fled the conflict and whose needs are clearly evident. This focus has enabled us to provide a quick and effective response to the crisis.
The scheme sees us working closely with the UNHCR to identify individuals who are most at risk in the region and whose particular needs can only be met in countries like the UK. Up to the end of March 2017, 7,307 Syrian nationals had been resettled across the UK under the Syrian VPRS, half of whom are children, and we are on track to meet our commitment of resettling 20,000 refugees by 2020. This is in addition to our Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme launched last year, which will see us resettle up to 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa region by 2020. We remain committed to resettling the overall number of refugees previously announced on both schemes.
However, whilst the Syrian VPRS is aimed at the most vulnerable Syrians, there are additional groups in the region who have fled Syria and are also extremely vulnerable but who may not be able to access one of our resettlement schemes. UNHCR’s advice is that a diversified resettlement quota is needed in order to address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees from all refugee populations in the region.
In light of this, with immediate effect, I am amending the scope of the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) to enable UNHCR to refer the most vulnerable refugees in the MENA region who have fled the Syrian conflict and cannot safely return to their country of origin, whatever their nationality.
This Government is committed to an effective response in the affected regions and to resettling the most vulnerable; this includes those who had sought refuge within Syria prior to the conflict and been recognised as refugees. We will continue to rely on UNHCR to identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees but will no longer limit the scheme solely to those with Syrian nationality. UNHCR will only refer to us those who are genuine refugees, in that they cannot seek the protection of their home country.
This change will also mean that mixed family groups are eligible for resettlement under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. This change might also open up the Scheme to other groups, such as Iraqi minorities who sought refuge in Syria, but had to flee again as a result of the Syria conflict.
This remains within the overall spirit of the then Prime Minister’s 2015 commitment while recognising that other nationalities who had resided in Syria have been impacted by the same conflict. This decision demonstrates the UK remains fully committed to playing its part in the global migration crisis. We continue with our approach of taking refugees from the region - from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt - as well as providing life-saving humanitarian assistance such as the £2.5m Migration Emergency Response Fund in response to the Mediterranean migration crisis. Our approach is rightly based on targeting our support so that it delivers the most impact, helps those who need it the most, and avoids unintended consequences.
This provides refugees with a more direct and safe route to the UK, rather than risking the hazardous journey to Europe which has tragically cost so many lives. Local authorities and partners play a vital role in helping those arriving here to settle into a new life in the UK. I am grateful for the way in which over 235 local authorities across the UK have stepped up to provide places for those arriving under the resettlement schemes.
We can be proud of the contribution the UK is making to support refugees, including the support and generosity from the British public, and I believe that this policy change will help us to continue to support the most vulnerable refugees fleeing Syria.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords