The United Nations estimates that more than 191,000 people have been killed in Syria. More than 12 million Syrians need help in the country, 7.6 million of whom are internally displaced. Well over 3 million Syrians have fled abroad. Millions of children cannot go to school.

In June the UNHCR estimated that there would be 3.59 million refugees from Syria by the end of 2014, the largest refugee population in the world, with 1.14 million known to be in Lebanon (the total Lebanese population is about 4.5 million) and Jordan, Turkey and Iraq hosting huge numbers. The UNHCR has requested $6 billion for its 2014 regional response plan, to help support Syria’s neighbours in handling the refugee crisis. So far, $3.2 billion has been received. The target figure for 2015 is $8.4 billion.

At the beginning of 2014, The UN High Commission for Refugees set a goal for 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees to be admitted to other countries by the end of 2014. The UNHCR urged states to offer places for resettlement or humanitarian admission (a faster process for those in particular danger) in addition to their normal asylum policy, so that refugees from countries other than Syria could still seek asylum.

As the conflict in Syria has continued to drive more people from their homes, the numbers have increased. At a pledging conference in Geneva in December 2014, 28 countries indicated that they would provide more than 100,000 places but this fell short of the UNHCR’s new estimate of 130,000 places needed by 2016.

UK Government policy

Until 29 January 2014, the UK Government’s approach was to commit £700 million to help refugees in the region rather than resettling them in the UK. The UK declined to participate in the UNHCR resettlement programme, arguing that it would be tokenistic, given the huge numbers of refugees.

It remained, however, possible for Syrians in the UK to claim asylum and, between the beginning of the crisis and January 2014, the UK had accepted nearly 3,500 Syrian asylum seekers, the fourth highest number in the EU. 1,802 Syrian nationals were also recognised as refugees in the year to September 2014, a sharp increase on the previous year. In October 2012 the Home Office also introduced a temporary concession allowing Syrians in the UK to apply for an extension to their visa or to change visa category. This concession has been extended until 28 February 2015.

Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme

In an open letter to the Prime Minister on 17 January 2014, 25 charities including Oxfam and Amnesty International praised the UK’s efforts in the region, but called on the Government to participate in the UNHCR programme. On 29 January 2014, following cross-party pressure in the House of Commons (and before an Opposition Day debate and vote on the matter), the Home Secretary announced the establishment of a programme for the resettlement of some of the most vulnerable refugees.

The vulnerable person relocation scheme would be separate from the UNHCR programme but was “entirely consistent with the wider UNHCR programme”. The scheme would offer five years’ Humanitarian Protection, access to public funds and to the labour market, and victims of sexual violence or torture, the elderly and the disabled would get priority. The Government expected to resettle several hundred over three years, but there was no quota. Central government is meeting the full costs of the scheme for its first year.

The Shadow Home Secretary welcomed the announcement and the focus on victims of sexual violence but questioned the decision not to join the UNHCR programme.

The operation of the scheme

On 25 March 2014, the first group to be resettled under the scheme arrived in the UK. Press reports suggested that this group consisted of around 10 to 20 people.

In the period ending at the end of September, 90 Syrians had been granted humanitarian protection under the Syria scheme. The government says that there is no quota for the scheme and does not consider the number admitted to be a shortfall.[1]

Aid agencies including Oxfam and the Refugee Council sent a joint letter to the Prime Minister on 26 November saying that the UK and other developed countries should do more:

We are therefore calling on rich and developed countries to agree collectively to resettle at least 5% of the total Syrian refugee population by the end of 2015. This is a modest but proportionate contribution and Britain’s fair share of that would involve offering hope for up to 10,000 Syrians in that time. That’s less than 0.3% of all the refugees, but would transform, even save, lives.[2]

Author: Ben Smith

[1]     Written question – HL2960, 27 November 2014
[2]     Joint letter from aid agencies to the Prime Minister, 26 November 2014