Resettlement of Vulnerable Syrian Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:39 pm on 10th December 2014.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Home Secretary 12:39 pm, 10th December 2014

The British Government have, rightly, committed £700 million to help those affected by the Syrian conflict, and the UK’s largest ever humanitarian crisis response reflects the values of the British people. I applaud the Government’s efforts, but the scale of the response is also a reflection of the horrific nature of this war. Ten million people need help and thousands are displaced every day. This is a war seemingly without end and with no limits to its inhumanity.

More than 3.2 million Syrians have become refugees in the surrounding region—in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Those countries are providing an immense amount of support and shelter. Everyone agrees that the vast majority of people affected want to go home and should stay in the region. Yesterday, however, the United Nations asked at a conference in Geneva for countries across the globe to increase support for its limited programme that helps the most vulnerable refugees who struggle to survive or cope in the region: orphaned children, women who have been sexually abused, victims of torture and those needing treatment or support. What did Britain do when asked for more help yesterday? Nothing. Why?

This is the worst refugee crisis since the second world war. It took weeks of pressure from the House before the Home Secretary set up the vulnerable persons relocation scheme in January. Even then, she still refused to be part of the United Nations programme. She did say that she would help several hundred people, but a year later only 90 of those vulnerable refugees have been helped. That is not good enough.

As part of the UN programme, Finland has provided 500 places, Ireland 310 places, Norway 1,000 places, France 500 places—as well as further humanitarian visas—Switzerland 500 places and Sweden 1,200 places. Other countries, including Germany and Austria, have chosen to offer thousands of places each. The UN scheme is flexible. It is not a quota. It is not about every refugee, but about each country doing its bit and what it can alongside others.

I have three questions for the Government. First, will they accept that their parallel programme is not working and sign up to the United Nations programme instead? Secondly, will they take refugees out of the net migration target immediately? The Government are under pressure over immigration, where stronger controls are needed, but asylum is different from immigration. They must not allow the debate about immigration to cloud their conscience over helping refugees.

Thirdly, will the Government now agree to do more to help? Will they rapidly accelerate the programme to meet the promises made in January and also convene an urgent meeting with local councils across the country? Kingston-upon-Thames has agreed to help 50 Syrian refugees and other councils have said they could do more if they got the right support from the Government. Will the Minister convene a meeting to ask local councils how many vulnerable refugees in total we can offer to support?

When we raised the issue a year ago, the Home Secretary sent a Minister to say no. I hope that the Government will not do the same again. The violence of the Syrian conflict is unimaginable for us sitting here. Once, we were proud as a country to offer safe haven—from the Kindertransport to those helped from the Rwandan genocide. It would be shameful, but also against our history and our values as a country, if we were to turn our backs when asked for more help now. I urge Ministers to think again.