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Syrian Refugees

Volume 765: debated on Monday 9 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many refugees have entered the United Kingdom under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme for Syrian nationals, and what, if any, are the advantages of that scheme as compared to entry under normal immigration regulations.

My Lords, the last published figures show that, by June 2015, 216 people were resettled in the UK under the Syrian resettlement scheme. Additionally, we have granted 5,000 Syrians protection under the normal asylum procedure since 2011. The Government will resettle 20,000 Syrians this Parliament. Resettlement provides exceptional protection routes for vulnerable cases whom the UNHCR judges are unable to access adequate support in the region, providing help by resettling them to the UK.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but is it not really rather difficult, when the Prime Minister has promised that we shall have 1,000 refugees settled here by Christmas and only 216 were resettled in the summer? Also, how are you going to make sure that the promise of 1,000 refugees is fulfilled? The 20,000 in five years does not compare very well with Canada, which is taking 25,000 by Christmas. How are the people who come going to be accommodated? Have the Government been in touch with local authorities? Even this morning, I had a text message from somebody in my own valley who said, “We want to accommodate Syrian refugees”. What are you doing about that?

Specifically on the last point of the local authorities, Richard Harrington, a Member in the other place, is the Minister with responsibility for the Syrian refugees who are coming to this country, and he is working very closely with the local authorities and devolved Administrations on this important issue. The Prime Minister has repeated his claim that he wants to see 1,000 here by Christmas, and the Home Office and all other groups are working to ensure that that happens. A key part of this is that the resettlement scheme comes through the UNHCR, and we want the UNHCR to identify the people who are most vulnerable to ensure that those who are most at risk get the protection that we want to give them.

My Lords, how close are Her Majesty’s Government to announcing the details of a third route in addition to the two mentioned in the noble Lord’s Question—namely, the introduction of a private sponsorship scheme, in which many faith and community groups have expressed strong interest? This would enable faith communities to work in partnership with the Government and reflects a desire to do this, as expressed by the Bishops in their recent letter to the Prime Minister.

That is under active consideration at the moment. Of course, many of the people on whom we are focusing at present are the most vulnerable and in need, particularly of medical care and what have you, so they may not be appropriate for the type of generous offer that has been made. But we have talked about creating a register for charities, churches and faith groups to get involved; there is also a page on the government website that tells people how they can get involved. Once the immediate urgency is over and the first group is brought to the UK safely, we will very much want to take up those offers of great generosity by others.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, with regard to the Answer to this Question and more generally, it would be immensely helpful if the Government had a means of communicating with refugees? Would they therefore consider very carefully setting up an app on the web so that refugees using their phones—which seems to be true across the whole of Europe and beyond—could access this information in a way that would be cost effective and extremely helpful both for them and for the Government?

That is an intriguing idea. Of course, the key point is that we want to get the message out to people who are thinking of travelling and taking these dangerous routes to the UK that there is now a better chance of their actually achieving the resettlement that they seek by going through the UNHCR and staying where they are. However we can communicate that information to them, we need to do that. The use of technology is one answer. The topic is seriously on the agenda and is the main focus of the summit in Valletta on Wednesday and Thursday this week. I shall follow that up with my noble friend.

My Lords, it is obviously right and proper that the Government respond to the terrible plight of the Syrian refugees, but in order that the people of this country who might have any fears that such a system would be misused by those who would wish to damage this country and the people of this country, could the Minister say something about the security screening that accompanies the acceptance of the refugees?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. That is one of the reasons why we want the application and vetting processes to happen under the auspices of the UNHCR in the refugee camps rather than having a group of people attempting to enter the UK so that we have to make those judgments at the border. We want it to take place in the Middle East so that the right people can be brought to this country and the wrong people cannot.

My Lords, I heard this morning of an asylum seeker from Syria who has been told by the Home Office at Croydon that he cannot even make an application for asylum for another two months, which means that he cannot access Section 95 benefits and is dependent on the charity sector for clothing, food and so on. Can the Minister assure the House that, even though the vulnerable persons scheme is working in conjunction with the UNHCR, there is not a backlog growing in the Home Office as a result of the work which is being done? The person who told me about this also commented that it would be a pity if a backlog grew up because the Home Office seems to be getting much better at processing applications more quickly.

As the noble Baroness knows, many of the people arrive at our border without any identification documents. To come back to the previous point, we need to make those checks and be absolutely sure that we are not putting the people of this country at risk by allowing people in. If there is a specific case, I am happy to take it up with the noble Baroness later. It underscores the importance of getting the message out that the way to approach Syrian refugees is through the UNHCR and the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.

Will the Government reconsider taking some of the unaccompanied children who have crossed into Europe? We have had a very good record, particularly at the beginning of the war, in terms of looking after the children. There are some who really do need our help as well as that of other countries.

I am aware of that; that is Save the Children’s proposal, which it has talked about. The UNHCR has cautioned against taking unaccompanied children into the country because they are particularly vulnerable. The scheme we are proposing in Syria would enable not only children but their parents and brothers and sisters to qualify. We think that that is a better route.

Will the Minister clarify the situation a little more? How many councils in the United Kingdom have finalised agreements, including financial arrangements with the Government, to take 1,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year under the scheme? How many Syrian refugees are covered by agreements that have already been finalised?

We have issued guidance on this for local authorities. The Prime Minister made the announcement on 7 September and it is up to local authorities to come forward and volunteer to be part of the scheme, and they are coming forward. That is important because they need to make sure that they have the ability, through schools and social care, to do it properly. This is a fast-moving situation. We do not have a number on the specific local authorities, but 140 individuals have arrived since 7 September. The Prime Minister has given a commitment that we will seek to get 1,000 here by Christmas. We will do that, providing we work in partnership with local authorities.