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Syrian Refugees: Settlement in the UK

Volume 767: debated on Monday 7 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made to implement the Prime Minister’s pledge to settle 1,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas.

My Lords, the charter flights which have arrived represent a significant upscaling of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme. We are on track to meet the Prime Minister’s ambition of 1,000 arrivals from the region by Christmas.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the requests that have come from many places that we accommodate 3,000 unaccompanied children? Following the Prime Minister’s promise made last Wednesday—

“I am very happy to look at that issue again … to see whether Britain can do more to fulfil our moral responsibilities”—[Official Report, Commons, 2/12/15; col. 339.]

—what progress has been made towards Britain fulfilling its moral responsibilities?

In terms of moral responsibilities, it should be recognised that we have committed to take 20,000 refugees by the end of the Parliament, which represents a significant upscaling of the scheme. The Prime Minister said last week that he would look at this issue again. He is doing so, but a key group that is concerned here is the UNHCR, which we are working closely with. It is concerned that if we offer special treatment to unaccompanied minors, that may encourage more of them to be trafficked or might take them away from the region where they would actually stand more chance of remaining with their families. In fact, that is being exploited by the people traffickers, who send the children first in the hope that they might be resettled, and that others may follow afterwards. The Prime Minister is looking at this again because on the face of it, there is a compelling humanitarian case. However, no decision has been taken yet.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that another of the Prime Minister’s pledges was to reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands? Can he update your Lordships’ House on the statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week, in which he seemed to suggest that the Government are minded to take migration for the purposes of higher education out of the net migration count?

I have two thoughts on that. First, of course, it is absolutely right that there needs to be downward pressure on the wrong sort of immigration into this country. We have got to get those numbers down, precisely so that we can also offer more generous support to the genuine refugees and asylum seekers. On the specific of students, whatever the change in the calculation of the numbers, it will make no change to the student policy. There is no cap on the number of students who can come here for genuine courses at genuine universities, and that will remain the case.

Yes, my noble friend is absolutely right to point this out. That is one of the reasons why we want the investigations and checks to take place in the refugee camps in the region, under the auspices of the UNHCR, rather than encouraging people to make the perilous journey here and then try to establish whether their bona fides and credentials are as they say they are.

My Lords, I return to a question I previously hinted at, and in the light of the rather high-profile reportage of the plan of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to house refugees in a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. Given that we understand there is some necessary bureaucracy associated with the proper placement of refugees, have we got the balance right? It is not just a question about the Archbishop, but about the good will shown by a good many people, which seems to be turned back by unnecessary bureaucracy.

We do not want that to happen, of course. We must remember that the priority consideration regarding the vulnerable persons scheme is that the people in question are vulnerable. First, we are talking about women and children who are at risk, along with people who have been subject to torture and those in need of acute medical care. They may not be the ideal people to take up the offers coming forward under the community-based sponsorship scheme. Like the right reverend Prelate, I read that report over the weekend. A meeting is going to take place on Thursday between Lambeth Palace and the Home Office to resolve that difference—I am sure it can be resolved—and to make sure that that very generous offer is accepted and taken up.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent thoughtful report from the Children’s Society, entitled Not Just a Temporary Fix, on the search for durable solutions for separated migrant children? One of its recommendations is that Home Office decision-makers should be trained in how to assess a separated child’s best interests, rather than simply referring to Section 55, the welfare duty, as if such a reference was enough.

I read that report, which I think is good. We are looking at it and it raises a number of issues. Under the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children scheme—UASC—there is an additional level of guidance from the Department for Education, and the Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson, has lead responsibility for it. Also, we cannot get away from the fact that although the Home Office might have such responsibility under the Children Act 1989, local authorities have the statutory duty of care for any children under their care, whether or not they are asylum seekers.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us exactly why progress has been so slow in getting these refugees to the UK, and what work has been done with the UNHCR in organising migration with the refugee community to get the refugees here?

It is a slow process because we are undertaking the vetting and prioritising procedure in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with the UNHCR. The UNHCR undertakes its checks, as then does the Home Office. It is a lengthier process at that end, but the whole purpose of the vulnerable persons scheme is that, once they are given leave to remain or international protection, they come to this country and do not have to go through any such process. They have accommodation to go to, they have schools, hospitals and medical care, and benefits if they need them. Therefore, although it is taking slightly longer at that end, we hope that that will shorten the process when they actually arrive here.

My Lords, what advice, support and help are the Government giving to local authorities to ensure that they have a satisfactory settlement, so that people can be helped into move-on housing and that the local medical and education support services, for example, are there? Given that we have previous experience—for example, when the Bosnians came here—please let us not waste it.

Exactly. Taking precisely from that experience is the reason why the Prime Minister appointed a Minister for the Syrian resettlement programme. Richard Harrington is based in the Home Office and is liaising with the DCLG, which is conveniently in the same building, to ensure that such joined-up work happens and people get the support they need when they arrive.

My Lords, what is being done by the Government to help Kent and Dover, in particular, to deal with the large number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the country?

That, of course, was one of the big pressures. There is now in place the Kent dispersal scheme, for which Richard Harrington is responsible: rather than people being concentrated in a given local authority area, they are redistributed nationally. So far, 55 local authorities have signed up to that scheme, through which they can receive unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

My Lords, I am so sorry. Although I understand why the noble Baroness is trying to get in, there are occasions when we should give priority to Back Benchers rather than Front Benchers. I suggest that if we are to have one more speaker, it should be a Back Bencher.

While no one would underestimate the complexities, and indeed the pressures on the Minister and his colleagues, is it not important for the consistency of our position to remember constantly to emphasise the values we are trying to protect in our society, one of which is the Christian value of generosity and warmth towards people in situations such as this? Must we not keep that in mind and remember to consider, with all our preoccupations, what we are adding to the preoccupations and problems of Jordan and Lebanon?

Part of that is the generosity of people directly making offers under the community resettlement scheme. But I am also very proud of the generous commitment the Government are undertaking on behalf of this country in providing £1.1 billion of aid to Syrian people in the region to allay their suffering there. That is the second largest figure in the world.