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Syrian Refugees

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 17 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will follow the example of the government of Canada in welcoming further Syrian refugees.

My Lords, we have committed to resettling 20,000 refugees during this Parliament. As part of this, the Prime Minister gave a further commitment in September to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas. With the arrival of two further charter flights yesterday, into Belfast and Stanstead, this target has now been met and exceeded.

I thank the Minister for his reply. However, we have been shocked this morning to hear of the situation in Sudan and Nigeria, and of the hundreds of thousands of children who are in need there. Is not there something we can do, perhaps by responding to Save the Children’s request and admitting 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children and giving them some hope? I ask the Minister to seriously consider how we could respond positively to this. We cannot respond to the situation in Sudan and Nigeria, but we can respond to the situation on our doorstep.

The programme we are talking about is the Syrian vulnerable person relocation scheme. Of course, there are other schemes, such as Mandate and Gateway, which are not country specific and therefore people would be eligible to apply through that route. The noble Lord has been consistent in drawing attention to this. Under the previous Government, he would chide us that the Syrian vulnerable person scheme was too little, dealing with only 160 people in the first year. But in the past three months we have added another 1,000 to that. That is something to be proud of, as is our committing to a further 20,000 by the end of the Parliament, and the fact that we are the second largest cash donor. There is always more that can be done, but I think that we can hold our heads up high, particularly at this time of year.

My Lords, many local councils have made generous offers to receive Syrian refugees. Has the Home Office considered publishing the figures so that councils can encourage one another to welcome and receive these refugees? It seems to me that there is a lack of information between the councils, and this should be put right.

Richard Harrington, my colleague in the Home Office, is responsible for that and is working with the more than 50 councils that have come forward. Because these are sensitive issues, councils have asked that they choose whether to disclose this information themselves; we do not disclose it on their behalf. On looking into this, there is one issue that has come up. The basis on which people come into this country is that they are given five years leave to remain on international humanitarian assistance. A lot of the accommodation that is provided is short term. The idea is, of course, that we want the people coming in to find work and their children to find schools and, because they are in high need, to have access to medical support. That is one reason why it is slightly more difficult to ensure that the right accommodation comes forward. However, the evidence of the past few months, with over 1,000 refugees arriving here, shows that that is beginning to work.

Are there any specific criteria that the Government use, over and above the recognition of these individuals as refugees, in the selection of the people arriving in the United Kingdom? While I am always cautious of trying to prioritise one set of refugees over others, would the Government consider, in the light of the United Kingdom’s expertise in preventing sexual violence in conflict, whether there is any way we could take in men and women who were subjected to sexual violence before they fled Syria?

When we set up this scheme we chose, unlike some other countries, to work through the UNHCR. We set certain criteria as to the type of people we regarded as most vulnerable, including those in acute need of medical attention that they could not get locally, women and girls who were vulnerable, and victims of torture or abuse. The UNHCR identifies those people and brings them in. That is one of the great strengths of our scheme—it meets the very issue that my noble friend is right to raise.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the first 1,000 refugees being brought in. I hope that this will continue apace. On the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, which draws on the experience of Canada, since 1979 the Canada private sponsorship programme has enabled 200,000 refugees to be settled in that country. Privately sponsored refugees are likely to make up around 40% of those coming in over the forthcoming months. It is a good example of big society, whereby churches and community groups are given responsibility for working with resettlement programmes. Have Her Majesty’s Government looked into the experience of Canada, and are they considering developing similar programmes in the UK based on that good experience?

We have looked at that programme, which is impressive but unlike ours is not focused on those in greatest need. We are having discussions at present: the Home Secretary is meeting with NGOs and we are talking to them and to church groups and faith groups about setting up a similar community sponsorship scheme, but perhaps not for people in urgent need of attention. That might not be appropriate, as it could not give the care they need. However, going forward, as the scheme expands, we would want to follow that up.

The Minister will be aware that there are many people in this country of Syrian and Iraqi origin, who are settled and pay tax here, who are desperate—I do not think that is putting it too highly—to bring in their own family members from the affected countries and care for them. Are the Government considering relaxing the restrictive rules on family visas to allow these people to play their part in helping their own families and the whole situation?

We are not looking at that particular point—we are quite strict on that. Visas are restricted to spouses and dependent children under the age of 18; we will look sympathetically at exceptional cases involving dependent relatives. One of the reasons why the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme is so appropriate is that the UNHCR looks at trying to bring the whole family group to the UK, rather than just one member of it. Therefore, the chances of the situation mentioned by the noble Baroness arising will hopefully be less in the future.