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Syrian Refugees

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to fulfil their pledge to accept 20,000 refugees from Syria into the United Kingdom by 2020.

My Lords, the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is on track to deliver the Government’s commitment. The most recent statistics published on 26 May 2016 show that a total of 1,854 people have been resettled in the United Kingdom under the scheme since it began in March 2014.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his disappointing reply. In February, there were 1,194 people under the scheme. The number has risen by only 700. To reach the number of 20,000 by 2020 means that we will have to take 4,000 a year, not 700. How on earth will the Government keep their promise when they are unable even at the beginning to fulfil their pledge?

It is important that we understand the facts. The scheme began in March 2014, when it was decided that a number of hundreds of vulnerable Syrians would be resettled here. It was on 1 September 2015 that the Prime Minister determined to increase the number to 20,000, and it is since that date that the numbers have been increasing. As I said, it is anticipated that within the life of this Parliament, which will be until 2020, we will resettle 20,000.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to the need for generosity towards Syrian refugees, it is important that we and our existing European partners use our diplomatic strength to help the Syrians and others to reach a solution to this dreadful civil war in the hope that some refugees will start to return to their beloved country?

I entirely concur with the observations of the noble Lord. Of course, we are not only making efforts to bring vulnerable refugees into Europe and into the United Kingdom but also expending vast sums—£2.3 billion—to assist those refugees who are determined to remain in the vicinity of their homeland in Syria. We continue with these efforts.

My Lords, since the introduction of this scheme, the Chilcot report, which your Lordships’ House will debate this afternoon, has left considerable unease about how we are ever going to reconcile ourselves to the effects of our actions. So will the Minister ask the Prime Minister, in the light of the attitude that has been created to some extent with regard to refugees, whether she would use her first day in office to extend the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to include a few thousand Iraqis who are currently ineligible merely because they hold the wrong passport, but who have suffered the same injustice as the Syrians at the hands of Daesh?

Of course, the observations of the noble Baroness will be noted by the present Prime Minister—and, no doubt, by the future Prime Minister—but I cannot give a further commitment at this time.

My Lords, the report said that there had been 1,700 people coming into the scheme in 10 months. By my calculation, that means that at current rates of progress, by the end of the five-year period, 10,200 will have been given admittance to the UK. In the light of that arithmetic, can the Minister explain what he means when he says that the programme is on track?

Of course, because it is necessary to distinguish between simple arithmetic and administration and policy. We are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to ensure that appropriate numbers are brought in. The numbers vary from quarter to quarter, depending on those who are determined by the commissioner to be available for resettlement. The numbers vary.

My Lords, at a meeting in your Lordships’ House this morning with the Red Cross and UNICEF we were told that the figure of 10,000 unaccompanied minors who had disappeared in Europe is an underestimate. We were told that there is no system, that it is hit and miss and that many are still falling through the cracks. Will the Minister tell the House how many unaccompanied minors have so far arrived in the United Kingdom under the terms of the Dubs amendment, which was approved by the House of Commons and has now been enacted?

At the present time, we are still in negotiations with the Commissioner for Refugees and local authorities in this country to determine the transfer of these children. It is anticipated that the first transfers will take place before the end of the year.

Why are the negotiations on unaccompanied child refugees taking as long as they are? I ask that because the Observer said, on Sunday, that not a single unaccompanied child refugee has been brought into the UK from continental Europe, or even been identified by the British Government, since Mr Cameron promised two months ago that vulnerable minors would be offered sanctuary. The same article said that the Government are struggling to encourage local councils to accept more child refugees. Although they have increased the money they are offering to support child refugees, the funding is guaranteed for only a year. Is that true?

On the question of funding, the Government provide funding for the first year directly and fund indirectly thereafter. On the question of bringing children here, it is not the case that we can go out to Europe and kidnap the children. We have to negotiate with the authorities there, with the Commissioner for Refugees and with the local authorities in this country to ensure a sensible and civilised transfer of these children.

My Lords, Scotland has been able to accept, I am very proud to say, over a third of the Syrian refugees rehomed here under the resettlement scheme. That has been working very well in Scotland—apart, perhaps, from the need to become familiar with the Scottish midge. But does the Minister agree that this scheme may proceed in a more fruitful manner if there is continued discussion with the devolved legislators? Certainly, in the case of Scotland, I understand that there is a willingness to try to accommodate more of our share of the Syrian refugees, and this could act as a catalyst to help the scheme to work more productively.

My noble friend is quite right: some 38% of resettled Syrian refugees have been resettled in Scotland. We are, however, dealing with 71 local authorities which have so far taken resettled refugees and we continue in discussions with all local authorities, in all areas of the United Kingdom, to ensure a sensible and equitable spread of these refugees throughout the country. I have no doubt that if matters can be advanced by discussions with the devolved Administrations, those discussions will take place in addition to the discussions with local authorities.