U.K. will provide sanctuary to “some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees” Home Secretary Theresa May announced in Parliament on Wednesday. Victims of sexual violence and torture, women and children at risk, and those in need of urgent medical care will be given priority, she said, with numbers “in the hundreds.”
This represents a widely welcomed turnaround in the government’s position on taking in refugees from Syria. The U.K. had earlier refused to participate in the global resettlement programme of the UNHCR that had asked western governments to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees in their countries, on the grounds that it was already a major donor of humanitarian aid to Syria.
The Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme announced will, first, target the most vulnerable Syrians in camps for whom “evacuation is the only way out.” Such persons will be identified in consultation with the UNHCR.
Second, the scheme will work in addition to other resettlement schemes already there, notably the Gateway programme and the U.K.’s existing asylum programme. Under the second, around 3500 Syrian asylum seekers have been relocated in the U.K., Ms. May said.
Thirdly, the programme will not subscribe to quotas laid down by the UNHCR even though it will work in parallel with the organisation.
From being a country that had the second largest refugee population settled within its borders, Syria is today the country with the largest refugee exodus. An estimated 2.3 million Syrians have fled the country, a majority of whom are in camps in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. UNHCR forecasts that the numbers will swell to 4.1 million by the end of 2014.
The case for opening its borders to Syrian refugees, even in a limited way, was reportedly pressed for strongly by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with support from Prime Minister David Cameron. They did so against initial resistance from the Home Department that is seeking to reduce net migration to the U.K. to 100,000 by 2015.
Pressure came from other sources too. In late 2013 a group of 25 charities wrote an open letter in The Independent to the Prime Minister asking that Britain join other western governments in accepting Syrian refugees.
Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of Refugee Council, said “Opening our doors to offer safety to the most vulnerable refugees fleeing Syria is the ultimate act of humanity.”