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Members and supporters of Refugees Welcome Haringey with local MP Catherine West (second from right)'. Copyright @ Amalia Aguirre.

Britain is voting in a snap general election on June 8. From Brexit to security and future immigration policies, the manifestos of most parties will have implications for refugee protection.

After the current government scrapped the so called Dubs Amendment in February this year - the UK’s pledge to take in an unspecified number of unaccompanied child refugees at risk in Europe over the course of this Parliament - several London-based refugee rights organizations became concerned that the UK’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees and 3,000 “children at risk” in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by 2020, could also be ripped up by the incoming government.

The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme was launched in 2014 by the then Prime Minister David Cameron to provide a safe and legal route for hundreds of vulnerable Syrian refugees to the UK by 2017. It was extended in 2015 to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees from the Middle East by 2020. According to Immigration Statistics published by the Home Office in February this year, only 5,706 people have been granted humanitarian protection under the VPR scheme since its inception. In 2016, 4,369 people were resettled under the scheme across 206 different local authorities in the UK. Half (50%) of them were under 18 years old (2,180), and around half (47%) were female (2,072). This means that over 17,000 refugees are still to be resettled over the next three years.

Refugees Welcome Haringey, a group of Haringey residents who since September 2015 have campaigned for Syrian refugees to be resettled in the borough, is asking general election candidates in Hornsey & Wood Green and in Tottenham to commit to keeping the present government's pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees and 3,000 vulnerable children by 2020. The group is also asking them to commit to extending the current 20,000 pledge by another 8,000 for the life of the new Parliament.

“The candidates’ responsibilities are towards national-level policy, but this has a bearing on what happens locally. This is what we hope they would pledge to do if they were to win the election and form the next Government”, says Lucy Nabijou, Refugees Welcome Haringey co-coordinator.

After over a year of incessant campaigning work by Refugees Welcome Haringey, supported by Catherine West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, in November 2016 Haringey Council voted to accommodate up to ten families under the VPR scheme. Council leader Clare Kober vowed to “work round the clock to give refugee families a safe home and the support they need to rebuild their life”. Kober said:

“I am proud that Haringey has pledged to resettle up to 10 Syrian refugee families and we are determined to help refugee families rebuild their lives away from the war in Syria. I know that people across Haringey have been shocked at the suffering in Syria and will want to do their bit to help.”  

To date, no Syrian families have been resettled in Haringey. The first Syrian family selected for resettlement was expected to arrive on June 7, the day before the general election.

The importance of resettling Syrian refugees

The Syrian civil war is surely the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. Since its outbreak in 2011, around 400,000 Syrians have lost their life. Half of the pre-war country population has been forcibly displaced from their home. More than 67,000 displacements have taken place between February and March this year alone.

Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are now housing the majority of Syrians who fled the conflict in search of security. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of 1 May 2017, there are 5,050,209 registered Syrian refugees. 120,154 of these are registered in Egypt (last UNHCR update in February 2017), 236,772 in Iraq (last UNHCR update in March 2017), 659,246 in Jordan (last UNHCR update in May 2017), 1,011,366 in Lebanon (last UNHCR update in December 2016), and 2,992,567 in Turkey (last UNHCR update in April 2017).  

Countries hosting such high numbers of refugees often struggle to provide for them. Many refugees in host countries live in extreme poverty or dangerous situations, usually in camps or urban settings, have specific needs and no chance of ever returning home. Some have medical conditions that cannot be addressed in their country of refuge. Others are in need of legal and/or physical protection, or are survivors of torture and/or violence. Many are at risk of exploitation or ill-treatment, particularly women, girls, children and adolescents, and/or are separated families. Not surprisingly, thousands attempt a perilous journey to Europe in search for a better life.  

Vulnerable refugees are entitled to resettlement - the transfer from a country where they sought and received protection to a country that has agreed to admit them and grant them permanent settlement. Syrian refugees selected for resettlement in the UK under the VPR scheme are granted full refugee status, which entitles them to legal and physical protection, and guarantees against the risk of refoulement, the return of a refugee to the frontiers of territories where their life or freedom would be threatened (Article 33 of the Geneva Convention).

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees are likely to increase. The VPR scheme is an important tool for refugee protection, as well as an expression of responsibility sharing among countries and international solidarity towards people in need. Closing safe and legal routes to protection makes refugees vulnerable to human rights violations, including violence, abuse and exploitation. Opening these routes can mean the difference between life and death. It can mean reuniting separated families, providing access to healthcare, and allowing a life free from the risk of ill-treatment.

“The more refugees have access to resettlement programmes, the less they will need to depend on paying smugglers and risking their lives on dangerous journeys. From the point of view of communities in Britain, we stand to benefit hugely from welcoming these families into our neighbourhoods, with new friendships and contributions from often skilled and motivated people who want to rebuild their lives successfully, and enhanced community cohesion as we work together to support each other”, says Lucy Nabijou.

“Scrapping the VPR scheme would mean that Britain would have resettled only about a quarter of the 20,000 Syrian refugees that it has pledged to help by 2020. Haringey has only just begun to resettle the ten families it has pledged; if this policy is reversed after the election, the Council would have only resettled one family. Britain already lags well behind other European countries such as Germany and Sweden in its commitment to refugee resettlement, yet we're the sixth richest country in the world”, adds Lucy Nabijou.

Refugees Welcome Haringey calls on all general election 2017 candidates in the two Haringey constituencies to pledge their support for refugees, should they be elected to the forthcoming Parliament. While there is no legal obligation on states to establish regular refugee resettlement programmes, honouring existing resettlement commitments is an opportunity for both the local authorities in the UK and the incoming government to demonstrate leadership and international solidarity to refugee protection. Extending these commitments will send a clear and positive message that Haringey, and Britain, welcome refugees.

To know more about the work of Refugees Welcome Haringey, you can attend World Refugee Day short film screening + Q&A on 20 June, at ArtHouse Crouch End, London. You can also follow the group Facebook and Twitter pages

* Sabrina Tucci is a freelance journalist and human rights activist. She has worked in refugee camps in Algeria and in immigration removal centres in the UK. She holds a Masters degree in Refugee Studies from City, University of London. Follow her on Twitter: @sabrinatucci 



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