The UK was a world leader in resettling the most at-risk refugees. In 2020, unlike other nations, there has been no such welcome as zero crossed our borders since March. And time is running out to save the scheme that is the last bastion of hope for so many fleeing conflict and violence, says Andy Hewett of the Refugee Council
The Government repeatedly states its commitment to resettlement. At the Refugee Council, we anxiously await the day these words are backed up with action.
On 31st March 2021, the VPRS comes to an end. The government announced in June 2019 that a new UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) would commence following the completion of the VPRS. With less than three months to go until the March deadline, there is still no plan in place for its replacement.
In 2015, the UK made an admirable commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees over five years from camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. The VPRS has been a landmark success, and communities across the UK have extended a warm welcome to refugees, who have gone on to not only recover from their traumatic experiences but also thrive and make a tremendous contribution to our country.
Resettlement is an invaluable tool to protect the lives of some of the most vulnerable refugees, offering a safe and managed transfer from refugee camps to their new home in a host state. Refugees are resettled if their lives are at risk, they are particularly vulnerable, or they have specialist health needs and there is no hope of them ever returning home. Many refugees who are selected by the UNHCR for resettlement have health needs that cannot be met in the country they are living in.
In the absence of any plan to resettle refugees after this date, the Refugee Council and other agencies involved in resettling refugees have sadly begun to wind down resettlement operations, with staff now at risk of redundancy. The sector is in danger of losing much of its vital infrastructure and specialist expertise.
We cannot let this happen. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme established the UK as a world leader in refugee resettlement. We must continue this proud tradition.
The pandemic is no excuse to let this slide. The UK welcomed no refugees between April and November 2020. Throughout this period, no restrictions were placed on international travel, and deportation flights continued. Meanwhile, our European neighbours, including France, Germany and Spain, resettled hundreds of refugees. They have shown it’s possible: now it’s time for the UK to step up and do the same.
The Prime Minister has said he expects life to be ‘back to normal’ by Easter, and assures us that the vaccine rollout is happening at pace. With this in mind, we call on the Government to reinstate the VPRS and commit to resettling 10,000 refugees a year.
We have the infrastructure, we have the expertise, and we have communities ready to welcome refugees and support them to rebuild their lives. All we need now is the political will, and if this doesn’t arrive very soon, we could lose the infrastructure required to manage refugee resettlement altogether.
Andy Hewett is Head of Advocacy at the Refugee Council