Shameful Tory failure to support refugees

01 Sep 2017
The government is simply not doing enough to assist those fleeing war and persecution writes Diane Abbott MP

It was recently revealed that just 5 per cent of refugees resettled from Syria under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme (VPRP) have disabilities, including mobility issues or special educational needs.
This is despite the fact that Britain’s pledge to resettle refugees made specific reference to supporting disabled Syrians and that the VPRP — which commits the government to taking in 20,000 refugees by 2020 — was set up in 2014 primarily to accommodate the most at-risk groups.
This is truly appalling and a new low in this government’s treatment of refugees.
Just over a year ago, when Theresa May made her first speech as prime minister, she said: “A disability or a health condition should never dictate the path a person is able to take.”
But this has clearly been a factor blocking the legitimate right of vulnerable refugees to seek asylum in this country.
Specifically, figures released by 251 councils under freedom of information laws show that 5,529 Syrian refugees were resettled under the VPRP between January 2014 and April this year. Of those 288, or 5.2  per cent, were registered as disabled.
This figure is despite the widely held belief that more than one in five people escaping the conflict are disabled, with Handicap International estimating that around 22 per cent of Syrian refugees in  Jordan and Lebanon have serious impairments.
Furthermore, groups working on the ground report that refugees with disabilities in countries surrounding Syria often live in desperate conditions where they struggle to access healthcare and other vital means of support.
This week’s revelations are part of a pattern of crisis affecting the government’s refugee programmes, in a situation where ministers consistently fail to meet their own promises or Britain’s international obligations.
This latest investigation follows reports in February this year that the government had temporarily barred disabled child refugees from a different scheme — the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme —   because it could not cope with their needs, with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, which processes the applications involved, saying that the Home Office had requested it put a “temporary limit” on requests from people with mobility problems and learning disabilities because there was not “suitable reception capacity” for them.
Ministers rightfully faced widespread criticism for the recent closure of the Dubs scheme offering sanctuary to lone refugee children in Europe, and in July it was reported that Britain has not taken in any child refugees under the Dubs scheme this year.
Labour peer Alf Dubs had paved the way for hundreds of children left marooned in Europe — including camps in Calais — after fleeing war in their home countries to be allowed to enter Britain last year as part ofan amendment he tabled to the last government’s Immigration Bill.
Yet, as Lily Caprani of Unicef UK said: “It’s unacceptable that we have seen  no children brought under the Dubs scheme this year. As a nation we showed our compassion and our principles when we helped refugee children stranded in Calais, but we were told this was not the end of the story. We are seeing too many children still having to make dangerous journeys to reach safety.”
At this point, Home Office ministers confirmed in written answers that only 200 children were transferred under the Dubs scheme in 2016 after the closure of the Calais camp, and 280 local authority places  remain to be filled.
Councils have also criticised what they term the “one-size-fits-all nature” of the Home Office programmes, which do not really address the additional support required by people living with disabilities.
We also know of cases where central government failed to take up offers from local councils to house Syrian refugees and where councils were surprised at the time the government took to allocate them refugees who they were willing to accept.
In the summer of 2015 a mass movement developed, saying: “Refugees welcome here,” building up pressure on the Tories.
Now we need to build up the pressure again. The Tories must be made to understand that unless they stop passing off refugees as somebody else’s problem, this government will go down as the one that watched while thousands suffered.
We must also demand that the government stop playing into a toxic  narrative that claims showing compassion for people who are the victims of poverty and war is wrong because they are really here to take our welfare and do us harm.
Whether it was the Vietnamese in the 1970s, the Ugandans in the 1980s or the Kosovars in the 1990s, Britain has a proud history of giving sanctuary to those escaping war and persecution.
We demean this legacy by turning our backs or neglecting desperate refugees who wish to escape and build lives and careers here.
Even though it is not always so prominent in the press, Europe is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war — it’s a test of our humanity, it’s a test of our principles and it’s a test of
genuine international co-operation.

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