David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and the Conservative principal of the cross-party Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project (RAMP)
As chairman of the Local Government Association’s, Asylum, Migration and Refugee Task Group, I had a privileged insight into the efforts required to make a success of resettlement. The joined-up approach, with international agencies working with refugees in conflict areas, and local authorities receiving the necessary funding and support from the government, made a meaningful and lasting difference to people in need of protection and a new start.
Indeed, the UK’s refugee resettlement programme has been one of the quiet success stories of Conservative governments since 2015. By the end of last year, nearly 20,000 refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria were settled into communities across the country through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). Half of all those resettled have been vulnerable children. This has been achieved with strong community support, in contrast to the concerns provoked by trafficker-driven, illegal channel crossings.
Understandably, given the disruption to international travel and the unprecedented challenges facing the government and local authorities because of the pandemic, the resettlement scheme was paused in March, and the new Global Resettlement Scheme – under which various existing schemes will be brought together – has yet to launch.
However, the need for safe, legal, managed routes into the UK remains as important as ever. As we maintain our proud record of welcoming those in need, and address practical concerns regarding our borders, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on why the VPRS worked so effectively, with a view to resuming refugee resettlement at the earliest opportunity.
During the summer, the focus has been on the increasing number of people making the dangerous journey across the Channel, often at the mercy of criminal gangs exploiting their misery and desperation. We need to discourage people from making a journey that puts their lives at risk and undermines the legal processes by which people should come to this country and make it their home. Human traffickers prey on the misery and desperation of those seeking sanctuary and safety, and we must ensure that they cannot continue to profit in this way.
Along with my Conservative colleagues, I was elected on a manifesto that commits to granting asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution. Much has changed since the general election, but it remains within our power to meet the commitment made to those who have experienced violence. Given that asylum claims can only be made by those who are physically in the UK, we need to offer safe, legal routes for people to come, rather than risk people arriving on small boats across the channel.
This is not, as it is often unhelpfully framed, a choice between compassion and robust management of our borders. Offering safe legal routes into the country is part of our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable. Resettlement allows us control over how many refugees come into the country, and the voluntary aspect of the scheme means local authorities can welcome people on the basis of their capacity and the particular needs of their community.
Crucially, we have shown over the past five years that we can resettle refugees successfully. The effective interaction between international agencies working with refugees on the ground and the coordination between national and local government led to a scheme described by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as meeting the ‘gold standard’.
UNHCR selects people on the basis of need – with a particular focus on families, children at risk, and those who have survived violence or torture – and the International Organisation for Migration arranges their relocation. The Home Office considers referrals and matches them to participating local authorities, and the accommodation and support on arrival is offered by local authorities that have opted into the scheme and been given the necessary funding to house people and help them integrate smoothly into their new surroundings.
We know who is arriving, because applicants have been through a robust selection process on the ground and vetted by the Home Office, and there is a community ready to welcome them here in the UK. The voluntary nature of the scheme has meant that communities across the country, in urban and rural areas, have benefitted from the positive contribution of those who have resettled, are entitled to work immediately, and put their skills to good use. In areas where depopulation is a significant issue, the VPRS has provided an opportunity for local authorities to address the needs of their community, from unused housing, to dwindling workforces, to schools struggling to stay open because of declining pupil numbers.
This community participation and support makes resettlement considerably more effective than the dispersal scheme, under which destitute asylum seekers are not evenly spread around the country, live in cheap and often substandard accommodation, and are unable to work legally whilst they wait for their case to be determined. This situation simply wastes the skills of people who are here, and often does not garner community acceptance because of the disproportionate number of asylum seekers in certain local authorities and the lack of funding available to support them.
The recent fire at a migrant camp in Lesbos, which has left approximately 13,000 asylum seekers homeless, is a stark reminder that displacement is not an issue that will disappear as we confront other challenges. As France and Italy have resumed their refugee resettlement programmes, the moment has arrived for us to consider how we can contribute constructively through similar provision.
In 2015, when the resettlement scheme was extended rapidly in response to the growing humanitarian need, we demonstrated our ability to increase our support in difficult circumstances. Resuming resettlement now will allow us to support those in need, manage our borders effectively, and demonstrate our enduring commitment to tackling global challenges.