David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and Chairman of the APPG on Migration.
Somewhat lost in the press coverage in recent days about reform of the asylum system is news of a success story worth celebrating. As we pledged to do in 2015, in response to the civil war in Syria – which led to the mass movement of people, the UK has now resettled 20,000 people through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).
That we reached this goal in spite of political instability at home, with Brexit dominating so much of the domestic political landscape, and despite the pandemic, which temporarily affected our capacity but never our motivation, is a testament to hard work and strategic thinking at every level.
It is a testament to the resolve of successive Conservative governments, which under three different prime ministers have made refugee resettlement a top priority. I have seen this first-hand through my own involvement with the scheme, as Lord Porter, then Chairman of the Local Government Association, and I joined the cabinet sub-committee chaired by the then Home Secretary Theresa May to commence work on the VPRS in 2015.
It is a testament to local authorities, without whom a programme on this scale would have been impossible. Councils have made pledges on the basis of their capacity, welcomed some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and given them the support they need to integrate well. The fact that this has included urban and rural areas demonstrates that the solution to the refugee crisis can include the whole of our country, not just big cities.
It is also a testament to the goodwill of the public. Communities up and down the country have greeted refugees with open arms, befriending families, providing practical support, and helping people take the first steps in rebuilding their lives.
The Syrian refugee resettlement scheme has been a Great British success story. We should be proud of our strategic involvement in tackling a global problem, the transformation of the lives of people who have come here, and the way our communities have been enriched by their presence here. Britain has gone above and beyond in meeting its international obligations, resettling more refugees from the Middle East between 2016-19 than any other European country.
We have also done this in a way that recognises the needs of local communities and recognises the strains that can occur when too many new arrivals are concentrated in one place. Indeed, the refugee resettlement scheme has avoided many of the problems caused by the operation of the dispersal scheme, in which asylum seekers are sent to areas where housing is cheap and easily available, are unable to work, and often wait years for a decision on whether or not they can stay in the UK.
On the other hand, refugees who arrive through resettlement programmes have been vetted prior to arrival, are able to work straight away, and arrive in a community that has the resources and desire to welcome them. We have also taken a manageable number of people. Taking 5,000 refugees annually equates to eight people per parliamentary constituency. Whilst I accept legitimate concerns about stretched resources – and am all too familiar with the pressures faced by local councils from my two decades of work in local government – I believe it is well within our means to accommodate this number of people across the country.
Whilst the VPRS has been a success, we would be wasting an opportunity if we did not seek to learn the lessons from the last six years as we embark on our new resettlement scheme. The UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), the successor programme to the VPRS, reflects the ambitions of ‘Global Britain’, both in its wider geographical scope and in its flexibility, with the ability to respond to unforeseen crises that may arise. That is even more important now, in the context of the pandemic, than it was when the Government first outlined the details of the scheme in 2019. The next decade is likely to be characterised by uncertainty and instability as the consequences of coronavirus, climate change, and conflicts collide. We must recognise that the problems which may seem distant will confront us eventually if we do not face them proactively with compassion and resolve.
The success of the UKRS will depend on the effective coordination of national and local government. In extremely difficult circumstances over the last year, local authorities have stepped up, from housing rough sleepers to providing social care and children’s services. I have no doubt that they will be willing and able to play an important part in continuing our national success story of refugee resettlement. In order to make an appropriate and ambitious number of pledges, local authorities would benefit from clarity around a multi-year commitment on funding, and an overall aspiration on numbers, set by central government.
Refugee resettlement will never be sufficient to solve a crisis that now sees almost 80 million people displaced around the world. The long-term solution to this crisis will involve incorporating our humanitarian principles into our wider foreign and diplomatic aims, which will mean resourcing nation states to resolve conflicts and ensuring that as many people as possible are able to remain in their places of origin. However, for now, refugee resettlement represents an important component of this effort, and I am extremely proud that Global Britain will continue to tackle global problems and provide sanctuary for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.