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David Cameron’s refugee programme is simple and, on a superficial level, persuasive. It’s the ‘head and heart’ plan. On the head side, he won’t take many Syrian refugees coming on the boats to Europe or participate in any EU quota system. But on the heart side, he’ll direct high levels of funding to regional humanitarian programmes and accept 20,000 refugees to the UK through a UNHCR system operating from refugee camps in the Middle East.
The problem is that neither of these policies – helping in the region and relocating especially vulnerable refugees at home – are being properly delivered. It’s a classic example of simplistic political messaging crashing into complex political realities.
Today’s international development select committee report lays it out in black and white. Behind the rhetoric and the bluster, it offers a very good account of why Cameron’s promises on refugees are running into problems.
Helping integrate at home
The refugee relocation programme to the UK is very slow, comprising just 20,000 over the next five years. Ministers insist this lengthy timetable is needed to properly integrate them into communities. As minister for Syrian refugees Richard Harrington said:
“I know it is in everybody’s interests, not least the people from Syria, to make sure they are brought here in a proper, well-ordered and decent way.”
So eyebrows have been raised now that the government has substantially cut funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, despite massive demand. This is foolish. Language integrates refugees into the community and prepares them to get work, which will eventually reduce their cost to the taxpayer. But the short-termism of government spending cuts takes precedence over long-term strategy.
Helping the most vulnerable
One of Cameron’s arguments against an EU quota system is that it helps those who can make it to Europe rather than those most in need of help. It’s actually not a bad point. Those able to pay to get here are typically the middle classes. Instead, the prime minister insists we can help the most vulnerable refugees in the region by working with the UNHCR on the ground and pinpointing the most vulnerable. The trouble is: that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Save the Children found that many refugees are confused and distrustful of the registration process required to be part of the UNHCR programme. In Lebanon alone, there are thought to be 200,000 to 400,000 unregistered Syrian refugees.
LGBT refugees are particularly badly affected. Homophobia is rife, both among the refugees themselves and in their regional host countries. There’s evidence LGBT refugees are being ostracised from sources of support. Christians are understood to often avoid the camps because they are run by Sunnis, whose military groups typically controlled camps in the past. Disabled people are also badly affected. Twenty per cent of refugees in Lebanon have some sort of impairment, but just 1.4% of the UNHCR-registered refugees are recorded as having a disability. Something is clearly going wrong there. As Aleema Shivji of Handicap International said:
“They are hidden, they are not visible and they are not picked up in registration systems.”
Helping in Syria
But even centring your refugee programme on camps is a problem, because most refugees aren’t in them. The worst affected and most vulnerable are still in Syria, where they are at massive risk of being killed in fighting or falling victim to one of the other myriad of disasters which has struck the country: water infrastructure in a state of collapse, a decimated health system, an economy which has contracted by 40%. Best estimates are that 13.5 million people in Syrian need humanitarian assistance.
About 50% of British government aid is being spent in Syria, at considerable risk to those delivering it, but the truth is that the country is largely inaccessible. As Matthew Wyatt, Department for International Development (DfID) deputy director for the Middle East told MPs:
“The problem in reaching the most vulnerable is when they are in those areas where there is either active conflict or where parties to the conflict, particularly Isil, just make it impossible to work. That is the biggest constraint that we are facing.”
Now that the UK is participating in airstrikes in Syria, those access challenges are obviously heightened. As the parliamentary report says:
“The recent escalation of military efforts will have an impact on conditions faced by civilians in Syria, and may well make it more difficult for DfID and other agencies to deliver humanitarian aid.”
Helping outside of Syria
Outside of Syria, the problems are different but nearly as severe. Lebanon has simply banned the UNHCR from registering refugees in its territory, so the programme is comatose there. Refugees accessing the country in the last six months have been unable to access international assistance and protection. We can’t identify them and we can’t help them.
But in other countries, where registration is allowed, most refugees are not in the camps where it would take place. Only ten per cent of Syrian refugees are thought to live in the camps. Many just can’t afford it – Lebanon is charging as much as $200 (£136) per month for rent, which is on average 90% of the refugee’s income. UNHCR assistance to get to the camps works well in some areas and terribly in others. And there are threats in the camp too – from water shortages to cholera and polio.
DfID appears to be on the ball here. It is directing 75% of overall humanitarian assistance towards non-camp areas outside of Syria. But the same cannot be said for many of the agencies receiving UK financial support, like the UNHCR.
Show me the money
Despite its cold approach to taking in refugees, the UK has thrown cash at the Syrian problem at source – totalling £1.1 billion as things stand. But other donors, particularly major European countries, have failed to follow suit. Basic humanitarian assistance is failing and refugees are therefore more likely to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean that the funding is designed to discourage.
Refugees who make it to neighbouring countries are often just sentencing themselves to impoverishment. They can rarely work and the aid is limited, so they are being asked to pick from three unappealing options: work illegally, send their children to work illegally, or scratch out a living with whatever meagre sustenance they can find.
Of course, many take the first option. But that doesn’t just put them in danger, it threatens to destabilise the host country. With so many refugees working for meagre wages illegally, the fragile local economies of these neighbouring states are fraying at the edges. What started amicably enough is quickly descending into severe tension with a strong chance of violence.
The solution is not necessarily to demand that these host countries open their labour market to refugees. Many experts believe that would worsen the chaos and probably heighten the resentment. But western countries could create refugee employment programmes in neighbouring states. There are options in the Jordanian economy in transport, alternative energy sources and recycling, for instance, which could even attract private sector involvement. The government appears to be considering exactly that, but any such solution is still at least a year away. For the time being, and possibly indefinitely, we are subjecting these people to a choice between poverty or illegality.
For now, Cameron’s 'head and heart’ plan seems highly unsatisfactory. We are not equipping refugees for integration or work here. We are not singling out the most vulnerable over there. And we are forcing those who do reach safety to make terrible choices in order to survive.