UN hails 'successful start' to UK's Syrian refugee scheme

By agency reporter
November 14, 2017

The UK’s Syrian refugee resettlement programme is well managed and has made a successful start in enabling its beneficiaries to integrate in their new country, according to a study by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners.

The study, the first of its kind by UNHCR in the UK, interviewed refugees from the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which was launched by the Government in 2014 and aims to resettle 20,000 refugees by 2020. As of mid-2017, over 8,000 had arrived.

While the study showed the programme working well, it nevertheless highlighted areas for improvement, notably in English language provision, and further support for housing and employment facilitation.

Among key recommendations were the establishment of a national integration strategy to better inform and guide those supporting refugees, for the benefit of this population.

Other proposals included a review of surge capacity to ensure local authorities (LAs) are able to support higher numbers in a short time if they chose; strengthening provision of appropriate housing by the central Government; and making family reunification planning more integral in the VPRS.

“The UK clearly has the capacity to resettle meaningful numbers of refugees”, said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UNHCR’s Representative in London. ”Integration of refugees is complex. By and large it is working, and support for integration – from the public, local authorities and Government – has been striking. We hope that, with development, this model can help more refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, resettle here after 2020.”

In terms of initial reception and early integration, refugees were grateful for the genuine welcome they had received and impressed by the efficiency with which tasks were completed by central and local Government and civil society.

Education and language are key in integration, with refugees heartened that their children could catch up on lost schooling; most children were able to quickly acquire English skills and make friends. Gaps, however, existed with some schools unaware of extra funding from which they could benefit. English classes (ESOL) were generally well attended. Some adults admitted struggling with language. Extra efforts are afoot to draw in groups with lower attendance. In late 2016, the Government committed £10 million to English classes under the VPRS. That funding has been invaluable, although those not under the VPRS would greatly benefit from inclusion.

A minority of those interviewed were in employment, having been in the country a short while and improving their English. But there was a real desire among them to access work soon. Earlier labour market integration and validation of skills from Syria would help self-reliance and reduce dependency. Existing work promotion schemes were limited and some councils felt they were working on this in isolation and would benefit from a national matching plan for employers and refugees.

Refugees were generally happy with housing and reported feeling secure. However, the stock of affordable rental property was small and diminishing. Some refugees found integration harder as a result of rural placements. In addition, the 2016 benefits cap was expected to adversely affect the welfare of many VPRS refugees.

Two-thirds of VPRS arrivals were survivors of violence and torture or had specific medical needs. The VPRS allows them to access crucial treatment they would otherwise be denied. Still, some cited being overwhelmed by the complexity of the medical referrals. Some LAs were also concerned about the prospect of funding health care after 2020. LAs recognised that reunification of family members can enhance integration prospects of resettled refugees, however, they expressed a lack of confidence in understanding how family reunification processes work.

One issue already addressed by the Government was granting refugee leave rather than humanitarian protection under the VPRS from July 2017. This gave refugees confidence in their ability to integrate.

“Our hope is that, building on the success of the VPRS to date, the UK will commit to resettling 10,000 vulnerable refugees a year,”  Vargas Llosa said.

Under the VPRS, the UNHCR refers potential cases for resettlement in the UK to the Home Office, which then checks cases against eligibility criteria and carries out medical and security checks. Cases which have been accepted are then referred to the devolved administrations and LAs. In July 2017, the Government expanded the scope of the scheme to include other refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria but do not have Syrian nationality. The study comprised interviews with 167 resettled refugees as well as LAs and service providers between August 2016 and January 2017. UNHCR conducted the survey with the International Organisation for Migration and City, University of London. The refugees came to the UK from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

* UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/uk/

[Ekk/6]

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