Hundreds of UK councils did not welcome any refugees in the first nine months of 2020, as new analysis reveals the impact the Covid pandemic has had on the UK’s resettlement programme.
The UK had aimed to offer 5,000 refugees a home in 2020-21, but with resettlement temporarily paused after the outbreak of the pandemic, charity Refugee Action says just a fraction of that number will be given sanctuary by the end of March.
Charities are now urging the UK Government to do more.
Resettlement in the UK
Home Office figures show just 733 refugees were welcomed to the UK between January and March last year, before settlements were halted – already a drop of 38% on the 1,184 resettled in the same period in 2019.
The vast majority of UK councils – 73% – did not see any arrivals during that time.
With the most recent figures revealing no refugees found a new home in the UK between March and September, that means overall settlements to that point in 2020 were down by 81% compared to 2019.
England and Wales resettled 516 refugees in 2020, while 128 refugees were resettled in Scotland and 89 in Northern Ireland.
Concerns from the UNHCR
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there were 26.3 million refugees worldwide fleeing famine, persecution and war as of mid-2020.
The UK arm of the UNHCR says it is concerned about the low numbers of recent arrivals to the country.
The UK had planned to launch a new global resettlement scheme in 2020 – the UK Resettlement Scheme – which brought together three existing resettlement programmes.
These were the UK’s Vulnerable Person (VPRS) and the Child Resettlement Scheme (VCRS), which largely helped people fleeing conflict in Syria, and the Gateway Protection Programme, which welcomed people from other parts of the world.
It aimed to resettle 5,000 refugees within 2020-21, its first year.
But with the current schemes halted during the pandemic – resuming only in November – and no new launch date for the UKRS, the UN has urged the UK to act now to speed up settlements.
“While we recognise the challenges that Covid is currently presenting to the UK, UNHCR is concerned about the delays in starting the new global resettlement scheme (UKRS) and the low number of recent arrivals,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, senior external relations officer at UNHCR UK.
“UNHCR urges the UK to start its new resettlement programme as soon as possible to help alleviate further suffering among refugees facing the most acute hardships.”
'People are left in limbo'
Refugee Action says the UK must restart a long-term resettlement programme for refugees.
Chief executive Stephen Hale said: “This Government’s claim to support refugee resettlement is tragically not borne out by their actions.
“They have agreed to welcome just 232 vulnerable people of the 5,000 promised sanctuary in 2020-21.
“Instead of starting new lives here, people are left in limbo, living in poverty and danger in refugee camps and near war zones.
“The Home Secretary must now step up, honour its pledge and restart a long-term programme to enable refugees to rebuild their lives safely in the UK.”
Wafa Shaheen, Head of Asylum, Integration and Resettlement at Scottish Refugee Council added that their team in Dundee was expecting a number of families to be resettled in 2020 but they are still “stuck in limbo”.
Ms Shaheen said: “This is devastating for everyone, not least for families trying to survive this global pandemic in camps with no end in sight.
“We understand why resettlement was paused in March 2020, but we should have welcomed 5,000 people into our communities this year.”
“With the UK facing another lockdown and more travel restrictions, it is unclear when flights will start again. Alongside our partners across the UK, we urge the Home Office to restart resettlement as soon as possible, and commit to an extended resettlement programme beyond 2021.”
Deferred because of Covid
Dundee was not the only place in the UK where the arrival of refugees was deferred in 2020.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office said that a group of refugees were due to arrive in Northern Ireland in April but their arrival was postponed because of the pandemic.
The spokesperson added: “The situation has been kept under constant review with partners from across the statutory, voluntary and community sector involved in the delivery of services to families when they arrive."
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government added that the country has already welcomed over 3,500 refugees over the years.
The spokesperson added: “We urge the UK Government to commit to delivery of the new global resettlement scheme, which will enable this important work to continue and respond to humanitarian crises, wherever they occur in the world.”
Immigration Minister Chris Philp would not state when the new scheme will start, nor if the 5,000 target will be met.
He said: “Like many countries, we had to temporarily pause resettlement during the pandemic but we have now resumed resettlement.
“We will continue to honour our commitment to those who have been invited to the UK and we will roll out a new global resettlement scheme in future, along with a new firm and fair asylum system, which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.”
The UNHCR states Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and Germany are the top five hosting countries for refugees.