LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Activists and aid agencies on Wednesday welcomed Britain’s decision to offer refuge to several hundred refugees from the Syrian civil war, and said they hoped it would increase the number it was prepared to take in.
“We commend the government for upholding this reputation by going the extra mile and offering protection to some of the most vulnerable refugees who will now have a chance to rebuild their lives in safety,” said Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren.
“We need to welcome what the government has decided to do. It was a courageous decision at a time when the pressure on the government to do the right thing for Syrian refugees was building up,” said Russell Hargrave of Asylum Aid.
An Islamic NGO, however, accused Britain of ‘shirking its responsibilities to the suffering Syrian people’ by offering to take so few refugees, and said British policies had aggravated the Syrian civil war.
The government, which says Britain is the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, providing 600 million pounds ($995 million) so far, had previously refused to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees, saying it was better to enable them to stay in neighbouring countries near their homes.
The change of stance, announced on Tuesday, followed mounting pressure from the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners and the main Labour opposition on the Conservative Party to join a U.N. scheme to resettle 30,000 of the most vulnerable cases.
"We will act with the greatest urgency... We provided food for 188,000 people, clean water for almost a million, medical consultation for almost a quarter of a million,” Prime Minister David Cameroon said during prime minister’s question time in parliament on Wednesday.
"We want to make sure we particularly help those who had been victims of sexual violence," he said. Britain will work with the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, to take in the most vulnerable refugees, but Cameron did not say how many would be brought to Britain.
Among Britain’s EU partners, Germany has already taken in 10,000 refugees from the conflict-stricken country.
“For the hundreds of people that are going to be helped, it will be life-changing. When we reunite families that have been separated by war we see what it means for them to live together again. … Of course, if there were more people being helped, we would welcome that,” said Hargrave of Asylum Aid.
“There will be voices elsewhere in the political debate which will warn against being generous to refugees, people worried about setting precedents or who have reservations about how it might impact on life in the UK”, he said.
“The numbers aren't huge, but it’s the beginning of opening up doors especially or humanitarian reasons, to the hundreds of thousands of children and women who are seeking to escape from the crisis in Syria. … We hope this is the start of more action from the UK government,” a UNICEF spokesman told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission, an NGO that has Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, criticised the British offer.
“The decision by the British government to accept just several hundred refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria is a shirking of its responsibilities towards the suffering Syrian people.” it said.
“The coalition government believes that any large-scale commitment would jeopardise its policy of reducing net migration to the UK, itself a reflection of the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric currently dominating political and media discourse.”
IHRC chairman Massoud Shadjareh said that “the British government bears a greater responsibility than most to Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict because its policies have aggravated the civil war there. Taking in 500 refugees is merely paying lip service to its humanitarian duty to offer a home to the displaced."
The UNHCR on Tuesday welcomed Britain’s generous contribution towards the massive humanitarian needs in the region. The United Nations has asked countries outside the region to take a total of 30,000 Syrian refugees, but has not suggested targets for individual countries.
Almost all the 2.5 million refugees from the civil war are currently sheltering in camps or with local people in neighbouring countries, putting their infrastructure and social cohesion under severe pressure.