Lord Roberts writes: It is time to open our doors to some of the most vulnerable people in the world

ld4sos-bannerAs 2013 drew to a close, politicians from across the political spectrum came to the same conclusion: that the UK should offer shelter to (at least) a small number of the two million refugees who have fled the war in Syria. Even scaremongerer-in-chief, Nigel Farage MEP, called upon the UK to honour its obligations under international law. Mark Pritchard, Conservative MP, told BBC Radio 4’s The World this Weekend that ‘clearly we can’t take all the refugees, but we should play our part as an open-hearted, compassionate country’. The Labour Party has supported the idea of taking in ‘400-500 Syrians’.

As President of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary (LD4SOS) however, I take a much stronger stance. I have secured a debate of the utmost importance on this subject on 9 January.

I intend to ask the Government what action they will take in conjunction with other European Union member states to establish a European-wide evacuation and resettlement programme for those fleeing conflict in Syria. I raised this subject during Oral Questions in early October and the response from peers and from Government may be read here. It is my sincerest hope that the Coalition will have changed its mind in light of the escalating crisis and the compassionate response from the British public.

LD4SOS has been arguing the case for a stronger response for several months and on several platforms. In November, I challenged current policy on returning Syrian nationals who were forced to return to Syria from the UK [see, HL 3438] and demanded that the Government at least considered relaxing the financial criterion for Syrians resident here who wish to bring their dependants into the country [see, HL 3437]. LD4SOS also lobbied MPs before the vote on military intervention in Syria, demanding that support and aid should be given to countries hosting the refugees, that those Syrians who arrive in the UK should be given the support and recognition that they need, and that all necessary help – including visas – should be given to families that are split by the atrocities.

Sarah Teather, a vice-president of LD4SOS, pointed out that ‘only 0.1% of those fleeing the violence in Syria are seeking refuge in the UK, compared with Lebanon which is hosting 36% of the refugees. Germany has already agreed to transfer 5,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon.’ She urged the Government to come forward with a similar offer of support. Moreover, Sir Menzies Campbell MP said last week that ‘Britain had not followed the lead of nations like the US, France and Germany in receiving asylum seekers. It’s unfortunate, to put it as mildly as I can, that we have closed our minds to that possibility when other countries in Europe have taken a much more generous position.’

Despite a financial contribution to the UNHCR campaign, of which the public should be very proud, the lukewarm response to that same organisation’s call that we welcome 10,000 refugees casts a grave shadow over the UK’s reputation of being a compassionate and tolerant society. 10,000 is fewer than than the 11,000 that fled into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon on 11 September 2012 alone. Many countries with weaker infrastructures are pulling above their weight – Bulgaria, for instance, has taken 800% of its ‘normal’ refugee intake in 2013, largely thanks to an influx of Syrian refugees. It is also worth noting that the country with the most refugees in the world is Pakistan, with more than 1.5 million.

France has agreed to take 500 refugees – a fraction of what is being asked of them but something nonetheless. Germany has agreed to take 5,000. Both of these countries take roughly twice the number of refugees that the UK allows annually. It is time to step up and open our doors to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

We have room on our Isles, in our society, and within our communities for that.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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