Neil Quilliam
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The first in a series of articles on foreign policy opportunities for the next government argues that the UK should admit and/or resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo by Getty Images.Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo by Getty Images.

There is no end in sight to the Syria conflict. The flow of refugees will continue to place neighbouring countries under severe political, social and economic strain, raising the prospect of further destabilization across the region. There is a clear link between instability in the Middle East and the UK’s increasing vulnerability to security threats. Current UK government policy towards Syrian refugees only accentuates these threats.

Instead, the UK government should underpin regional stability and support Syrian refugees and neighbouring countries by resettling or providing temporary admission to 10,000 vulnerable Syrians. It should do this through two channels. First, it should increase the number of refugees it admits under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme – from hundreds at present to 5,000. And second, it should grant entry to a further 5,000 refugees through a humanitarian temporary admission programme, selecting those most vulnerable on the basis of established UN criteria.

The government should also lead international efforts to encourage other states to provide similar routes for a further 180,000 refugees. Although this number is still only a small proportion of the total, resettling or providing temporary admission on such a scale would signal the international community’s solidarity with displaced Syrians and deepen its commitment to shoulder responsibility for their welfare.

Taken together, the above measures would not only contribute to easing the plight of Syrian refugees, but would also offer tangible benefits for UK security, foreign policy, trade and investment.

The scale of the challenge

The Syria conflict has generated one of the biggest refugee crises since the Second World War. Over 4 million people have fled Syria, yet to date countries outside the region have pledged to resettle less than 2 percent of them. With no diplomatic options on the table to end the conflict, the flow of refugees will continue – Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon already accommodate over 1 million each. This will cause significant long-term political, social and economic problems for Syria’s neighbouring states, while also creating security challenges for the international community.

Since 2011 the UK government has given significant humanitarian support to Syrian refugees and the communities in neighbouring states that host them. To date, it has provided over £800 million in funding, making it the single largest donor to the Syrian cause. Without doubt, the UK has taken a leading role in alleviating suffering among Syrian refugees. However, the government’s reluctance to resettle or provide humanitarian admission to more than a few hundred Syrians is harming the UK’s reputation in the Middle East. Moreover, it is squandering an opportunity to influence a new generation of Syrians who will likely lead the reconstruction of their war-torn homeland.

Learning from good policy

In previous conflicts, the UK government admitted substantial numbers of refugees, notably 12,000 Iraqis between 1991 and 2001; 14,000 Iraqis between 2003 and 2013; and over 4,000 Kosovars in 1996. The admission of Iraqi and Kosovar refugees has provided the UK with a number of direct foreign policy benefits. It has given rise to a cadre of Iraqi and Kosovar leaders who feel a close affinity with Britain and provide the government with almost exclusive access to senior decision-makers in both countries. It has given rise to a new generation of Britons, fluent in English, educated in British schools and universities and with strong familial connections to both countries; this has significantly benefited UK trade and investment. The strong presence of British-educated dual nationals and pro-British leaders among the Kurdish leadership in Iraq is testament to a successful policy of resettlement.

The government should learn from this experience and apply it to its policy on Syrian refugees. Many of the gains with respect to the UK’s Iraqi and Kosovar communities could be replicated by a response to the Syrian crisis that includes a broadened programme of resettlement, humanitarian temporary admission, enhanced family reunion and study visa programmes.

The opportunity for the UK

First and foremost, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council the UK should recognize the moral imperative created by the Syrian conflict. As the world faces a major refugee crisis, it is incumbent on the UK, as an influential power, to exercise international leadership.

A new policy would send a strong signal that the UK government and its people care about Syria. There is a common (mis)perception among Syrians that the UK has abandoned the country to the brutality of the Assad regime and violence of Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups. The UK parliamentary vote in August 2013 against military action, following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, reinforced that perception.

Providing refuge for more Syrians would not only amplify the message that the UK has provided substantive support to refugees, but also ensure that it does not fall on deaf ears. The predominant issue shaping Syrian perceptions of the UK is now the ‘hundreds’ of people the government is willing to let into the country, and the resentment that this restrictive policy engenders. Syrian refugees’ opinions of the UK are more likely to be improved by a generous resettlement policy than by UK government messaging on the size of its humanitarian aid package. Despite spending over £800 million since the start of the conflict, the UK government has a poor reputation among Syrians.

Admitting another 10,000 refugees from Syria would provide the UK with considerable soft power, which would benefit both countries in a post-conflict phase. It would help a generation of Syrians, many of whom would be educated in the UK, who will want to return to help reconstruct Syria. Drawing on its experience with the Kurdish region in Iraq, the UK would be well positioned to help shape Syria’s post-conflict political and commercial environment, and support efforts to underpin stability and prosperity.

Beyond the diplomatic dimension, there is significant evidence that refugee communities contribute both economically and in other ways to host countries. Resettled communities typically send remittances back to their extended families, bolstering the survival capacity of the wider refugee population that remains in neighbouring states.

Admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees would also help to reduce the appeal that IS holds for some young Britons. It would provide a persuasive counter-narrative to extremist perspectives that could otherwise find sympathy. Supporting some of the most vulnerable Syrians would provide a clear demonstration that the UK is committed to fulfilling its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Moreover, it would provide tangible evidence to families and community leaders in the UK who wish to prevent their own members from being radicalized. With appropriate levels of support, Syrian refugees in the UK could themselves become part of the counter-narrative and counsel young Britons against travelling to Syria to join IS.

Benefits to Syrians and neighbouring states

A change in UK policy could also catalyse international action, but this is contingent on the government setting a stronger example. The UK has pledged to admit far fewer refugees than some of its Western partners, including Germany (30,000), Canada (12,300), Australia (5,600) and Switzerland (3,500). Although admitting 10,000 refugees would only help a small proportion of those in need, it would encourage other governments, including in Gulf Arab states, to work towards realizing the UNHCR ministerial pledging conference’s goal of resettling or providing humanitarian admission to 180,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees (about 5 per cent of the total refugee population).

Resettlement and humanitarian admission on a sufficient scale – if the UK could persuade other countries to follow suit – would also ease the strain on the states neighbouring Syria, which are struggling to provide public services, infrastructure and private shelter. This would create positive dividends for the 95 per cent of refugees who remain in neighbouring countries. Moreover, accepting the most vulnerable cases for resettlement relieves neighbouring states of the short-term costs of treating, supporting or protecting them. The positive impact can also extend to the families of vulnerable cases.

Increasing the number of places on offer to Syrian refugees would also strengthen UK government efforts to persuade Syria’s neighbours to keep borders open and provide sanctuary to additional waves of refugees. Offering only a few hundred places and then asking Syria’s neighbours to accept more refugees does not provide for a convincing case. 

Managing the risks

Of course, there are risks and costs in resettling and providing humanitarian admission to Syrian refugees, including security concerns associated with an influx of arrivals. But these need not and should not be a barrier to opening more places. The UK could follow established UNHCR criteria that prioritize vulnerable groups: women at risk, children, medical cases, survivors of trauma or torture, refugees facing immediate security risks, refugees at a heightened risk of sexual violence or exploitation, and refugees who require resettlement to ensure family unity. UNHCR has robust measures in place to identify and select cases to refer for resettlement, and clear procedures for identifying individuals who should be excluded from refugee status. Criteria are based on need and not ethnic or religious affiliation. All refugees offered protection in third countries go through rigorous security screening before being accepted. The policy would require cross-Whitehall collaboration led by the Cabinet Office and including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, HM Treasury, UK Trade & Investment, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and security agencies.

Given public hostility to immigration and the intemperate tone of the UK’s political debate on the topic, there may be political costs to admitting Syrian refugees. However, populist arguments against increased immigration should be resisted. Many fears about immigration are based more on emotion and sentiment than on evidence. There is a clear case that resettling a larger number of Syrians would far outweigh the costs of accommodating them. As mentioned above, first, it would strengthen national security. Second, it would demonstrate commitment to Syria’s neighbours and underpin their security too – the UK’s security is directly linked to regional developments. Third, it would generate goodwill among the Syrian refugee population and diaspora, which would benefit the UK in the long term.

The current approach of resettling very few Syrian refugees also has costs. For example, it means that the UK continues to have to provide substantive humanitarian assistance, with diminishing returns for all concerned. UK financial support for Syrian refugees in the Middle East cannot be sustained at its current level over the long term. When it is eventually reduced, this will heighten the prospect of insecurity among Syria’s neighbours and diminish the UK’s leverage in a post-conflict environment. Resettlement provides an opportunity for a longer-term investment in Syria’s future.

A cross-party approach

The new government must recognize that the effects of the Syrian crisis have been profound and will be felt for generations. The UK’s response – which other countries, particularly those in the Middle East, will closely judge – must be similarly long-term in its approach.

The next UK government should seek a cross-party agreement on policy towards Syrian refugees, putting aside party political interests to increase the political space for a bolder position that reflects the UK’s role and responsibilities as an international power. The new government should make resettling Syrian refugees a national issue that draws on the moral imperative and, at the same time, ensures that the UK remains central to resolving the Syria crisis.

This may not be quite as challenging as it first appears: even Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, has recognized the distinction between Syrian refugees and economic migrants, and the UK’s responsibility to the former. Moreover, the government can emphasize that while VPR can provide a route to a permanent home in the UK, shorter-term humanitarian admission is designed to be a temporary solution predicated upon refugees eventually returning to Syria. By resettling 5,000 Syrians directly and admitting a further 5,000 on humanitarian terms, the government can counter anti-immigration sentiment, if necessary, by emphasizing the temporary component of the programme. In other words, a dual-stream admissions policy would give the government a practical tool with which to deflect populist criticism.

In short, a change in policy on resettlement and humanitarian admission would not only be a symbolic act of moral leadership, but would also serve the government’s policy of supporting stability in the Middle East and offer long-term benefits for British national life, foreign policy and security.

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