The fear of persecution, particularly among Christians, leads many refugees to avoid refugee camps. Evidence from the charity Barnabas Fund, indicates a history of militant groups ‘dominating and controlling’ refugee camps in past regional conflicts: this adds to the feeling of danger perceived by Syrian Christians. Evidence also suggests that refugees in host communities are less visible to the relevant authorities. Last month the International Development Select Committee highlighted how under-registration is particularly problematic among certain groups - the most vulnerable are often not registered with the United Nations High Commissionaire for Refugees (UNHCR); and there is considerable confusion and distrust of the registration process.
While figures are unreliable, estimates and media reports suggest that there may be as many as 200,000 to 400,000 unregistered Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone. Evidence from Lebanon suggests that under-registration arises from barriers to access, including: lack of information, misconceptions about the process, and physical access due to issues with transport and mobility. Crucially, it seems that these barriers may affect some groups disproportionately.
I welcome that the Government has committed to prioritising refuge for the most vulnerable through its Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme, which will see 20,000 vulnerable refugees relocated by 2020. In my view that is the minimum we should do. The Government has also responded to concerns I have raised in Parliament about Christians and other vulnerable groups lacking access to UNHCR camps by confirming that the Department for International Development is funding outreach staff to register those people.
The challenge for the Government is to develop a flexible and effective response to the vulnerability of Syrian refugees. Refuge for20,000 is hugely welcome and almost 1400 have already been resettled; the scheme therefore is more effective than those of other countries. So I welcome the Government's commitment on 28th January to provide more safety for unaccompanied minors, but it requires details. Those details will be needed before Parliament considers the amendment to the Immigration Bill to take 3000 child refugees which was accepted in the Lords.
This drive to help provide for safe and legal routes to the UK should also be flagged up at the UNHCR Geneva Summit on 30th March. Helping the most vulnerable by reducing the demand for smuggling and trafficking should be our target – not an arbitrary number and they should be those minorities most at risk. Safe and legal routes should be the only game in the region, rather than the current obstacle courses set by European Union countries. Containing the crisis in Turkey is not a long-term sustainable solution, especially since some are intent on being reunited with family outside of Turkey. On March 30th, the UK must rise above this EU race to become the least attractive host and encourage the international community to offer safe and legal routes - incentivising vulnerable people to take up these offers and help smash the business of people smugglers and traffickers.
As Easter approaches we remember with gratitude and hope the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was born a refugee facing the threat of death. Let us mark this Easter as a time when this country lives up to its proud tradition of compassion providing hope for vulnerable refugees.