Refugees and the Syria Crisis

What is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has had to flee their country due to well-founded fear of persecution for one of the reasons specified in the 1951 Refugee Convention. These reasons are race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.  Under international law, people who have had to leave their country for this reason are entitled to refugee status in other states. People can also be given humanitarian protection if they would face a severe abuse of human rights such as torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, if returned to their country.

Once someone has been given refugee status they have the same entitlements to benefits as a national and they have the right to work.  Before the decision on refugee status is made, a person claiming to be a refugee is an asylum seeker.  Asylum seekers in the UK have no rights to benefits or to work.

Most refugees and asylum seekers will have travelled to the UK making their own arrangements and claim asylum once they arrive in the UK.  This is sometimes called the asylum route to refugee protection. However, the UK also operates gateway programmes that resettle recognised refugees from refugee camps across the world – these are sometimes called ‘quota refugees’.  There are quotas that specify the number of refugees the UK will take in any one year through resettlement programmes. To fill resettlement programmes the UK Home Office selects people whom the UNHCR has recognised as refugees from camps in other countries.

Crisis in Syria and Resettlement

The conflict in Syria has created over 3.2 million refugees of which over 1 million are children.  Inside Syria there are a further 6.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes. The UN Refugee Agency has called this the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.  The scale of what is happening has not been seen since the second world war.

Most of the refugees  from the Syrian conflict are currently in refugee camps in surrounding countries. The UK has sent aid to support the relief effort as have others. The UN has prevailed upon developed states to do more to take the pressure off the region by resettling some of the refugees.

In January 2014 the UK Government announced that it would use its quota refugee programme, the Gateway Protection Programme, to resettle refugees from Syria.  Under this programme 750 people a year can be brought to the UK as refugees. In September 2015 the UK Government announced that over the next five years 20,000 people from Syria would be given protection in the UK under a Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

How resettlement happens

Under the Gateway Protection Programme and other resettlement schemes it is up to local authorities to approach the Home Office to ask for refugees to be resettled in their area.

Resettlement programmes such as the Gateway Protection Programme and the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme provide funding from central government to support local authorities in the initial costs of bringing new people into their area and helping them to settle and build new lives. The UK has operated resettlement programmes for quota refugees since 2005.

Scotland’s involvement

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon held a summit on the refugee crisis in September 2015, and announced Scotland’s commitment to resettling 1000 refugees from Syria. By this time a number of local authority areas, including City of Edinburgh Council, had already committed to resettling refugees. A further number of local authority areas in Scotland have since committed to resettling refugees through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

By the end of 2015, around 400 refugees from the Syrian crisis had begun new lives in Scotland through the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. By 2017, Scottish local authorities had already fulfilled Scotland’s commitment to receive 2000 refugees and by September 2018, almost 14,000 refugees had been resettled in the UK, almost 2,500 of whom were living in Scotland.

(See Hough, 2018. The UK Government’s Approach to Evaluating the Vulnerable Persons and Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Schemes.)