Theresa May resists calls for UK to accept more Syrian refugees

Prime minister says it is better to help more refugees in their own region than resettle a smaller number

Theresa May has resisted calls for the UK to take in more vulnerable people fleeing Syria as she flew into New York for two summits on refugees hosted by the UN and Barack Obama.

Before the summit, the prime minister argued it was better to help more refugees in their own region than resettle a smaller number, and said the UK was the second biggest humanitarian donor to camps in the countries around Syria.

Charities, religious leaders and Labour have criticised the government ahead of the summit for agreeing to take only 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees over the next four years, even though places for them have already been found with local councils.

Speaking on her flight to New York, May dismissed the criticism and pointed to existing UK programmes to help those fleeing war in Syria. Asked by the Guardian whether she would consider calls for Britain to resettle more refugees, she said: “We have always taken the view that we can help more Syrian refugees by putting aid into the region.”

She added that some Syrians were also coming to the UK through the normal asylum-seeking routes, as well as 3,000 children from the region.

Her answer appears to confirm that May will take the same approach as David Cameron, who only agreed to the programme for vulnerable refugees from Syria under pressure. May was also pressed on the slow progress made towards fulfilling the so-called Dubs amendment by allowing more unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to enter the UK.

It emerged this weekend that a 14-year-old year old Afghan boy eligible to be helped was killed trying to make his way illegally to the UK from Calais while his application was delayed.

The prime minister insisted that enough was already being done. She said: “We are working with local authorities and NGOs in relation to delivering on the Dubs amendment and we have for example speeded up our processes for ensuring family reunification can take place.”

May’s main intervention at the UN summit will be to awarn of the dangers that mass uncontrolled migration poses. She will call for a better global system to manage the movement of people and propose better differentiation between refugees and economic migrants. It is understood that she is unlikely to announce any increase in the quota of refugees to be accepted, but the UK is expected to commit more money and humanitarian aid at the summit.

Obama and the outgoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon hope to make progress in getting world leaders to pledge more help for refugees before the end of their tenures. Amnesty and other groups, however, have criticised the declaration due to be adopted at the UN summit for lacking teeth and merely reiterating humanitarian principles.

Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, was one of 200 religious leaders who called last week for more action from the UK, criticising the government’s response to the refugee crisis as “too slow, too low and too narrow”.

David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee in New York, said this weekend that May should use the summit to promise that the UK would resettle more refugees. “Frankly, the UK should be saying ‘we’ll take 20,000 or 25,000 a year’, so four times the current level to match the commitment of countries like Canada.”

Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “These proposals indicate that the prime minister is intent on attempting to reinforce the untenable status quo, blocking off people’s escape routes and leaving poor countries looking after nearly nine out of 10 of the world’s refugees.

“What we really need to see instead is the UK leading by example, adopting sustainable solutions aimed at saving refugees’ lives and implementing a more equitable system for sharing responsibility for protecting them.”

Yvette Cooper, the chair of Labour’s refugee taskforce, called on May to meet the government’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrians two years early and offer more help to those fleeing the war. “This will be a terrible missed opportunity if we don’t get strong international action, and if Britain doesn’t show the leadership needed,” she said.

“The prime minister is not doing enough. She is right to say there is a distinction between refugees and economic migrants, that is exactly why Britain should be doing more to help those fleeing persecution and war. Alongside border controls, we also need safe, legal routes to sanctuary including speeding up family reunion which is far too slow and mired in bureaucracy.

“After a 14-year-old boy died in Calais trying to reach his brother in the UK, children’s safety should be the top of the agenda. There are 900 children alone in Calais at serious risk of harm and exploitation. It is a complete disgrace that still not a single child has been helped under the Dubs legislation parliament voted for, and that Home Office delays are blocking hundreds of unaccompanied children from reaching their family and safety.”

As well as making an intervention on migration, May will host a “round table” on stopping modern slavery and trafficking - one of her personal priorities as home secretary.

The prime minister will point to the UK’s new taskforce and announce that the heads of Mi5, Mi6, GCHQ and Interpol will join it when required. “Just as it was Britain that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, I am determined that the United Kingdom will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery,” she said ahead of the session for world leaders.

In her maiden speech to the UN on Tuesday, May will call on the UN to deal better with problems that need a global response such as terrorism, mass migration and modern slavery.

At the summit, May will also defend the vote for Brexit in her speech to the UN, saying the British people “did not vote to turn inwards or walk away from any of our partners in the world” but they did want “a politics that is more in touch with their concerns and bold action to address them”.

She will echo her claim made at the G20 in China that too many people are feeling left behind by globalisation.

May is expected to have bilateral meetings with Ban Ki-moon, and the prime ministers of Pakistan, New Zealand, Egypt, and Turkey. She will also meet the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, for the second time in a fortnight, after Tokyo’s warning at the G20 summit that it’s businesses could leave the UK without more clarity about the consequences the Brexit vote.

On Monday evening, May will hold a reception for about 60 executives from companies such as Amazon, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Morgan Stanley and Black Rock, as the UK attempts to calm investors’ fears about Brexit.

“What I will be talking about with both American and British leaders is about how we can encourage that trade and investment between the countries,” May said. “Something like a million [British] people wake up each morning and go to work for an American company.”


Rowena Mason in New York

The GuardianTramp

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