In 1956, after Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest, the United Kingdom resettled around 11,000 Hungarian refugees in a matter of months. In 1972, after Idi Amin gave them 90 days to leave, the United Kingdom resettled nearly 30,000 Ugandan Asian refugees. Between 1979 and 1983, the United Kingdom resettled around 16,000 Vietnamese refugees. Between 2015 and 2020, the United Kingdom resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees. All of these major resettlement schemes were undertaken by Conservative governments and all were part of major international refugee resettlement programmes.
There are already as many as 20.7 million refugees around the world, and that is before any possible exodus from Afghanistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1.47 million of those refugees require resettlement this year. Last year, fewer than 35,000 refugees were resettled, a fraction of a percent. The High Court recently commented that such figures “show the stark contrast between humanitarian need, and the availability of resettlement as a solution”.
Around 10% of refugees live in camps and some have spent years or even decades doing so. Turkey hosts 3.7 million refugees, Colombia 1.7 million, Pakistan 1.4 million and Germany 1.2 million.
The United Kingdom hosts 132,000 refugees.
So the government’s proposed resettlement of 5,000 Afghan refugees over the next year and a further 15,000 over an undefined future period is not particularly generous by historical standards, even if added to our existing resettlement schemes. That is not to say it is not welcome and necessary: there is an urgent need to resettle Afghan and other refugees from around the world.
Refugee resettlement has been likened to The Claw from the film Toy Story. A refugee cannot apply for resettlement. Like the little green aliens in the film, they must wait and hope that they are selected. If they are one of the lucky few, they are plucked from life in a refugee camp, deposited in a wealthy country and given integration assistance to help them get on their feet. It is a marvelous scheme for those who are fortunate enough to be picked.
But what about the rest? Only 251,000 were able to return to their homes last year, says UNHCR. Must the rest wait the rest of their lives, with their children, and their children’s children, in a refugee camp? Will we pay for them to be surrounded by barbed wire and guards in those camps to stop them leaving? Will we say to those host countries that they must look after the refugees when we refuse to do so ourselves? And wag our fingers at them if they fail to do so?
There is an internationally agreed legal framework which was extensively debated and put in place following the Second World War. It draws on the experience of those who had fled persecution before and during the war and was drafted in the aftermath of the greatest refugee crisis in history, when an estimated 20 million refugees were displaced in Europe alone. The 1951 Refugee Convention permits refugees some choice about where they flee and prevents them from being penalised for breaking immigration laws. Resettlement efforts have always worked in tandem with the Refugee Convention, with governments around the world recognising that it is immoral and impractical to force refugees to await selection in a camp.
This international regime is without doubt imperfect. There is no mechanism by which countries can be forced to accept refugees for resettlement. There is no International Court of Refugees to ensure that countries comply with the limited obligations imposed on them by the convention. UNHCR is dependent on goodwill and donations. The responsibility and financial burden of hosting refugees falls massively on poorer countries. The only refugees who benefit are those able to travel or fortunate enough to be selected for resettlement.
But the Refugee Convention permits some refugees at least some agency, some control over their future. That system is under threat like never before. The Nationality and Borders Bill currently before Parliament will criminalise any refugee entering the country by irregular means. It creates a two-tier refugee system by deliberately penalising refugees who do not wait passively for resettlement. The government proposes to replace binding international legal obligations with a small, bespoke, national scheme that gives preference to refugees from one country over others and where selection is based on connection to the host country rather than vulnerability. Like the international aid target, it could be scrapped on a whim.
There will always be more refugees than places for resettlement. It is vital that we remain committed to the internationally agreed Refugee Convention as well as resettling as many refugees as we possibly can. The two systems complement one another. They do not, as Priti Patel pretends, conflict. If countries like the United Kingdom resile from our international obligations despite hosting such a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees, we will be powerless to prevent other countries from doing likewise. The whole international refugee protection regime is at risk of collapse.