Updated: Oct 18, 2020
This month marks the end of the five year time frame within which David Cameron committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees to the UK through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS). The expansion of the previous commitment to ‘several hundred’ within three years came days after the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s drowned body sparked widespread calls for the government to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. Reflecting on the scheme now, there are multiple ‘success stories’: from Nour Al Baarini who is studying computer science in Birmingham with plans to launch his own software company, to Mounzer Darsani who opened what is believed to be Scotland’s first Syrian barber shop on the Isle of Bute. In Aberystwyth, where I worked on the programme, a group of women set up a thriving ‘pop-up restaurant’ social enterprise, facilitating community cohesion and celebrating diversity of culture. Indeed, according to James Ritchie in a Free Movement comment piece, “the resettlement scheme puts one thing beyond doubt: any belief that the UK cannot efficiently help those in need is demonstrably untrue. Where there is a will to help those in need of international protection, the Home Office has proved that it is up to the job.” The resettlement scheme certainly offers reason to be optimistic about the UK’s capacity to help refugees. This said, it would be a mistake to call it an unqualified success. As the five year time frame draws to a conclusion, I would like to offer some critical reflections, looking at what could have gone better within the programme itself, as well as ways in which the programme shed light on broader problems within society. In 2017 the UNHCR conducted a study of integration within this programme. For anyone who worked on the scheme, it will be unsurprising that two of the main barriers to integration were found to be English language learning, with education provision varying widely across the UK in both intensity and quality, and un- or underemployment. A nation-wide standard of language learning could be incorporated into the scheme, with additional funding for increased hours and extra support for those with low participation rates, such as a childcare fund for those with young children. More could be done to engage employers in access schemes for refugees, to support refugees in navigating the UK labour market, and to institutionalise recognition of foreign qualifications. There is room for improvement within the scheme, but those who arrived under the SVPRS came up against other, deeper barriers to integration and ‘successful’ resettlement. These stretch beyond the scope of this programme and reveal wider problems affecting UK society generally. I will focus on two of the most significant issues: housing and mental health support.
Firstly, before a refugee’s arrival, the local authority was required to secure their accommodation. Some chose to offer council houses to refugees, while others sourced private housing at local authority housing rates, which would be covered by housing benefit until the residents found work. This aspect of the scheme was an important factor in whether local authorities chose to opt into the scheme or not, with those councils with high rents and high demand for housing less willing to participate. In my experience of speaking to members of the local community about the programme, it was usually the issue of housing which seemed to worry them most. A generalised anxiety about lack of affordable housing might be one of the most significant obstacles in encouraging local communities to support such schemes. There was also the issue of mental health support. While according to the government the scheme “prioritises those who cannot be supported effectively in their region of origin: women and children at risk, people in severe need of medical care and survivors of torture and violence…”, there has been a notable absence of mental health support for victims of violence and torture, with only a handful referred to specialists. While this could in part be due to stigma within the community, language barriers and a lack of training among health care professionals in recognising and treating torture it is also indicative of a generalised lack of mental health support in the UK.
Now that the SVPRS is drawing to a close, the Home Office is expected to extend the scheme by resettling vulnerable refugees from across the globe, not just from Syria and North Africa. According to Sajid Javid’s 2019 commitment, we can expect the government to bring in 5000 refugees in the first year. An extension to the resettlement scheme is worth celebrating; it is true that the SVPRS meant that a number of people fleeing conflict in Syria could find safety, rebuild their lives and even thrive. However, refugees resettled in the UK are understandably at risk of marginalisation; poor English language skills and a lack of UK-recognised qualifications can lead to social and economic exclusion. There are elements which could be tackled within the design and implementation of the scheme itself, but there are other problems facing resettled refugees in the UK which are the same issues perpetuating the vulnerability of other low-income, vulnerable groups. The resettlement scheme highlighted some of the ways in which our society’s most vulnerable are disadvantaged. Any recommendations to improve the scheme going forward must include a wider look at the housing crisis and at general access to mental health support; these issues affect not just resettled refugees but anyone who finds themselves in need of extra support. Rose Bewick was a support worker on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Schemes. Now, she is studying for a Masters in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration at the University of London. She is also training to be an Immigration Advisor.