Home Office accused of abandoning vulnerable Syrians
The Government’s flagship refugee programme is under fire for failing to accommodate the most vulnerable people fleeing the Syrian War.
Exclusive figures obtained by The Independent show that just five per cent of refugees resettled under the scheme have disabilities, such as mobility issues or special educational needs, despite estimates that more than one in five people escaping the conflict are disabled.
Labour said the findings marked an “all new low” for the Government, claiming that the Home Office’s treatment of refugees contradicted British values.
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Local council workers complained that central government was taking a “one size fits all” approach to refugee placement, with little consideration of how to accommodate complex needs.
Meanwhile, councils were accused of providing “shopping lists” of the kinds of families they wanted that excluded the most at-risk groups.
Figures released by 251 councils under freedom of information laws show that 5,529 Syrian refugees were resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme (VPRP) between January 2014 and April this year. Of those 288, or 5.2 per cent, were registered as disabled.
Yet the World Health Organisation calculates that 15 per cent of people worldwide have a disability — and the proportion is higher among those fleeing conflict.
Handicap International estimates around 22 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have serious impairments. The organisation found that 80 per cent of significant injuries were a result of the Syrian war.
Those not resettled in Britain and other European countries remain in camps and makeshift shelters in Syria’s neighbour states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, where UN human rights experts warn disabled refugees face inadequate access to essential services and medical care.
The VPRP – which commits the Government to taking in 20,000 refugees by 2020 – was set up in 2014 primarily to accommodate the most at-risk groups, including the elderly, the disabled and victims of sexual violence and torture.
Revelations about how many disabled refugees the UK accepted came after The Independent in February reported that the Government had temporarily barred disabled child refugees from a different scheme because it could not cope with their needs.
Labour-led councils in the UK took 69 per cent more disabled refugees per capita than Conservative ones, analysis revealed. The gap widened to 82 per cent when it came to the overall number of Syrians.
Meanwhile, SNP-led councils took almost five times as many refugees with disabilities per capita as Conservative ones, housing 19 for every million people, compared to the Tories’ four, analysis showed. The Independent has based its calculations only on upper tier authorities that provided full figures.
Around half (48 per cent) of the 288 disabled refugees the UK resettled were accepted by just 10 councils. Coventry took 23 people with mobility issues or special education needs – the most of any local authority – closely followed by Glasgow and Nottingham, which took 20 each.
Louise Calvey, head of resettlement at Refugee Action, said an area’s politics was “a seismic factor” in determining whether a council would participate in the refugee scheme.
She added that some councils were daunted by the prospect of accepting responsibility for people with disabilities. “When you [resettle] someone with a high level of additional needs it can be frightening. I think a lot of people are quite nervous about committing to that.”
In some areas, Ms Calvey said, a severely limited amount of accessible housing meant even councils that were willing to re-home disabled refugees could not.
“They can’t magic houses up, they can’t suddenly develop a whole list of bungalows that wheelchair users can access easily,” she said.
The difficulties finding housing for disabled refugees were “no different from the barriers those born in the UK who have physical disabilities face,” she added.
Recent welfare reforms, including the benefits cap, have made it even harder to accommodate people with complex needs, she claimed. “You’ve already got people being resettled into poverty, which makes me shudder,” she said.
Jazz Shaban, co-chair of Bicester Refugee Support in Oxfordshire, said local authorities were allowed to choose the kind of family they resettled, meaning some councils avoided helping those with the highest level of need.
“Local authorities have a shopping list of the sort of family they want,” she said. “Generally they’re not asking for people with complex needs. The words I’ve heard used are a ‘steady family’.”
Not only was there variation between councils, but there were large differences in regional responses to refugees with disabilities. Scotland resettled almost four times the number of disabled refugees per capita than England. The north-east of England took more than eight times the number of disabled refugees per head than London.
Parts of the country that voted for Brexit were less likely to take disabled refugees than those who opted to remain in the EU. Pro-remain areas accepted 44 per cent more disabled Syrian refugees per capita than Eurosceptic ones. For total Syrian refugees the difference was 43 per cent.
Peter Barnett, from Coventry Council, criticised the Government for not doing enough to support disabled refugees. “We are not helped by the one-size fits all nature of the Home Office programmes, which do not really address the additional support required by people living with disabilities,” he said.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott pointed to cases where central government failed to take up offers from local councils to house refugees.
Responding to the figures, she said: “This is truly appalling and an all new low in this Government’s treatment of refugees, discriminating against the disabled.
“Just over a year ago when Theresa May made her first speech as Prime Minister she said ‘a disability or a health condition should never dictate the path a person is able to take’. But this has clearly been a factor blocking the legitimate right of vulnerable refugees to seek asylum in this country.
“This Government’s treatment of refugees is simply not in line with British values.”
Melanie Ward, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee said the UK’s pledge to resettle refugees made specific reference to supporting disabled Syrians. She said it was “disappointing” that the UK had not fulfilled its goal of catering for the most vulnerable refugees.
“At a time where we are pushing European countries to expand their resettlement programmes, particular attention should be paid to ensuring the needs of disabled refugees are met,” she added. “It is vital that the UK recognises that disabled refugees are often among the most vulnerable, and are exactly those which resettlement seeks to protect.”
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said “much more needs to be done” to cater for the most vulnerable refugees.
“Reception and integration support is key to successful resettlement through ensuring that resettled refugees are properly received and have the support and services they need to integrate into their new society and live fulfilled lives,” a spokesperson said.
The Home Office said the findings were “inaccurate” but was unable to provide numbers that contradicted The Independent’s figures.
A spokesperson added: “Almost a third of the families who have arrived include at least one person with either mobility issues, a serious medical condition, psychological problems or special educational needs.
“Given the hardships that they have faced, the reality is that the refugee families we resettle are all vulnerable, for a number of different reasons. How we place each family is carefully considered on a case by case basis — in collaboration with local authorities and the UNHCR — taking into account all relevant information.”
Refugees with disabilities in countries surrounding Syria live in particularly poor conditions, since they struggle to access healthcare and other support, human rights organisations have reported.
One disabled Syrian man The Independent spoke to was stranded in Lebanon with little access to medical care for two years. Hussein Ejrf, who was eventually resettled in the UK in November 2015, suffered catastrophic injuries when his dairy farm was shelled by both government and opposition forces in Quneitra, south-west Syria.
When the 41-year-old father of four arrived in Lebanon he could not afford the surgery or medicine he needed. Eventually, his left leg had to be amputated, a procedure he believes would not have been necessary if he had been treated properly. “It was a tragedy living in Lebanon,” he said.
On when one occasion when Mr Ejrf was in intensive care, his wife Hayat searched for three days for someone with a matching blood type. When she eventually found a donor, doctors refused to administer the blood until they paid $100 (£76), Mr Ejrf said. They did not have the money, and Ms Ejrf had to beg strangers for help.
Mr Ejrf now lives in Coventry with his wife and their four children. He visits the GP every month and gets the medication he needs.
When he first arrived in the UK, he wanted to get a driving licence, but now he says he is “thrilled” with his electric wheelchair.