Posted on October 5, 2004

Blunkett Refugee Plan Misfires

Alan Travis, The Guardian (UK), Oct. 4

A pioneering Home Office scheme to resettle some of Africa’s most vulnerable refugees in Britain has run into trouble because local authorities have proved reluctant to take them.

So far only 69 of an expected 500 people nominated by the UN have arrived in Britain since the scheme was announced by the home secretary, David Blunkett, last year.

The only local authority involved is Sheffield city council, which Mr Blunkett used to lead.

The refugees are from camps in west Africa and have experienced war, torture and rape, mostly in Liberia.

It is believed that a second group of about 80 will arrive before the end of the year and that Bolton and Birmingham city councils are close to agreeing to take them.

But the “gateway protection programme” has fallen far short of expectations.

Mr Blunkett hoped that 500 refugees could be resettled in the first year of the scheme, and that this would rise to 1,000 in the second year.

He envisaged the scheme as a legal gateway for those in need of protection to enter Britain without being smuggled across Europe by people traffickers.

The problems facing the scheme are a clear example of how the hostile political attitude towards asylum is now seriously disrupting attempts to settle genuine refugees in Britain.

Mr Blunkett, disappointed by the lack of interest from local authorities, has challenged particularly Liberal Democrat councillors, who have attacked him for his asylum policies, to agree to take some of them.

“Very few local authorities have been prepared to cooperate with this scheme,” Mr Blunkett said.

“A few Labour authorities are doing so. I challenge Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils to join us in providing a welcome.

“This UN gateway means that refugees from some of the worst conflicts in the world do not have to arrive in Britain on the back of a lorry,” he added.

“The problem is that even the most sympathetic councillors have some Nimby tendencies when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers settling in their own back yard,” a Whitehall source admitted.

It is believed that the Home Office is exploring if it is possible to persuade voluntary organisations to take over the settlement of the refugees in Britain, to avoid high profile local councillors having to defend their arrival.

“We are working towards a figure of 500 and we are putting in place processes to operate the programme,” said a Home Office spokeswoman.

The Home Office was in regular contact with local councils about taking refugees, but was unwilling to name those local authorities which had refused to take them, she added.

The 69 refugees who have arrived under the programme have mostly had relatives killed in the civil war in Liberia in west Africa. They fled to neighbouring Guinea.

One of the first arrivals, Abetor, told the Yorkshire Post that she had lived in refugee camps for 14 years and was raped by soldiers during her flight from Liberia.

“There was a prevailing feeling of despair. Life was hard and many people suffered. People thought they would never leave the camps and die there.”

The refugees who have come to Britain under the scheme were selected by the UN high commissioner for refugees and their applications forwarded to the Home Office.

They are then interviewed and the results passed to caseworkers to assess their eligibility and conduct security checks.

Each group that is accepted is given a four-day orientation programme by the International Rescue Committee, which gives them basic information about life in Britain.