Posted on February 17, 2005

Asylum Debate Threatens UN Refugee Scheme

Alan Travis, The Guardian (London), Feb. 16

The political debate over asylum has become so corrosive that it is jeopardising a groundbreaking UN scheme to give some of the world’s most persecuted refugees a haven in Britain.

Both Labour and the Conservatives say they want to expand the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) “gateway” programme to make it one of the main ways for genuine refugees, many of them victims of torture, to come to Britain.

But as the party political battle over asylum has intensified local councillors from all the main parties have fought shy of volunteering to settle the new refugees in their towns and cities. Critics fear the UN scheme is now in serious danger of becoming a casualty of the pre-election bidding war over asylum.

The scheme was launched in March last year by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, with the hope that 500 refugees would arrive in the first 12 months, rising to 1,000 and more in subsequent years.

But the hostile political climate means that only two councils — Labour-led Sheffield and Liberal Democrat-led Bolton — have agreed to take part and only 150 refugees have arrived. Not a single Conservative-led council has agreed to join the scheme.

Those who have come have been assessed as “exceptionally vulnerable” by the UN and are mostly survivors of civil war in Liberia, Sudan and Congo who have been living in squalid camps in Sierra Leone and Uganda, where they have also faced horrific abuse.

In the latest setback for the scheme, a Labour minister helped block an initiative to house in Exeter 10 refugee families who had fled Sudan amid claims of lack of consultation and a shortage of social housing in the city.

The plan to bring the 60 refugees, who are in camps in Uganda, was dropped after Ben Bradshaw, the MP for Exeter, met the immigration minister, Des Browne, to pass on the concerns of his local city council. He also complained that the Lib Dem-led county council had taken the decision to bring the refugees to Exeter without consultation.

Mr Bradshaw told the Guardian that he thought the UNHCR scheme was excellent and claimed he was simply passing on the views of his constituents.

“The city council asked me to ensure that the Home Office was aware of the very serious housing pressures we face in Exeter, unlike other parts of Britain where refugees have settled,” he said.

But Devon county council denied there was any lack of consultation or any impact on social housing in Exeter. A spokesman said it had rented accommodation for the refugees from private landlords in the city.

The decision was a severe blow to the Home Office, which is now turning to Scotland in the hope of a better response.

“The future shape of the programme depends on establishing effective partnerships between central and local government,” a Home Office spokesman said. “Ultimately the success of the scheme rests of local communities. We are optimistic that we can replicate the early successes of Sheffield and Bolton.”

But the Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten said: “The danger in sending out mixed messages on asylum is that the UK’s tradition of protecting genuine refugees is undermined.

“Out of a population of 60 million people it is surely not too much to ask that we can find homes for 500 refugees a year — fewer than one per constituency.”