UK guilty of 'failure of leadership and moral courage' over refugee crisis

A damning report today accused the UK of "turning a blind eye to suffering on its doorstep" by failing to protect refugees displaced by war, persecution and poverty.

More than one million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015.Reuters

A collective of 13 aid and refugee agencies, including Christian Aid, CAFOD, Oxfam, Islamic Relief and World Vision, on Thursday released a report, A Safe Haven?, in which they urge the British government to increase its protection for some of the world's most vulnerable people.

The organisations call on the UK to "offer a safe haven to its fair share of refugees and do all it can to ensure protection for people on the move, whatever their legal status", rather than simply offer aid to refugees in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, where millions of Syrians have fled since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

The report acknowledges that Britain has "been a leader in providing assistance to countries hosting large numbers of refugees", but says it has fallen short of its "moral responsibility to provide safe routes to protection for people seeking refuge in the UK, and has failed to advocate for an approach that protects the rights of all people on the move."

The UK government has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, but so far just 1,194 have been resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme. A group of 84 Church of England bishops last year urged Prime Minister David Cameron to increase the number to at least 50,000.

"The UK is trying to pretend that this is someone else's problem, and that refugees and migrants could and should be dealt with elsewhere. But people who are desperate will take huge risks to reach safety," said Maya Mailer, Oxfam's head of humanitarian policy.

"The UK needs to accept its moral responsibility to offer a safe haven to the world's poorest and most vulnerable – men, women and children who have been made homeless by war, violence and disasters."

The organisations say the poor response from UK and European governments has "compounded the suffering and created a humanitarian crisis on Britain's doorstep".

"It also sets a dangerous precedent: what message does it send to the world, including those countries with large refugee populations, that wealthy Europe, a continent that has traditionally championed human rights, appears so quick to erode them?" the report asks.

More than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year, many of them from Syria but also Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and other countries. The majority of them had risked their lives during a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea at the hands of human traffickers.

Thousands have died making the crossing; Pope Francis warned last year that the Mediterranean was turning into "a vast cemetery". Following the tragic deaths of 800 people who drowned while trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015, a number of summits have been held on the crisis, the latest of which saw a deal struck between the EU and Turkey to deport refugees from Greece.

The deal has been widely criticised; it hinges on Turkey being a "safe third country" of asylum – an understanding that has been thrown into doubt by recent allegations that thousands of Syrian refugees have been illegally returned to their homeland.

The coalition of 13 aid and refugee agencies today branded the deal "the latest callous attempt to shut the door on desperate people".

They urged the UK to improve the humanitarian conditions faced by refugees and migrants in Europe, to tackle the causes behind forced displacement, and to ensure access to a fair and effective asylum system.

They also called for an expansion of safe and legal routes to reach protection in the UK.

"While European leaders demonstrate a collective failure of political leadership and moral courage, people who have escaped war and tyranny are met with barbed wire and tear gas, mums are forced to bathe their infants in dirty puddles, and yet more refugee children drown on Europe's shores," said British Refugee Council chief executive Maurice Wren.

"European governments, including the UK, must take a long hard look at themselves and ask is this the best they can do? We say that it doesn't have to be this way. Today we're presenting a roadmap for change which prioritises saving lives, solidarity and safe passage."

Melanie Ward, associate director of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee UK, said the UK needs to "live up to its global responsibility".

"As chaos continues to unfold in Europe, refugees face inhumane conditions. Thousands are losing their lives and their dignity. In the context of a rapidly growing global refugee crisis, the UK and Europe cannot turn away from protecting refugees on their doorstep," she said.