Syrians being resettled in the UK are to be recognised as refugees by the Government, six months after the country’s civil war began.
People who have fled Syria and are resettled in Britain under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) will for the first time be granted refugee status, enabling them to access certain rights that have previously been barred to them, including higher education and overseas travel documents.
Syrian refugees in the UK have previously been given a special form of leave to remain called Humanitarian Protection, which prevented them from accessing services that are granted to those with refugee status.
They faced a three-year wait before being eligible for student finance, which put university out of reach of many, and were also unable to apply for the same travel documents as other refugees, which resulted in Syrians being unable to easily go abroad to visit their family in other countries.
In a written ministerial statement published on Wednesday, the Home Secretary said that while the decision to grant Humanitarian Protection rather than Refugee Leave to Syrians fleeing war was “right at the time”, the Government has since recognised that it did not provide access to particular benefits and decided to grant them refugee status.
“At the beginning of the scheme, granting Humanitarian Protection allowed us to quickly assist and resettle the most vulnerable. As we have previously said, we have kept the policy under active review,” read the statement.
“We have listened to those who have raised concerns about the consequences, for those we resettle to the UK, of granting Humanitarian Protection rather than Refugee Leave. We have also taken the time to work through the policy and practical implementation issues in detail.
“The decision to grant Humanitarian Protection was the right one at that time. However, while Humanitarian Protection recognises the need an individual has for international protection, it does not carry the same entitlements as refugee status, in particular, access to particular benefits.
“We think it is right to change the policy and now is the right time to make this change.”
The statement said that from 1 July 2017, the Government would be granting those admitted under the VPRS and the VCRS refugee status and five years’ limited leave, with those who are already resettled under these programmes given the opportunity to make a request to change their status from Humanitarian Protection to refugee status.
Campaign groups who have been carrying out behind the scenes lobbying for resettled Syrians to have the same rights as people granted refugee status have welcomed the move, but said the previous policy was “not enough” from the start.
Responding to the announcement, Labour peer Baroness Lister, who has been asking questions about why the Government hasn’t changed the policy in the House of Lords since the start of the year, told The Independent: “I’m delighted by the news. It’s taken a long time, and there’s been quite a lot of behind the scenes pushing and shoving.
“I can see the argument as to why the Government had originally applied Humanitarian Protection, because things had to move quickly, but they could then have moved faster as evidence was presented to them of the problems that this was creating. This change is very important for those who will benefit from it.”
Dr Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, a charity that has been campaigning for the change, said: “The Refugee Council is delighted that refugees from Syria have finally been recognised as such by the Government. This news will open the door to university for thousands of Syrian refugees and enable people to be able to visit their loved ones in other countries.
“It’s never been enough for the Government’s resettlement programme to enable Syrian refugees to simply survive, and everyone stands to benefit from allowing refugees to thrive, integrate into British life and achieve their full potential.”