Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees

Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

September 2, 2017 · 20 min read

Two years ago today, millions shed a tear as images of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying helplessly on the Turkish shore were beamed around the globe. In that moment, a single photographer managed to do what thousands before couldn’t: capture the attention of the world.

In a matter of weeks, previously passive governments were pledging to increase aid and boost resettlement figures, and a new generation of refugee rights activists was seemingly born. In the UK it was no different.

Then-prime minister David Cameron soon announced an increase in the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme from hundreds of people to 20,000 by the year 2020. The position of Minister for Syrian Refugees was created and pressure was applied by emerging refugee support groups across the country.

But however much the politicians’ rhetoric briefly changed in the wake of Kurdi’s death, a lot can change in two years. The UK was always very much set on going its own way from the beginning of the crisis. Raising up the metaphorical drawbridge with France, Westminster confirmed it would not be accommodating any of the asylum seekers who had arrived irregularly in the EU, claiming (with no evidence) that the ‘pull factor’ created would cause more deaths.

A change in leadership and a bitterly dividing EU referendum in 2016 left the political landscape of the country shaken. Buoyed by the increasingly vocal, if minority, anti-immigrant electorate in parts of the country, Theresa May scrapped the position of Minister for Syrian Refugees, as if shutting the door on that period of history.

Though the media’s gaze has largely now turned elsewhere, hundreds of thousands are still trapped in camps and centres across Europe and Libya, while several thousands are still dying needlessly at sea every year. The latest UNHCR statistics show approximately 12 million Syrians are displaced, over six million of whom are still living in camps and settlements within the country’s borders.

On the anniversary of the Syrian toddler’s death, we take a look at the decisions made – and the consequences of the UK and EU response to one of the largest mass migrations in history.


When civil war broke out in Syria in 2012 the international community was largely unaware of what was to come. UNHCR were one of the first organisations to begin pushing resettlement programmes in the early days, but the UK did not follow those signing up, deciding to instead focus on providing aid to the region, labelling the programmes “tokenistic”.

It was January 2014 before the government caved into international and domestic pressure, announcing the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme which promised to resettle several hundred vulnerable people from camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries, a number that was subsequently increased to 20,000.

Since that point, in addition to the VPRS, the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme was announced, working with UNHCR to resettle 3,000 individuals, focusing on at risk children and their family members in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The original VPRS has received a mixed response since its inception. Recent decisions that the scheme would no longer be restricted to only Syrian nationals and the granting of those in the UK full refugee status, giving them better access to the jobs market and further education, have been widely welcomed.

The current policy dictates that refugees are only granted a stay of five years though, meaning those settled must re-apply, with no certainty of acceptance. An All Party Parliamentary Group report this year stated that the limited time period leads to uncertainty in refugees’ lives, and also uncertainties in the job market, with some employers reluctant to train and hire staff who may have to leave after a relatively small time period.

The government have not made any steps to extend the time period, and when Theresa May came to power in 2016, the position of Minister for Refugees was scrapped, signalling a shifting of priorities. The May administration has insisted the ministerial posting was never designed as a long term position and the duties have been dispersed to relevant departments.

The latest statistics show 7,307 people have been resettled to the UK through the VPRS, but in comparison to international partners, even the final total of 20,000 still represents a relatively small number of people. Current estimates say there are around 2m refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, 2.9m in Turkey and 6.3m internally displaced in Syria. In terms of direct resettlement from these affected nations to date, the UK is still falling the minimum “fair share” calculation of 25,000 made by UNHCR.

By the beginning of 2017, Germany had resettled 43,570 refugees directly from the Middle East, as well as around one million people who had travelled through the EU. Norway, a country also heavily affected by the movement of refugees through Europe, had resettled 3,610 people, just 800 less than the UK at that point, and a much larger proportion when you take the nation’s 5m population into consideration.

Successes in Canada had caught the attention of the UK, especially the community sponsorship scheme. Of the 39,532 arrivals in Canada by the start of 2017, over 17,000 had been down to the community scheme, where groups and charities cover the cost of a family or individuals resettlement, funding their basic costs and taking on the responsibility of integration.

Looking at the favourable public opinion to the long-standing Canadian model, the UK government announced they would introduce a similar, but fatally flawed scheme. Critically, the UK community program does not operate separately to the VPRS, meaning that instead of guaranteeing the arrival of additional families, as is the case in Canada, those signing up to the community programme are essentially just ‘paying the way’ for the government. Oxfam noted this as a major drawback recently, claiming the scheme “risks replacing the government’s responsibility to fulfil its resettlement pledge”.

Conservative ministers have long said that the focus should be on providing aid directly to the region, and ongoing commitment of £2.46bn of aid does make the UK the second largest aid donor to the region since 2012. The government have also committed heavily to the North African region, piloting jobs compacts and aid schemes that have commended by the ICAI, an independent commision set up to scrutinise UK aid spending.

In Ethiopia, a country which is heavily affected by migration within Africa, the UK government is piloting an £80m jobs compact aimed at creating 30,000 jobs directly for those affected. A similar program had been previously implemented in Lebanon, bringing benefits to the local community and those migrating by offering investment in the countries on the condition of increased migrant employment.

The attitude to aid spending is in keeping with the general trend in the policy towards the crisis. Admirable levels of funding have been put in place for foreign aid and investment, but refugees have been widely discouraged from dreaming of safety on British soil. As identified by ICAI, the refusal to join any international resettlement schemes or mandatory programs has been a red line throughout the UK’s involvement, as if attempting to keep the crisis at arms length.


Within the EU, the UK has continually resisted calls to join the resettlement scheme for member states, stating that its participation would act as too much of a “pull factor”. Designed to take pressure off heavily affected countries such as Greece and Italy, the resettlement scheme has been the main vehicle for internal movement since the closure of the Balkan route.

As the country lies outside the free-travel Schengen zone, the UK was able to largely excuse itself of responsibility as well over one million asylum seekers arrived in the EU. In the 12 months leading up to March 2017, Germany had received 576,025 asylum applications, by far the highest number in Europe. At the height of the crisis in 2015, countries such as Hungary and Sweden received 177,135 and 162,500 asylum applications respectively, while the UK processed 38,080 claims, approving a total 17,920 after appeals were heard.

While not signing up to the EU resettlement plan, the government did throw its weight behind the EU-Turkey deal, put into place in March 2016, aiming to stop the flow of people travelling by boat from Turkey to the Greek Islands. The EU-Turkey deal has been the subject of many scathing reports by organisations such as MSF, Amnesty International and IRC due to alleged breaches of human rights. In a bid to discourage people from making the journey to the Greek islands, the EU passed legislation meaning no asylum seeker can pass to mainland Greece without first being processed and accepted in a centre on the island.

If claims are denied on the islands, or indeed the mainland, then the people are returned to Turkey, which will in return arrange for Syrian refugees currently in Turkish centres to resettled directly in the EU – effectively a ‘one in, one out’ policy.

The numbers attempting the crossing have declined rapidly since the implementation of the agreement. However, charities, NGOs and UN bodies have all condemned the conditions people are subjected to on the Greek islands as their asylum requests are processed. Islands such as Chios and Lesvos are now badly overcrowded, and the reception centres and camps seriously underfunded. People are being kept in the detention camps for as long as a year, with Amnesty International saying there has been a dramatic rise in the number of mental and physical illnesses amongst the refugees and migrants.

On the island of Chios, Human Rights Watch reported that a third of those in the camps have now witnessed a suicide, as reports of trauma amongst children who may have already been carrying a mental load from their respective homelands on the increase. Several hunger strikes have been undertaken by those stuck within the camp’s fences in Chios as well as in the Moria refugee camps on Lesvos, where three people died as arctic conditions unexpectedly hit the island in December.

“What they [EU governments] fail to acknowledge is that, whether fully implemented or not, the EU-Turkey deal follows the logic of treating people as if they were commodities, with disastrous consequences for the people affected,” an MSF report stated. “And what is clear is that, despite evidence of the deadly consequences of their containment policy, European leaders have decided to put the survival of the EU-Turkey deal ahead of asylum seekers’ safety and protection.”

The UK government has continued to praise the results of the deal without addressing the widespread humanitarian concerns. Amnesty International refugee director Steve Valdez-Symonds claimed the government was shirking its responsibilities by not joining resettlement schemes, showing an “appalling lack of leadership” in the crisis hitting Europe.

In resisting calls to join the resettlement scheme for those whose claims are accepted on the islands, the government have championed the creation of more “legal and safe routes” for refugees directly from the Middle East. In response to the growing pressure in Europe and the Middle East, UNHCR called a conference in March 2016 to discuss the creation of more of these routes. As many nations signed up and announced new schemes, the UK confirmed it would not open up any new safe and legal avenues for refugees.

“There is no real concerted will on the part of our government to significantly open up safe and legal routes that could have any impact on what is happening in the wider mediterranean region at this time,” Valdez-Symonds said. “The signal is very clearly being sent to governments who are hosting far larger refugee populations to be less respectful of the rights of those people in their countries.“


In the stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya, over 2,400 lives have been claimed in 2017 alone.

Where Libya used to be a final destination for internal migration in Africa, the fall of the authoritarian Gaddafi regime has caused the country to slide into political crisis. With no central government, and the breakdown of a once-attractive economy, the number of people departing the country is increasing year on year. Over 85,000 people have been rescued at sea this year.

In its actions towards Libya, the UK government has been accused of “fueling the mess” evident on the ground. Sexual assault, kidnapping and torture of migrants has become commonplace across the politically divided nation, in which there is estimated to be over 700,000 migrants and refugees trapped.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Libya for the second time in four months recently, meeting British Navy staff training the Libyan coast guard and officials from the separate regional bodies making claims to legitimacy. During the visit Johnson conceded that Britain may have made mistakes in the past when dealing with Gaddafi, and talked about the issues the state faces moving forward. Notably, the foreign secretary chose not to highlight the country’s role in the conditions and arbitrary detentions imposed on migrants across Libya, when captured both on land and at sea.

In the space of the last six months, Oxfam, UNHCR and the UN itself have called for the Libyan detention centres to be closed, citing ongoing violations of migrants human rights. Out of the 46-48 such centres across the country, in which indefinite stay, torture, malnutrition, overcrowding and corruption are rife, the UK provides aid funding and training through NGOs for 22 of them.

The UK continues to be a major player in the EU-run Operation Sophia, a sea-based mission working in the Mediterranean to reduce the flow of people into the continent and provide search and rescue facilities. In addition to providing funding for the project, the UK Navy committed the HMS Enterprise, HMS Richmond and RFA Mounts Bay to the operation since its inception in 2015.

Several parliamentary committees and regulatory bodies have said that the operation is directly responsible for putting more lives at risk. The expanding remit of the Libyan coastguard has led to rescue boats withdrawing from the operations in the Mediterranean over past weeks, citing the border force’s aggressive tactics and fears for the safety of their crew.

“If the focus of your engagement, as the UK’s is, is stopping people getting out, then what you have done is condemned a very large number of people,” Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty UK told us. “Condemning them to not just atrocious conditions, but risks that include slavery, being ransomed to relatives and being put on a boat… the Libyan coastguard intercepting and returning the person only to be at some point sold on again, to be ransomed, to be put on a boat and the whole horrible cycle continues.”

If boats are captured by the coastguard within the now 70-mile area off the coast of Libya, the Libyan ship will return those on board back to shore, where it is likely they will be apprehended and forced into a detention centre. The nation of Libya does not recognize the right to asylum, and is not party to the 1951 refugee convention, meaning the 700,000 to one million migrants currently in the country are denied basic protections.

In training the coastguard and increasing the operational area, the government and the EU have been accused of returns by stealth, circumventing human rights law that migrants and asylum seekers can only be returned to ‘safe countries’ as well as denying the right to claim asylum. Amnesty International says this encourages EU governments not to meet their human rights obligations, and has launched a campaign to pressure them into halting the returns.

On the official Commonwealth Office Foreign Travel website, it is clearly stated that Libya is not a safe country for foreigners at the minute, claiming there is a “high threat throughout the country of terrorist attacks and kidnap”. UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration both argued this year that Libya cannot be classed as a safe country, due to the conditions and risks of migrants face, while the OHCHR has urged countries not to facilitate the return of migrants to Libya.

Recent research by Oxfam highlighted the epidemic of sexual abuse towards women migrating through Libya, with a UNICEF report earlier in the year showing that nearly half of the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse, many on multiple occasions.

“It really is a nightmarish situation, and that’s not to say it wasn’t before, but basically our government and European governments are far more heavily implicated that they were previously,” Valdez-Symonds says. “We are very dangerously, as a country, essentially fuelling the mess in Libya at the expense of men, women and children in very difficult circumstances.”

The government’s support was questioned in a House of Lords EU commission report this July, where a government official involved in the implementation of the programme acknowledged the “very mixed” picture of the centres there, admitting that funding could fall short of doing anything to rectify the situation.

Recent video footage showed members of the Libyan coastguard striking migrants crammed into a dingy boat with a bullwhip, causing several to fall overboard. When questioned about the video by the Washington Post, a commander of one of these rescue ships confirmed it was the usual practice. Evidence has also appeared over the past month of the coast guard attempting to arrest NGO search-and-rescue boats, as well as firing weapons at migrant boats.

“It is always cheaper and easier to stop a migration flow than it is to stop the causes of the migration flow,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, says. “In other words, to address questions of the rule of law, to address the need for an asylum system in Libya or an environment where people could have a fair hearing of their asylum claim. We are a long, long way off of that.

“I am reluctant to say that the EU shouldn’t be involved in capacity-building, but the question really here is capacity for what? If it ends up just being the easiest approach, which is working with enforcement arms to stop people from moving, then you are not solving the underlying problems, and those will be left to fester, and people will suffer the consequences.”

Targeting organised smuggling gangs directly, Operation Sophia has overseen the destruction of over 450 large boats identified as being at risk of being used by smugglers. This practice has significantly reduced the number of large vessels capable of holding several hundred people departing the North African coastline, but the overall numbers of those departing has still increased.

70 per cent of departures are now in inflatable rubber boats, a consequence the Joint Committee to the EU said presents a significant increase in danger for migrants on sea. The committee stated that this policy has directly resulted in a “rise in the number of deaths at sea”, with dinghy boats incapable of making even a third of the total journey, relying completely on rescue in international waters.

“I’m a bit reluctant to predict what the future holds,” Frelick said cautiously, when asked what lies ahead. “But if you look at the long history of human migration, you can see that efforts to stop it have rarely succeeded, and if they have succeeded, it has often been at the expense of people trapped in genocidal situations. We realise that countries have the right to regulate immigration, but refugee protection is an exception to the rule, which is based in human rights duties and obligations.”


The government’s determination to stem the flow of migration has perhaps always been most evident just a matter of miles from our south eastern coastline.

From the start, the coalition government made it clear that no refugees or migrants fleeing into Europe would find a sympathetic ear in Britain, but the camps in the port towns of Calais and Dunkirk were a very UK-specific situation.

As the temporary settlements began to grow, extra funding was committed to the security of the sea border, with £63m spent on guards, dogs and detection technology at the ports and tunnel, as well as £3m towards building a Trump-esque wall around the port and tunnel in Calais. In October last year, the government announced an additional £36m of spending to clear the camp and its inhabitants from the area.

Official documents show the main priority of the government in relation to Calais was to clear the area and deter anyone from believing that this was a viable route, repeatedly using the phrase “full and lasting” in reference to the clearance operation. As groups of migrants return to the outskirts of the port town in increasing numbers, the deterrence procedures carried out by French law enforcement were the subject of an extensive Human Rights Watch report.

The charges brought against French officials revolve strongly around excessive use of force. Frequent and consistent tales of unprovoked assaults on sleeping migrants, using pepper spray to render water undrinkable, food inedible and sleeping bags uninhabitable break EU guidelines on policing, and contradict basic human rights laws. Theresa May’s administration has continued to work closely with the French government where Calais is concerned. UK-based charity Help Refugees said that last month police were still destroying migrants’ blankets at a rate of three times a week.

The sudden closing of the major camps in Calais and Dunkirk was, despite the much-maligned conditions within them, a concern to many, especially due to the disproportionately high number of unaccompanied minors present. Of the 7,000 people said to be in the camp upon its closure, over 1,500 were children.

As pressure mounted from groups across the UK, the Dubs Amendment was passed by parliament, widely believed to be offering resettlement opportunities for up to 3,000 children in the Calais ‘jungle’ at the time. Earlier this year, it was announced the scheme would be capped at just 480 children.

This summer, Help Refugees took the government to court, with the support of Lord Dubs himself, calling for the scheme to be re-opened and the home secretary to liaise with local councils again to determine capacity. In the case at the High Court, Help Refugees claimed that hundreds of additional places were “unlawfully omitted by the government” when they decided on overall numbers.

In the first year of the amendment being open, only 200 children had arrived in the EU, and only those who had arrived in the EU before March 2016 will be eligible for relocation.

“I believe the government’s inadequate consultation to calculate local authority capacity, the woefully low number that the government has set and the appallingly slow pace of relocations are all indicative of a level of incompetence in the current government that’s verging on deep cynicism,” said Lord Dubs, who was himself a child refugee from Czechoslovakia in the second world war, as legal action was announced.

“The government’s foot-dragging is putting refugee children’s lives at risk. What these children need is a helping hand, similar to the one Britain lent me when I was a boy. I wasn’t left alone to live in camps or on the streets of Europe.”

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