The government has been criticised for scrapping the post of minister for newly arrived Syrian refugees, with the Labour leadership contender Owen Smith describing the decision as “utterly disgraceful”.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said it showed that Theresa May’s government was “all talk and no action” when it came to a more compassionate approach to the refugee crisis.
The Conservative MP Richard Harrington was appointed to the cross-departmental role in September 2015, with responsibility for coordinating the government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 people displaced by the war in Syria and organise UK efforts to provide assistance to those elsewhere.
After May became prime minister, Harrington was moved to be junior work and pensions minister. The prime minister’s official spokeswoman said the job would now be absorbed into the Home Office, but insisted that the government was fully committed to taking in 20,000 refugees by 2020.
“There was a role appointed to a specific MP to make sure that the commitment made previously to increase the number of refugees that we resettle got under way, got off to a good start and was delivered upon,” she said.
The Home Office said Robert Goodwill, the immigration minister, would take over the responsibilities of the role. “Work on helping those displaced by the Syrian conflict continues right across government,” a spokeswoman said, saying the government had pledged more than £2.3bn in aid to Syria and neighbouring countries.
Smith, who is challenging Jeremy Corbyn to become Labour leader, said in a statement that if he won the leadership contest, he would appoint a shadow minister for refugees. “At a time when men, women and children are still drowning in the Mediterranean because of the ongoing refugee crisis, it is utterly disgraceful that the Tories have chosen to axe this important post,” he said.
Farron said his party would do all it could to hold the government to its promises on the issue. “The new prime minister had a chance to step up and change the Tories’ position on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the first signs of failure are already there,” he said.
“Scrapping a ministerial post for refugees tells you everything you need to know about the Tories and their new prime minister. All talk and no action.”
There was also criticism from the Conservative backbencher Heidi Allen. Speaking on Sunday, before the news was announced, she said it would be “such a shame” to lose the role.
“We can’t forget about those poor, poor individuals, while we’re busy navel-gazing ourselves about how our role is going to be in the global place,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour. “So yes, actions need to speak louder than words.”
The announcement by David Cameron that the UK would accept 20,000 people from refugee camps came after a surge of publicity about the plight of people fleeing conflict, following the publication of photographs of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy whose body was found on a beach in Greece.
The UK was criticised for this figure, given that there were about 1.3 million asylum applications in EU countries during 2015.
The scheme, officially called the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme, had seen 1,800 people arrive in the UK by the beginning of July, with the overall target remaining in place, according to the Home Office.
While there has arguably been a drop-off in media attention, the refugee situation is worse this year than last. Figures from the International Organization for Migration show that as of last week, more than 242,000 migrants and refugees had arrived in Europe by sea in 2016, with 2,977 deaths. The same period in 2015 saw 220,00 arrivals and 1,917 deaths.
By Peter Walker.
Source: The Guardian