Today is the second anniversary of probably the biggest decision in UK refugee policy in more than a decade. The then Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 7 September 2015 that the UK would welcome 20,000 Syrians before 2020.
Two years on, the global refugee crisis is even more acute. Sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes. The next six months is a crucial period for influencing the UK's response. If we mobilise all those who believe in an open, tolerant Britain, I am convinced we can secure important, new commitments to build on the success of September 2015.
The decision to welcome 20,000 additional Syrian refugees was the result of a huge surge of public awareness and support for refugees in the UK, triggered by coverage of the tragic death of Alan Kurdi. More than 200 communities are now choosing to welcome families to their areas. Thanks to them, more than 8,500 Syrians have come to rebuild their lives in the UK since September 2015.
Refugee Action works with local authorities in a diverse range of areas, from Birmingham and Liverpool, to Shropshire and Worcestershire, supporting Syrians arriving through the scheme. In every case our staff and local volunteers are providing refugees with practical support to access local services, learn English, and start contributing to their new communities.
This scheme is transforming lives. But it's crucial to remember that the vast majority of refugees in the UK come here as people seeking asylum, forced to make dangerous journeys, like Alan Kurdi's family, by the lack of safe and legal routes. Once they arrive here, too many end up homeless, struggling to feed themselves and their families, and facing long delays to receive the tiny amount of support they're entitled to.
Even when all refugee arrivals are considered, the UK makes a modest contribution to the global challenge of protecting those forced to flee conflicts, terror and persecution. We are ranked 17th of 28 EU countries for asylum applications per head of population.
Now, for the first time in more than a decade, ministers are looking again at all aspects of the UK's asylum and refugee policy. Why now? We have new ministers at the start of a new Parliament and Brexit means that all aspects of immigration policy are under review. But the most important driver is all of us: refugee policy is under the spotlight thanks to all the work and campaigning of local and national groups. Ministers know they will have to defend their plans in the debate on the Immigration Bill in early 2018.
Now is the time for change. Our asylum system is failing too many of those who so badly need support. Ministers have been obstinate in their refusal to agree a time limit to detention. The Conservative manifesto included some deeply alarming language, questioning whether asylum seekers truly deserve the UK's support. The battle must be fought and won on the principle that every refugee, irrespective of how they arrive in the UK, is entitled to the same support to rebuild their lives.
There are five essential components of a fair and effective asylum system. People seeking asylum should be able to reach the UK legally; to receive a fair hearing; to have the security of decent housing and income during that process; and support to rebuild their lives once recognised as a refugee. Finally, in some cases and if they choose to do so, to return home with dignity.
Ministers will highlight the work the UK is doing to support refugees close to their countries of origin through international aid. They're right to do so. Ninety per cent of the world's refugees are in developing countries, and countries like Uganda, Jordan and Kenya rightly ask for support. But Britain can and must provide sanctuary to more of those who need it, and make substantial reforms to the way people seeking asylum are treated so that they can successfully rebuild their lives.
We must remember the lessons of September 2015. Millions of people in the UK were moved by the plight of others and supported action from our government. It was Britain at its best. Collective action can, again, secure strong new commitments from government.