16/02/2018 09:01 GMT | Updated 19/02/2018 08:46 GMT

Government Under Fire As Just 53 Syrian Refugees Resettled By Flagship Scheme Since 2016

'It is astounding that the Home Office would be so self-congratulatory.'

The government has come under fire for the slow progress of its Syrian Refugee Community Sponsorship Scheme, after a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) submitted by HuffPost UK revealed only 53 refugees have been resettled in Britain in the two years the scheme has been running.

The programme, taken up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who gave part of his residence, Lambeth Palace, to house a Syrian family, is part of a Conservative pledge to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. 

The Home Office said the government was “delighted that the community sponsorship scheme has got off to such an excellent start”, however Labour said it was “astounding that the Home Office would be so self-congratulatory when such low numbers have benefitted from the scheme.”

Shadow immigration minister, Labour MP Afzal Khan told HuffPost: “We know that there are thousands of Syrian refugees seeking resettlement. Local authorities and community organisations have long been willing to host these vulnerable individuals and we should be encouraging them – not putting up barriers.”

PA Archive/PA Images
Home Secretary Amber Rudd and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who famously housed a family of Syrian refugees at Lambeth Palace in London

Jennifer Bond, a former special advisor to Canada’s Minister of Immigration and chair of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, a group mandated to share learnings from Canada’s scheme – which has resettled 300,000 refugees over 40 years, said “everyone agrees [that] ideally the numbers would be higher.”

″The real test is going to be over the next year. We hope we will see the numbers increase significantly.”

The real test is going to be over the next year. We hope we will see the numbers increase significantly..."Jennifer Bond

Bond stressed the UK was taking the right steps to ensure the refugee scheme was a long-term success. “I think what we’ve seen the UK government do recently is getting out robust infrastructure. And putting money into the scheme to make it a success.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd pledged an extra £1 million of funding in July 2017 to support community groups helping refugees. “It is important we’ve seen a government offering visibility around what they’re doing. In contrast to other governments, ministers are supporting this, speaking out and they are committed to taking steps,” said Bond.

“The UK is now seen as an exciting model for countries around the world. It is really important the government is doing this.”

Osman Orsal / Reuters
Syrian refugees in the Kelbit refugee camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border

HuffPost’s FOI also found there was no internal target set by the Home Office for the number of people they wanted to bring in under the community pilot scheme.

Tim Finch, director at charity Citizen UK, said that he did not know if it was normal for a scheme to be launched without a target. “Frankly, I don’t know. I guess it depends on what the policy is,” he said.

“The scheme was never designed to produce numbers quickly, but now it is well established, I have every confidence that numbers will grow steadily year on year. The next couple of years will see a surge in interest in community sponsorship.” 

HuffPost UK visited one community sponsorship scheme in south London which is currently working on bringing a family to their neighbourhood. “When we held our first public meeting, we were a little nervous – would anyone come?” recalls Harriet Lamb, 56, who works in the charity sector, most recently in her role as CEO of peace-building organisation, International Alert.

Deepak Sardiwal, one of the members, said: “The UK government’s response to the current refugee situation has been disappointing to put it mildly. When governments fall short, citizens must show leadership.”

Local Labour MP Helen Hayes, who is supporting the group, said: “Our country has a great history of welcoming refugees fleeing violence and persecution.  I am proud to see residents in Herne Hill working to support a refugee family from Syria to settle here in our community.” 

The Home Office said: “The work of the volunteers who have welcomed refugees into their communities is inspiring, as is the compassion of the many local authorities who have provided their support.”