First charter flight of Syrian refugees to arrive in UK next week
The first charter flight of Syrian refugees will arrive in the UK next week as part of Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to accept up to 20,000 vulnerable people from camps in the area over the next five years, a senior Whitehall mandarin has revealed.
Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill said that a series of further flights will bring more refugees to Britain in the following weeks.
Mr Sedwill - the Home Office's most senior civil servant - said that Britain was on track to meet Mr Cameron's target of receiving 1,000 refugees from Syria by Christmas.
He told the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee: "The Prime Minister has set us a target for the new scheme of 1,000 by Christmas and plans are in place for that.
"The first charter flight is due to arrive next week. There are a series of charter flights over the next few weeks in order to meet that objective."
Mr Sedwill told the committee the UK was on track to meet Mr Cameron's target, but added: "There are great uncertainties in this area. We are dealing with very vulnerable people from the camps.
"But we have got plans in place. The old scheme - good scheme though it was - wasn't designed for the kind of numbers we are planning to bring in. We have expanded the categories we will receive in the UK."
Mr Cameron announced at the start of September that Britain would "live up to its moral responsibility" by taking 20,000 refugees from the camps on the borders of Syria by the end of the current parliament in 2020.
The move came in the wake of a public outcry over the fate of Syrian refugees driven to attempt to make the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean by boat, following the publication of pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi who drowned with several family members as they tried to reach Greece from Turkey.
Mr Cameron insisted that Britain would not take part in an EU scheme to redistribute migrants who had managed to reach Europe, but said he would work with the UNHCR to identify vulnerable individuals in camps in countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon whose needs meant they should be brought to the UK.
New arrivals will be given a five-year visa allowing them to remain in the country, after which they will be able to apply for leave to remain.
Meanwhile, Mr Sedwill told the committee that "several hundred" asylum seekers were currently being housed in hotels by contractors such as Serco and G4S, who are paid by the Government to provide them with accommodation.
Overall numbers of asylum-seekers needing assistance with housing have gone up this year because of the refugee crisis in Europe, though the UK faces only "a tiny fraction" of those seen in other EU states, he said.
Mr Sedwill said asylum-seekers did not tend to stay in hotels for long: "What we pay the contractors is the same whether it is hotels or other accommodation. It is expensive for them to use hotels, so they have an incentive to use other accommodation.
"The numbers have gone up this year as a spillover effect of the European refugee crisis. We face a tiny fraction, frankly, of the numbers others are facing, but the numbers have gone up and the proportion requiring supported accommodation has gone up as well, because of the blend of nationalities coming through.
"So there are some pressures on the system, which is why hotels are in use, mostly for a short time for people in transit to other accommodation."