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Lawyers slam Government's response to Syrian refugee crisis

Published 12/10/2015

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers is among the signatories
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers is among the signatories

More than 300 lawyers, including a former president of the Supreme Court, have signed a statement criticised the Government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis as "deeply inadequate".

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the first head of Britain's highest court, joined three other former law lords and the former president of the European Court of Human Rights Sir Nicolas Bratza as signatories of the document which says an offer to house 20,000 refugees over five years is "too low, too slow and too narrow".

The statement also calls for the suspension of the "Dublin system", which means asylum seekers must seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in.

Organisers say the list also includes five retired Lords Justices of Appeal, the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord MacDonald, Lib-Dem peer Lord Carlile of Berriew QC and more than 100 Queen's Counsel, as well as solicitors.

Sir Stephen Sedley, a signatory and a Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal until he retired in 2011, said: "As the statement explains, it is within the UK's power to curtail the lethal boat traffic by enabling refugees from countries such as Syria and Iraq to travel here lawfully in order to apply for asylum.

"Since refuge from persecution and war is a universal human right, this means recognising that our Government's present offer to take no more than 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years is wholly inadequate.

"As a stable and prosperous country, we can do better than this."

The statement is due to be published at www.lawyersrefugeeinitiative.org, says: "We consider that the UK Government's offer to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East, spread over five years, is too low, too slow and too narrow."

Last week Oxfam accused the UK government of not taking its "fair share" of Syrian refugees.

Britain has given £1 billion in aid - more than any other EU nation - to countries neighbouring Syria that have taken in millions of refugees.

An EU quota scheme to relocate 120,000 refugees from Italy, Greece and Hungary does not include Britain as it is not part of the Schengen "borderless" area.

Richard Harrington, Minister for Syrian Refugees, said the UK had been " at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria".

He added: " We are providing more than £1.1 billion in humanitarian aid and have also taken in more than 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers since 2011.

"We are working closely with UNHCR to identify and resettle those in the regions who are the most vulnerable. This also deters people from attempting these perilous journeys which have already led to so many tragic deaths.

"The expansion of the (vulnerable persons resettlement) scheme needs careful and meticulous planning to ensure we get it right. We are looking to harness the strong offers of support and assistance we have received to resettle people who are in desperate need of our help."

Catriona Jarvis, a retired judge and one of the signatories to the statement, said Britain was capable of accepting many more refugees.

"Around the Balkan crisis we were receiving around 75,000-a-year. We managed that, it was within our capability. We managed it well," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"We are the sixth or seventh richest country in the world, it is not beyond our capabilities to make the necessary changes to receive our share. International protection, it is a shared duty, a shared responsibility."

Responding to the judges' letter, David Cameron's official spokeswoman told a regular Westminster media briefing: "People can express views, and different views.

"A lot of people recognise that we are substantially increasing the numbers of refugees that we are resettling and they recognise too that the long-term solution to this problem lies in our actions to find a solution in Syria and helping people there and in the region to be able ultimately to return home."

The spokeswoman added: "The UK can be proud of the response we are providing to tackle the situation in Syria and the plight of refugees there.

"We are providing over £1.1 billion in aid. That makes us the second-largest bilateral donor and it is substantially more than any other European countries are providing.

"It's vital money that is enabling these refugees to be able to stay in the neighbouring region where they immediately fled to and not embark on perilous journeys."

The spokeswoman said the UK was "looking at what more we can do" to help refugees, including by taking in 20,000 of the most vulnerable, seeking to improve conditions for Syrians in neighbouring countries and attempting to encourage a political solution in the country itself.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper said: " These senior judges and lawyers are right that the Government's response is too low, too slow and too narrow. They have joined community groups, councils, faith leaders, charities and people across Britain calling on our government to do more. If every city and county took ten families we could help 10,000 people this year."

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said: " Today's warning confirms what Labour has been saying for months on the Government's shortcomings.

"While it is right for Britain to stay outside of any formal EU quota scheme, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary should reach out to counterparts across Europe and take a fair share of refugees this year as well as increasing support to agencies in war-torn nations."

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