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Refugee response very slow, says ex-archbishop amid plea to reunite families

Published 12/09/2016

Lord Dr Rowan Williams will deliver a speech as leaders of Britain's major faiths criticise the Government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis
Lord Dr Rowan Williams will deliver a speech as leaders of Britain's major faiths criticise the Government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis

The Government has been "very slow" in its response to the refugee crisis and has "little to show" after pledging to reunite families separated by conflict, the former archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Lord Dr Rowan Williams joined a host of religious leaders at an event in London to call on Prime Minister Theresa May to assist refugees fleeing war-ravaged nations such as Syria and Iraq.

Speaking at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, he said that together, the faith communities were proposing an "opening up of our (the UK's) current conventions and protocols" to accelerate the reunion of families separated by war.

This would mean that visa processes would be "relaxed" so that refugee families currently living in the UK can be joined by relatives stranded abroad, he added.

His intervention comes as more than 200 Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics, alongside lead representatives of other faiths, signed an open letter urging Mrs May to unblock rules preventing refugee families being reunited in the UK.

He said: "We make (the proposal) because the pace seems very slow at the moment in responding to this crisis.

"We have had several months of discussion about the reuniting of children with parents. We have, as yet, very little to show for it."

He added: "The refugee issue is not going to go away, however much we put our fingers in our ears and screw our eyes tight shut - that is not going to change.

"Turning people away does not solve the problem, it shifts the burden very often in the world we currently live in on to those less able to bear it than we are.

"The issue is not going to disappear, and so it's futile and foolish to pretend that it will if we ignore it for long enough."

The letter from religious leaders criticised the Government's handling of the crisis as "too slow, too low and too narrow", creating "avoidable tragedies" as refugees attempt to make dangerous journeys to be reunited with loved ones.

Their letter follows similar calls from around 300 top former judges and lawyers, approximately 120 of the world's senior economists, and 27 charities and NGOs.

Mrs May's official spokeswoman said: "The current system does already allow for reunification. So if the UNHCR recognises an individual somewhere else in the world as a refugee and they have family ties to the UK, then their asylum claim will be processed and they can be resettled here."

More than 120 unaccompanied children have come to the UK from Europe since the start of the year, and more than 30 since the Immigration Act was passed in May, said the spokeswoman.

The UK had already committed to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees from camps near to Syria over a five-year period and to take 3,000 children and their families from the region under the Children at Risk scheme.

The Immigration Act set out measures to take in unaccompanied refugee children who were already in Europe before March 20 this year, "where it is in their best interests", but set no figure on the numbers who might be allowed into the UK.

Last week, the Government announced it had secured local authority places to meet its pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years.

And in a major U-turn earlier this year, former PM David Cameron committed to accepting 3,000 unaccompanied children registered in France, Italy and Greece.

But the letter, which has signatories including bishops and members of the House of Lords such a Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger and secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain Harun Rashid Khan, said current legislation left families resorting to desperate measures in a bid to be reunited.

It said: "Under the present immigration rules, a British doctor of Syrian origin could not bring her parents from a refugee camp in Lebanon - even though they were refugees and she could support and house them.

"A Syrian child who arrived alone in the UK could not bring his parents from a refugee camp in Jordan - even if the child were recognised a refugee and even though his parents were themselves refugees.

"Families in these situations can currently be reunited only by resorting to desperately unsafe irregular journeys, sometimes ending in avoidable tragedies."

Lord Dr Williams added on Monday that they hoped the Government would realise accepting the measures being proposed by faith leaders would not "kill us".

He said: "We have an enormous responsibility to persuade the Government that this is a risk worth taking."

Religious communities would stand at the side of the Government to provide "support and practical assistance" in delivering their proposals, he added.

Sharing a stage with the former archbishop were religious representatives including the former director of the Islamic Society of Great Britain Julie Siddiqi.

Also talking at the event was Dr Bashar Alkawaret, a Syrian refugee who lives and works in the UK, but whose pregnant wife has been refused asylum.

He said: "I have refugee status but they refused my wife. I never came for benefits or money, I came because my life was in danger. I am working and supporting myself."

He added: "I miss my wife and I want to be with her. To see my wife I had to go and meet her in Sudan, it was the first time in four-and-a-half years that I had seen her, we spent two-and-a-half months there, then she became pregnant.

"I had to come back to the UK and she had to go back to the war in Syria."

A Home Office spokesman said: " The UK has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. We have committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees through our vulnerable persons resettlement scheme over the course of this Parliament - we are on track to achieve that and have already provided refuge to more than 2,800 under this route.

"In addition, over the same period we will bring up to 3,000 individuals to the UK under the new vulnerable children's resettlement scheme. This scheme will bring children at risk, with their families where appropriate, to the UK from the Middle East and North Africa region.

"We are also in active discussions with the UNHCR, other partner organisations and the Italian, Greek and French governments to strengthen and speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer unaccompanied refugee children to the UK where this in their best interests."

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