Group of Syrian refugees to arrive 'in the coming days', Theresa May says


The first group of Syrian refugees to be taken in under the Government's expanded resettlement programme will arrive in Britain in the coming days, Home Secretary Theresa May has said.

The refugees will be arriving from camps in countries that border war-ravaged Syria and will count towards the 20,000 the UK has agreed to take over the next four and a half years.

Mrs May said the Government was "working at speed" to plan for even more arrivals in the coming weeks.

In a Commons statement, Mrs May said: "In welcoming vulnerable refugees to the UK it is imperative that we have in place the support and help that they need and deserve.

"I know that honourable members and the general public are keen to know more detail on the numbers and when people are expected to arrive.

"But I must underline that the scale of the expansion needs careful and meticulous planning to ensure we get it right.

"I and the (Minister for Syrian refugees Richard Harrington) will continue to update the House on that point.

"But I am pleased to tell the House that we are looking forward to welcoming the first wave of new arrivals in the coming days and are working at speed to plan for even more in the coming weeks."

Mrs May said one of Syrian refugee minister Mr Harrington's first commitments will be to hold a meeting over the coming weeks with NGOs to work out how best to harness the British public's desire to help.

A Government website and a Red Cross helpline will also advise people on how they can help Syrian refugees in the UK, Mrs May said.

"The response of the British public has been one of overwhelming generosity and many have been moved to make very kind offers of assistance," the Home Secretary said.

A "gold command" team within the Home Office encompassing the Local Government Association, Government departments, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and NGOs will work with councils to help them support refugees on arrival.

Mrs May said claiming asylum must not be viewed as an "easy means" of settlement in Europe and "now more than ever" asylum systems were needed to respond quickly to those genuinely in need.

She said: "The plight of so many Syrian refugees who have been left homeless and whose lives have been shattered is simply heart wrenching. They've experienced things most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Many have seen their friends and family killed, others have suffered terrible injury and trauma, most have lost the prosperity and security they once enjoyed.

"As the Syrian crisis has grown over the past four years Her Majesty's Government has done and will continue to do everything it can to help those in immediate need. I hope the whole House will join me in sending a message of welcome to those refugees who will soon be arriving in this country."

New shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said he welcomed the further measures announced, adding: "And while I will of course provide real challenge in this role, I will do so constructively at all times."

His predecessor and Labour leadership rival Yvette Cooper sat two rows behind on the backbenches as Mr Burnham praised her "great leadership in forcing the Government to face up to the scale of this crisis".

Mr Burnham said the Government measures announced last week "in response it has to be said to huge public pressure were of course welcome as far as they go".

He said: "The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are right in saying that the UK has set the lead on aid spending and we must urge other European countries to match it."

But he add that "we do now need clarity on the headline figures". He asked how many refugees were expected to arrive before Christmas.

On councils, he added: "Over 50 have offered to help, are they actively turning these offers into practical proposals and given the concerns that councils have expressed regarding funding, is she working to get a better funding arrangement for them."

Mr Burnham spoke about the situation in Calais, adding: "The big question of course on the Government's response to date is whether it is in any way commensurate with the scale of this crisis."

He went on: "Is she really standing by the Government's response to date as adequate, does she accept it must be kept under constant review and if necessary increased?"

Mr Burnham asked whether the Government's decision not to take any refugees from Europe was sustainable "from a moral and a practical point of view".

He said: "While I understand the Government's reluctance to take part in the proposed quota system, surely an offer of some help would fulfil the historic tradition our country has always played. And if the Government was to provide that help couldn't that only build goodwill in helping with renegotiation discussions in advance of the forthcoming European referendum."

He added: "This is possibly the biggest crisis of its kind that we will see in our lifetime and the way we respond to it will define us as a generation. We need to be ready to do more if the necessity demands.

"We need to reach out to our European neighbours whose challenges are greatest and we must honour our country's long tradition of providing refuge to those who need it."

On numbers, Mrs May replied: "To be absolutely clear on the numbers, 20,000 by the end of the parliament was the figure that the Prime Minister set and that is the figure that we are looking at. We haven't set a year by year quota in relation to that and we haven't set a target for the numbers before Christmas."