Syria refugee crisis underestimated by UK public


The British public underestimates the number of refugees fleeing Syria by 4.5 million people, a report has found.

Nearly five million Syrians have been misplaced by the civil war, yet Britons believe the number to be closer to 300,000, the study says - 16 times fewer than official figures suggest.

The report also found the public believed the UK had accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees - almost double the latest official Government figure of 5,500.

The Humanitarian Index compared the public opinion of six nations, including Britain and Germany, revealing a huge underestimation of the scale of the crisis and an exaggerated perception of own governments' response in terms of accepting refugees.

It comes as the Government announced a new resettlement scheme to accept as many as 3,000 vulnerable children refugees on Thursday. Previously Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to take a total of 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

In the UK 42% of Brits felt the country had "taken on too many refugees", compared with 55% of Germans. Germany has accepted 105,000 Syrian refugees since 2011.

The US, UK, Germany, France, Iran and Lebanon were surveyed in the report, carried out by the Edelman group, a communications firm, as campaigners and charities meet this weekend at a gathering of humanitarian organisations in Armenia.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the conflict has caused 4.8 million Syrians to flee their homes since 2011 - more than the adult population of Scotland.

The study, which claims to be the first of its kind to attempt to compare international opinion, conducted online interviews during March and April with 4,800 across the six nations, including 1,000 British adults representative of the general population in terms of age and gender. 

Across the surveyed countries, the refugee crisis was seen as a more pressing issue than hunger, access to water and climate change. Half the people questioned said they thought the Syrian people had been abandoned by the international community.

It also found Britons have more faith in foreign leaders Angela Merkel and Barack Obama to sort the crisis than in their own prime minister. Just 39% of those surveyed in the UK said David Cameron was the most capable world leader to deal with the crisis.

And despite the continued uncertainty surrounding the future of the European Union, almost half of Britons back it in taking the lead on dealing with the crisis.

The index was carried out on behalf of the inaugural humanitarian award, the Aurora Prize, which is set to be handed out by actor George Clooney on Sunday at a humanitarian conference - a discussion between charities, delegates and international organisations over the refugee crisis.

Vartan Gregorian, co-founder of the Aurora Prize, called for the public to be "better informed" on the facts surrounding refugees.

He said: "The gulf between the public's understanding of the refugee crisis and reality should weigh heavily on all of us.

"Underestimating the scale of the problem means that the public also underestimates the investment required to alleviate the crisis. A better-informed public would be in a position to compel governments to act."

Oxfam accused the Government of "pretending this is someone else's problem".

Maya Mailer, head of policy and campaigns, said: "At a time when the number of people forced to flee their homes has reached record levels, it is shocking that the UK has taken in less than 1% of refugees. As the world's fifth biggest economy, the UK can and should do more to help vulnerable people fleeing war, persecution and poverty."

She added: "While the British government has been generous in providing financial aid, it has just offered to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. This equates to each of our 69 cities receiving only around 60 people per year, hardly an influx."

The Government said the UK was "leading the international response to the Syria crisis" including pledging £2.3 billion to help Syrians inside the country and in neighbouring.

Angela Balakrishnan, spokeswoman for the Government's international development department, said: "Our support is focused in the region to help give Syrians what they want - the chance to continue their lives close to their own homes. We have also committed to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees and granted asylum or other forms of leave to over 5,500 Syrian nationals and dependants through normal asylum procedures since the crisis began in 2011.

"The UK's aid budget is tackling the root causes of global problems like migration by reducing poverty, building stability and security, creating jobs and cracking down on corruption and human rights abuses."