The United Kingdom will take in 3,000 “vulnerable” child refugees from the war-torn regions in Syria, the government announced Thursday, calling the move the “largest resettlement program for children in the world.” The child refugees would be resettled in the country over the next four years, and are in addition to the 20,000 Syrian refugees Prime Minister David Cameron has already pledged to accept by 2020.
“We have always been clear that the vast majority of vulnerable children are better off remaining in host countries in the region so they can be reunited with surviving family members. However, there are exceptional circumstances in which it is in a child's best interests to be resettled in the U.K.,” Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said Thursday. “We have engaged with a number of NGOs, including the UNHCR on the best way to provide protection to refugee children and ensure their welfare and safety remain at the heart of every decision made.”
However, the U.K. will not take in any refugees directly from camps in Europe, as doing so may create “perverse incentives for people to put their lives into the hands of people traffickers,” an immigration ministry spokesman reportedly said.
“Disgracefully these plans do nothing for the young, vulnerable children I have met in Lesbos and northern Greece,” Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said. “The government’s continuing refusal to offer safe haven to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe is indefensible. We know tens of thousands of children have arrived in Europe alone, and thousands of them have simply vanished. They are at risk of human trafficking and horrific abuse and exploitation.”
Currently, there are an estimated 4,029 unaccompanied child refugees in the U.K. On Wednesday, Brokenshire told British lawmakers that a national dispersal scheme, which aims to “promote a fair and equitable distribution of cases across the country in a way that protects the best interests of those children,” will take effect in July. However, the exact details of how the plan will work have not yet been revealed.
Thursday’s announcement comes just days after nearly 500 refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. With these deaths, the number of refugees who have perished this year while trying to enter Europe through the Mediterranean has shot up to over 1,200. In the same period, over 180,000 refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have successfully entered Europe, most of who are currently living in camps in the Greek island of Lesbos.