No security threat from new arrivals, says minister


The House of Commons’ members’ tea room overlooking the Thames feels a long way from the horrors of Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus.

But as Richard Harrington eats a slice of cake in the refined surroundings of Westminster, the desperate situation in Syria is foremost in his mind.

He is the minister charged with co-ordinating the government’s response to the refugee crisis and has spent the past two months criss-crossing the country, making arrangements with local authorities for the arrival of thousands of Syrians.

The Watford MP was appointed in September after the images of the body of three-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked western Europe and brought the crisis to the forefront of political and public interest.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced that 20,000 refugees from Syria would be admitted to Britain by May 2020. The first phase will see 1,000 arrive by the end of the year, with the other 19,000 spread out across the next four and a half years before the next general election. Around 100 — the largest group so far — arrived in Glasgow on Tuesday.

The pace and scale of the project has been criticised by those who would like to see Britain take in as many refugees as Germany — perhaps more than 100,000.

But the attacks in Paris have raised concerns about the possibility of Islamist terrorists masquerading as refugees to enter Europe.

A YouGov poll this week revealed that 49 per cent of the public now believed that Britain should be accepting fewer or no refugees — a 22-point increase since September.

But Mr Harrington said he was satisfied with the UN and Home Office checks on the refugees entering the UK.

“This isn’t just a question of first come, first served — these people are selected carefully based on their vulnerability,” he explained.

“It’s all done by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. All refugees are registered, with biometric eye testing, and interviewed.

“They have to meet one of seven vulnerability criteria — women who have been raped, people in special danger, families who have suffered particularly badly in the fighting. If they get through that, they are health and security checked before they come to this country. It’s not something we’d rush.”

He said: “There are a lot of tests that can be done to see if the information they give us about where they came from and how they became refugees is genuine.

“But the vast majority of people we take are families — people who have been dispossessed for some time. They’re not people that we don’t know anything about.”

Almost 50 authorities around Britain have offered to rehouse Syrians, and plans are in place for the refugees to be settled as quickly as possible as permanent residents.

“It’s all pre-organised so we know where everyone is going,” Mr Harrington said. “Properties will have been rented for them from the private sector, not social housing stock.

“At the local community centre they get a briefing, an introduction, a Syrian meal and there will be discussions about children going to school, proper medical assessment.”

Many of the refugees arriving here are from the relatively affluent middle classes — the educated Syrians who could afford to pay their way out of the country — and will come with professional skills, as well as ambitions to return home to a rebuilt Syria. That prospect remains a considerable way off, Mr Harrington admitted.

But he is unconcerned about the prospect of the refugees encountering harassment in the more rural areas where they are sent to live. The “goodwill” shown by the councils taking them will overcome problems, he predicted.

“It’s good for the small communities to have Syrians. Remember these are places that want them. It’s amazing how many small councils are happy to take two or three families and see how they go. We are working to harness this avalanche of goodwill.”

Future phases could see refugee families twinned with British counterparts who would introduce them to the local area, help them integrate and possibly even lead them to job opportunities.

There is another dimension to the eagerness with which the minister is undertaking his work — his own family’s Jewish immigrant background.

Mr Harrington’s father’s ancestors arrived in Britain when Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to escape from the Spanish Inquisition. His maternal family were victims of Russian and Polish pogroms and arrived in the 1890s.

“Both my grandparents were born here. But their parents weren’t. Jewish people feel a special affinity to the refugee cause. The fact these people are from Syria isn’t the point. The similarity is that they have been kicked out of their homes because of their religion or ethnicity.”

Mr Harrington, who is a member of Watford Synagogue, highlighted the Jewish community’s reaction to the crisis and acknowledged the response to World Jewish Relief’s Syria appeal, which has raised more than £700,000.

Leading Jewish figures, including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Jewish Leadership Council chairman Sir Mick Davis and Reform Judaism’s senior rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, have approached Mr Harrington to discuss what more can be done.

The former Conservative Friends of Israel chairman said: “Jewish people particularly feel that what they’ve been through in the past — their grandparents and great-grandparents — means they have a duty to try to help the least fortunate in the world. I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of what this country is doing and within that what a relatively small Jewish community is saying.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that for the people I meet from Syria while doing this job, I’m probably the first Jewish person they’ve ever met. I had a good session with some refugees in Bradford. One of them had read on Wikipedia that I was Jewish. He said: ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, I’ve never met a Jewish person’.

“People will say Britain should be doing more. Some will say we should be doing less. I say Britain is doing what it is. The critics tend to see this as a one-off and not part of the bigger programme. It’s not some political ploy… What we are doing puts many countries to shame, it really does.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive