Syrians evacuate Homs. The United Kingdom has decided to open its borders to Syrian refugees. Photo by: B. AlHafez / SARC / UNHCR

After months of seeming reluctant to do so, the United Kingdom has made a U-turn and agreed to launch a resettlement program for Syrian refugees.

The program will support the U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ 2013 call for the international community to open their borders to 30,000 Syrians. Unlike other European member states, the U.K. has decided to strike a different deal — one that would remove the country from meeting a specific quota of refugees.

This is perhaps the most important part of the agreement. The U.K. has been among the most generous donors in the Syrian crisis, having alone provided a total of 600 million pounds in humanitarian assistance. Home Secretary Theresa May said in a speech before parliament that this is the U.K.’s “largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis, and it comes on top of our efforts to secure humanitarian access inside Syria and to provide essential materials … to help vulnerable Syrians to survive the winter.”

But in line with it goal of reducing net migration to the U.K. by 2015, a number of ministers in the incumbent coalition government had urged caution.

It therefore remains unclear exactly how many of the 30,000 Syrians will be admitted into British territory, but the country has committed to abide by a number of guiding principles identified by the home secretary: to prioritize survivors of torture and violence, including women and children at risk or in need of medical care recommended by UNHCR.

“The program will focus on individual cases where evacuation from the region is the only option,” May said.

This program will be “in addition” to the two resettlement programs the United Kingdom is already running in partnership with the U.N. refugee agency, namely the Gateway Program and the Mandate Resettlement Scheme.

There will be no quota for the number of refugees to be admitted to the United Kingdom.

While separate from the U.N. program, May said the new Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme is “entirely consistent with the wider UNHCR program, is supported by them, and will allow us the control to make best use of our capability to help these cases.”

Some in the aid community raised concerns that the move may affect the U.K.’s contributions to the Syrian crisis, but an official from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the decision to take in Syrian refugees “will not impact on our aid provisions.”

The scheme is separate from the EU’s Joint Resettlement Program launched in 2012, that offers lump sums to member states that meet the criteria set out by the program in admitting refugees. The program ran for only a year, and the bloc is currently negotiating a new Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund that will replace the European Refugee Fund.

“Since the negotiations of the final version of the AMIF have not been finalised at this point, the [EU] member states have not been required to submit to the [European] Commission their national programs … this is expected sometime around this summer … It is for the authorities of the member state concerned to make this decision,” an EU spokesperson explained.

That program initially included:

  • Congolese refugees in the Great Lakes Region (Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia).

  • Iraqi refugees in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

  • Afghan refugees in Turkey, Pakistan and Iran.

  • Somali refugees in Ethiopia.

  • Burmese refugees in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.

  • Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan.

Syrian refugees were added in 2013.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.