Last week, to mark Refugee Week, UK Immigration Minister Damian Green visited the Refugee Council offices in Sheffield, where he met refugees from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Burma. These were some of the world's most vulnerable refugees who had come to the UK through the Gateway programme - a scheme run by the UN in conjunction with the UK government, among other industrialised countries, to resettle people living in refugee camps who have no prospect of ever returning home.
The success of the Gateway programme was clear through the stories of the refugees Mr Green met, both for giving a new life to vulnerable refugees and for their successful integration into UK society. A Liberian refugee, Esther, spoke of living in basic conditions in a refugee camp in Guinea for 20 years. She came to the UK through Gateway in 2004, with her two daughters and a son and was later reunited with her daughter who she had not seen for eight years. She now works as a carer for the NHS, and speaks highly of Sheffield and the people there. Moreover she thanked the UK government and the Refugee Council for their support during her time here. Yet despite the palpable success of the Gateway programme and the government's obvious pride in it, the UK currently accepts a mere 750 refugees through this programme every year.
It was a further shock to read in UNHCR's report published earlier this week that while 805,000 resettlement places are needed by refugees living in camps across the world, there are only 80,000 places globally. The remainder of those identified as in need are left living in camps for years, waiting for a place to become available. It remains clear the UK government, and other EU countries have an obligation to expand the quota of people they take in through resettlement programmes each year.
The need to do this seems particularly urgent this year, following events in Libya and Northern Africa and the widespread media coverage which highlighted with alarming effect how quickly events can cause people to become displaced by oppression and conflict. According to EU security company Frontex, an estimated one million people have fled the violence in Libya and are living in refugee camps on the border of Libya or in neighbouring countries. Many others have attempted escape to the European continent across the Mediterranean, often with tragic consequences.
The reaction of France and Italy to those who survive the crossing and arrive on the continent, threatening to close their borders and send people back to the countries they had fled from, is indefensible. Only yesterday, on the eve of an EU summit to discuss the matter, EU immigration chief Cecilia Malmstrom herself justly pointed out that while political leaders all over Europe have been quick to condemn violence and to congratulate our Northern African neighbours in their fight for democracy and freedom, "when it comes to dealing with the consequences of these developments, and particularly when it comes to dealing with the men, women and children coming to Europe for protection or in search of a better life, European leaders have not been as supportive."
It is reasonable to argue that responsibility for refugees fleeing Northern Africa does not rest solely on the shoulders of the southern European countries alone. But the numbers arriving in Europe - so far around 48,000 - are manageable if we agree to share responsibility. A viable solution would be resettlement for those in need of international protection, shown by the success of resettlement programmes across Europe, and we would urge the UK and EU countries to consider this to ensure countries like Malta and Italy are not overwhelmed by those arriving on their shores.
This year, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, which was created after WWII to protect people being persecuted in their own countries, and has saved countless lives since. Now is the time for the UK and other EU member states to reaffirm and strengthen the commitment they made to protect refugees. They have shown their support for people fighting for democracy in North Africa, so our governments must now extend that offer by giving protection to these people as they seek a place of safety in Europe.