The High Court will hear a legal challenge on Wednesday 8 May and Thursday 9 May 2019 by a number of Palestinian refugees from Syria against the Home Secretary regarding the refusal by him to ensure they have proper access to the UK’s Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).
The VPRS was established by the UK Government in January 2014, in order to offer resettlement to some of the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
Following criticism over the limited number of UK resettlement places, and in recognition of the worsening refugee crisis in the region, the government announced in September 2015 that up to 20,000 refugees from Syria would be resettled in the UK over the course of the Parliament.
When the VPRS was first introduced, its access was restricted to Syrian nationals exclusively: non-Syrians, including Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS), stateless Iraqis and stateless Kurds, fleeing the conflict alongside their Syrian counterparts, were excluded. Leigh Day’s clients challenged that decision on the basis that it was directly discriminatory.
Five months after legal proceedings were initiated, on 3 July 2017, the UK government extended the VPRS to all those fleeing the conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries, regardless of nationality.
However, despite the extension, the VPRS in practice continues to be inaccessible to and discriminatory against Palestinians. This is because the Home Secretary decided to “continue to rely on UNHCR to identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees” to the VPRS.
Palestinian refugees are not permitted to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are excluded from its mandate. Except in the most exceptional of circumstances, UNHCR has no authority to negotiate on the behalf of persons who do not fall under its mandate.
The claimants will argue, at the High Court, that the current operation of VPRS continues to exclude Palestinians and is unlawful because it indirectly discriminates contrary to the Equality Act 2010, the common law, and the European Convention on Human Rights; and it is illogical and irrational, given that it is intended to fulfil the humanitarian purpose of assisting those who have fled Syria who are in the most need, yet the mechanism used to operate the VPRS frustrates that purpose. Palestinian refugees are widely recognised to be amongst the most vulnerable refugee groups in the region.
The three claimants in this case, who are currently in Lebanon, are:
- A 59-year-old man who is extremely unwell with chronic heart disease; he has no access to much needed hear surgery in Lebanon.
- A 16-year-old boy who suffers from severe learning difficulties as a result of permanent brain damage, and who remains unable to access appropriate therapy or schooling.
- A 60-year-old woman who continues suffers from significant health complaints and is alone in Lebanon, depending on the assistance of an octogenarian neighbour who has taken her in: her husband and son are missing in Syria, presumed dead; her son-in-law and minor granddaughter are missing, presumed dead, having tried to reach Sudan, to seek refuge. Since initiating these proceedings, her remaining three daughters and sole remaining grandchild have been forced to leave Lebanon to seek refuge further afield.
“Our clients believe the decision taken by the UK Government to deny them equal access to the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme is unlawful. They have pointed out, repeatedly, how the current Scheme excludes Palestinians, arguably one of the most vulnerable communities fleeing Syria. Yet, the UK government has refused to take any action. Instead, the Home Secretary has chosen to try and defend his position which serves to bar consideration of these vulnerable second time refugees for resettlement in the UK, on the basis of their nationality alone. The bombing raids in Syria do not discriminate by nationality and neither should our government.”
Alongside Leigh Day Solicitors, the Claimants are also represented by Raza Husain QC, Blinne Ni Ghralaigh of Matrix Chambers and Julianne Morrison of Monckton Chambers.
Palestinian refugees from Syria who are now in Lebanon face significant challenges created by their denial of legal status. UNRWA reports that PRS registered in Lebanon live “an extremely fragile and precarious existence and are forced to subsist on humanitarian handouts”. According to UN figures, approximately 90% of PRS in Lebanon are under the poverty line, unable to meet their basic food and non-food needs, including 9% in extreme poverty, and 95% are food insecure, experiencing “hunger, cold and illness in pre-existing camps already lacking resources”. Many live in extremely bleak and increasingly desperate conditions, access to healthcare is restricted, as is access to education, with only 6% of PRS aged 15 to 18 reportedly able to remain in school. Due to restrictions on access to employment, 78% of PRS families in Lebanon do not have a single working family member, “severely reducing their resilience and coping capacity”. UNWRA reports that the financial instability of PRS “augments associated protection risks, such as exploitation, abuse and negative coping mechanisms, including child labour and child marriage”.