Britain should realise it has nothing to lose by expanding a refugee resettlement programme, a charity said on Wednesday, despite an increasingly hostile political climate over immigration and asylum.
A group of Liberians were the first refugees to arrive for resettlement in Britain in 2004, under a scheme to provide a legal route into the country for some of the world's most vulnerable people. Often they have been living in refugee camps, sometimes for many years, and have no way of returning home.
Since then, Britain has offered places to 5,557 refugees from troubled Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo among others, as part of the Gateway Protection Programme which allows up to 750 refugees to be taken in each year.
But Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said Britain should offer "substantially" more resettlement places in response to a growing global refugee crisis.
"The numbers are on the increase and there's no let-up on the drivers of refugee flows. We only have to look at what's happening today in Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and what may happen in the next year or two in Afghanistan, Iraq and even closer to home, in Ukraine, if the tension spills over into conflict," Wren told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"If we're going to play our role as a global power tackling a global problem, then refugee resettlement must be a big element of that."
DROP IN THE OCEAN
Most refugees eventually return to their home countries or are integrated in the country of asylum. However, resettlement to a third country is the only solution for some, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
Britain is one of 13 European Union (EU) countries which has a regular resettlement programme, separate from the asylum system. In 2012, Britain was second only to Sweden in the number of refugees it resettled, taking in 989 refugees compared to Sweden's 1,483.
The EU, as whole, resettled 4,405 refugees in 2012 - a fraction of the 53,053 resettled in the United States, and less than the second leading resettlement country, Australia, which took in 5,079 refugees.
UNHCR says roughly 80,000 refugee resettlement places are available globally each year. But that's dwarfed by the 690,000 refugees who currently need resettlement.
Despite the scale of needs, Wren acknowledged that refugee resettlement remained a "thorny issue" in Britain - which only agreed to take in hundreds of Syrian refugees after calls from charities and two political parties - and other countries where "policy is increasingly determined by domestic political concerns".
"It seems to me to be more crude and more naked over the last 10 to 15 years," Wren said, referring to policy.
With polls regularly showing immigration to be one of voters' top three concerns, Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure ahead of European elections in May and a national election next year to make good on his promise to cut the net influx to the "tens of thousands" by 2015.
Some lawmakers in his Conservative party want him to get tougher, partly to dissuade its supporters from defecting to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which opposes "open-door immigration". This has led to political parties "aping and adopting the clothes of UKIP and taking a very harsh line on immigration", Wren said.
"That's a real fear, not just in the UK but generally we're seeing a shift to the right across Europe and the concept of Fortress Europe is becoming ever more apparent," he added.
And yet, refugee resettlement is a win-win policy, he said, supported by interest from local authorities in several parts of the country to be part of the programme.
"Refugees are given the stability to rebuild their lives and the UK benefits from the contribution that they wish to make," Wren said. "I've yet to meet a refugee on the resettlement Gateway programme who wasn't very grateful for the opportunities they've been given by the UK and who didn't want to make a contribution."