UK government faces calls to shelter Yazidi refugees persecuted by Isis

Britain’s home secretary is being urged by MPs to allow refugees from the Yazidi community, a minority Iraqi group persecuted by Islamic State, to enter the UK under the same rules that allow entrance to vulnerable Syrian refugees.

In a letter to Amber Rudd (pdf), a cross-party group of MPs has said that many Yazidi refugees from Iraq satisfy the “vulnerability criteria” of Syrian refugees due to the sexual violence they have experienced. However, their needs are at risk of being forgotten amid the humanitarian crisis caused by the military offensive in Mosul, the MPs warned.

The UN has condemned the murder, rape, torture and sexual slavery of Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, perpetrated by Isis, as genocide.

The UK’s current vulnerable persons resettlement scheme (VPRS), which allows for 20,000 Syrians from neighbouring countries to enter Britain by 2020, “fails to account for the systematic persecution” of Yazidis, 90% of whom are Iraqi, said MPs from the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.

The letter, which was also sent to Priti Patel, the international development secretary, calls for UK government departments to work together to provide Yazidi women and girls, who have suffered appalling sexual violence, with “adequate psychiatric support”. The letter cites a resettlement scheme in Germany that has offered specialist care to survivors.

A second letter (pdf), sent to Rudd this month by the chairman of the international development committee, echoes MPs’ concern over Yazidis. Stephen Twigg highlighted the “worrying gap in UK support” to Yazidi and Christian communities who, having fled the Iraq conflict, have been unable to access the UK’s resettlement programme. Thousands of Yazidis are believed to be living in and around UN camps, in Turkey and Greece, according to MPs.

Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq have been targeted by Isis since August 2014. Many thousands have been murdered, maimed, raped or abducted, with women and children forced into sexual enslavement.

In his letter, Twigg said the attacks had “left many minority communities on the verge of disappearance in Iraq”.

The Christian population, which before 2003 numbered 1.4 million, is now estimated at 250,000, Twigg said, and women have been exchanged by fighters as gifts and repeatedly raped.

Although some Yazidis taken by Isis have been rescued, an estimated 3,600 people remain missing, mainly women and children. Hundreds were thought to be held captive in Mosul but, as anti-Isis forces make headway in the Iraqi city, families and activists fear Isis will take them to Syria.

Twigg said that while he recognised the difficulty in dealing with religion-based asylum cases, he was troubled by a gap between policy and practice. He cited a report by the all-party parliamentary group suggesting that Home Office officials were guilty of “poor credibility assessment and weak analysis” of well-founded fears of persecution among asylum seekers.

“The current military situation in Mosul has increased the urgency of this matter,” Twigg wrote. “I ask that you urgently review the support the UK provides to Iraqi minorities and the barriers to their access to the UK’s resettlement programme. There is a clear case for humanitarian pathways for admission, such as a medical evacuation scheme, for Iraqi minorities who have been subjected to such appalling atrocities, which have been described by my colleague on the international development committee Fiona Bruce as ‘so unspeakable that their evil seems almost fictional. But it is not.’”

The current VPRS, announced by David Cameron in 2015, is open only to Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. An average of 248 Syrian refugees were resettled each month between the end of September 2015 and the end of March 2016.

A Home Office spokesperson said that while the VPRS was open only to Syrian nationals, Iraqi refugees may qualify for other resettlement schemes.

The spokesperson said: “We remain very concerned about the appalling crimes committed against Christians, Mandeans, Yazidis and other minorities, as well as the majority Muslim population, in Iraq and Syria. We are working closely with the government of Iraq and announced £90m of humanitarian assistance this year.

“There are several UK resettlement programmes which Iraqi refugees may qualify for, such as Gateway, Mandate and the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme. However only Syrian nationals qualify for the Syrian VPR.”

The Syrian VPR scheme, which prioritises people needing urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk, has resettled about 2,900 refugees.

Every year, the Gateway scheme, open to any nationality, resettles 750 refugees who have little prospect of being able to return home. The Mandate scheme, also open to any nationality, is for people recognised as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who also have a close family member in Britain.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 1.1 million refugees require resettlement, but the number of places available in countries with annual programmes means less than one in 10 people will actually be found a home elsewhere. The top five countries for resettling refugees in 2015 were the US (82,491), Canada (22,886), Australia (9,321), Norway (3,803) and the UK (3,622).