British Prime Minister Theresa May has axed the ministerial post responsible for ensuring 20,000 Syrian refugees are accommodated in the UK by 2020.
May quietly made the change when she moved Richard Harrington, the first and only occupant of the ‘minister for Syrian refugees’ role, to become the new pensions minister in her Cabinet reshuffle.
The special cross-Whitehall post was set up by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, at the height of criticism over his response to the plight of child refugees from Syria.
Harrington reported to the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and was in charge of the ‘Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme’ to accommodate 20,000 refugees in Britain by 2020.
Just 1,000 had been accepted by April this year.
Cameron also pledged to take in a further 3,000 child refugees from camps in Europe, including Dunkirk and the Calais ‘Jungle,’ many of them unaccompanied minors, to reunite them with family who had already made it to the UK.
The role has now been scrapped and its responsibilities split between different departments, the Huffington Post reports.
Downing Street sources say the government is not downgrading the issue, as the PM believes every minister whose department comes into contact with refugees should now treat it seriously.
Labour leadership contender Owen Smith has branded the move “utterly disgraceful,” according to the Guardian.
If he won the Labour leadership battle he would appoint a shadow minister for refugees, he said.
“At a time when men, women and children are still drowning in the Mediterranean because of the ongoing refugee crisis, it is utterly disgraceful that the Tories have chosen to axe this important post.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, says the decision showed May’s government was “all talk and no action” when it came to a more compassionate approach to the refugee crisis.
“The new prime minister had a chance to step up and change the Tories’ position on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the first signs of failure are already there.
“Scrapping a ministerial post for refugees tells you everything you need to know about the Tories and their new prime minister.”
Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham told the Huffington Post: “We always suspected a lack of commitment on Theresa May’s part to tackling the refugee crisis and this seems to confirm it. An issue of this magnitude should have a dedicated minister.”
Tory MP Heidi Allen, who campaigned for Syrian child refugees to be allowed into the UK, and had been a strong supporter of May’s Tory leadership bid, said she is disappointed the post appears to have been binned.
“Not a great start. We’re waiting to see. It will be such a shame if we lose that incredible hard work and progress we made,” Allen told the BBC.
“We can’t forget about those poor, poor individuals now while we’re busy navel gazing ourselves about how our role is going to be within the global place. So yes, actions need to speak louder than words.”
May’s spokeswoman said the job would be absorbed into the Home Office, but said the government was still “fully committed” to receiving the 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Some of May’s allies reportedly felt the creation of the role by Cameron had been merely tokenism after he came under intense pressure to admit child refugees.