First Syrians reach UK in refugee resettlement scheme
The first group of Syrian refugees has arrived in the UK under a government scheme to take in some of the most vulnerable victims of the conflict.
The Home Office expects "several hundred" Syrians to arrive as part of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme over the next three years.
It refused to say how many were in the first group, but press reports suggested it was "around 10 to 20".
The Refugee Council said the move could transform and even save lives.
End Quote James Brokenshire Immigration Minister
We believe this VPR scheme will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable Syrians”
About 3,800 Syrians have sought asylum in the UK since Syria's conflict began.
The asylum system is separate from the VPR scheme, under which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is "helping the government identify" the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
The government said VPR was "operating in conjunction" with the UNHCR - but it is separate from an ongoing UNHCR scheme to which other countries have signed up.
During a House of Commons debate in January, the government faced criticism from MPs of all political parties for declining to participate in the UN-led scheme.
The government then announced VPR, which Home Secretary Theresa May said was: "In the spirit of the UNHCR programme but it is not technically part of it."
Immigration minister James Brokenshire said: "We believe this VPR scheme will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable Syrians by giving them protection and support in the UK."
He said the UK was still "committed to providing regional support to those affected by the crisis" and added: "We have donated £600m to the relief effort so far, making the UK the largest bilateral donor after the USA."'Gesture of solidarity'
UNHCR UK representative Roland Schilling said: "With today's arrival of the first Syrian refugee families under the VPR scheme, the UK has joined international efforts to provide solutions for Syrian refugees in the form of resettlement or relocation to safe third countries."
He said the move would save lives and was a "gesture of solidarity and burden sharing with countries in the region currently hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees".
Refugee Council chief executive Maurice Wren said: "Today marks an extremely significant watershed in the UK's response to the humanitarian catastrophe gripping Syria and the surrounding region.
"The arrival of the first refugees for resettlement will transform, if not save, people's lives."
But he said it was "disappointing" that VPR would "only support several hundred people over the next three years".
He said the ongoing need was "clearly colossal", with the UNHCR calling on nations to help resettle 130,000 people in that three-year period.
Refugees let into the UK under the scheme will have all rights and benefits that go with "humanitarian protection" status, including access to public funds, access to the labour market and possibility of family reunion.
The Home Office said "a number of local authorities" had already signed up to support the relocation scheme.
The next VPR scheme refugees are expected to arrive in April.