Over three years after they took place, communications between the UK Home Office and the British Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man on the subject of taking Syrian refugees, have finally been released.
This is the result of a protected Freedom of Information battle fought by campaigner Anthony Webber, and latterly assisted by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
These efforts to obtain information are reminiscent of the efforts the Christian Barnabas fund had to go to in order to obtain FOI information about the disproportionately minute numbers of Christians among the Syrian refugees taken into the UK. The interests of Christians in the Middle East and especially refugees, has been a subject that the Church is sometimes accused of not sufficiently standing up for.
The UK Home Office fought this disclosure in many ways, including long delays in responding to requests. The matter went through the process of internal review, then to the Information Commissioner, then to a Tribunal and then to an Upper Tribunal. The Crown Dependencies were then involved in the process of two appeals, both of which were rejected.
The UK Home Office has a very poor record in respect of responding to FOI requests generally, and the final judgement on ruling that the communications be released, will only further blemish this record. There is certainly an openness and transparency issue to deal with in respect of that Department.
The decision also calls into question their policy on dealing with the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (SVPRS), which critics have argued to be one of deceit and disinformation, in order to ensure its success. The UK Home Office admitted to the Information Commissioner in writing that the SVPRS success was more important than the public being given the information. They also wrote that if the communications were made public, there was a risk not only that the Crown Dependencies would not take Syrian refugees, but that local authorities might not either.
They decided that non-disclosure of information suited the achievement of their purposes, as they could shut any debate down by doing so. No questioning of the SVPRS was acceptable (and it did have many faults whether the idea was right or not) and the presentation agenda of it was mainly emotional rather than analytical, realistic and practical.
The Crown Dependencies have not taken any Syrian refugees but many people do not believe the matter has gone away, because of trust issues with their respective governments. Their authorities even denied that such communications with the UK government existed.
No request has been put in for communications between the UK Home Office and the Crown Dependencies since then, so no one knows what has transpired over the last three years. However, the secretive policy of the UK Home Office has meant that a large number of local authorities have been persuaded to take in “their share of Syrian refugees,” even when there have been many questions unanswered.
In this regard the Crown Dependencies stand accused of colluding with the UK Home Office to try to prevent information disclosure, which neither their own citizens, nor those of the hundreds of local authorities who have agreed to take Syrian refugees, will thank them for.
The Crown Dependencies authorities even hoodwinked their own elected politicians by intimating the FOI case was one to do with protecting their autonomous status. The Tribunal Judges saw through that false premise. The Crown Dependencies now face many questions as to how and why their authorities got involved with this lack of transparency, without any mandate from their respective political assemblies. They have caused reputational damage to their jurisdictions at a time when they have been trying to argue that they are not secretive non-transparent jurisdictions.
The Crown Dependencies also stand accused of protecting the electoral positions of some of their key politicians by holding back on deciding to take Syrian refugees before their respective elections.
It will be surprising if there are not demands for accountability in the Crown Dependencies. Both with them and with the UK Home Office, there will also be calls for the review of FOI laws so they are not abused by those in authority to protect their positions. This was always a case, first and foremost, about openness and transparency in government. All political policy issues can only work well if there is a free flow of information and debate is not stifled.
However, on this specific issue of the SVPRS it is time for the Home Office to review it, to open up the flow of information, and to look at all options, including facilitating the return of refugees to Syria, something their government has been asking for since last year.