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UK to resettle 100 Syria White Helmets rescuers, families

A man, member of Syrian civil defense organization, White Helmets lets a white pigeon to fly for people who lost his life in chemical attack that in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on 22 August, 2017 [Amer Almohibany/Anadolu Agency]
A man, member of Syrian civil defense organization, White Helmets lets a white pigeon to fly for people who lost his life in chemical attack that in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on 22 August, 2017 [Amer Almohibany/Anadolu Agency]

The UK has granted asylum to 29 members of the White Helmets civil defence unit and up to 70 of their family members under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, the government announced today.

"White Helmets volunteers saved the lives of thousands of innocent civilians during the Syrian conflict and suffered terrible losses in the process," UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said. "I am therefore proud that the UK is resettling these brave individuals and their families and giving them the opportunity to rebuild their lives here."

One family has already been resettled in Britain, with the rest due to make the move in the next month. Some 98 White Helmets members and 324 of their relatives were evacuated out of southern Syria through Israel to Jordan in July, in an unprecedented rescue mission orchestrated by Britain, Germany and Canada and supported by the UN.

The White Helmets, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defence, are a 3,000 volunteer rescue force that have saved the lives of some 70,000 people since the war began. The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a documentary on the volunteers won an Academy Award at the Oscar's in 2017.

The evacuation was condemned by the Syrian government, who accused foreign states of supporting terrorism. The White Helmets are the subject of many conspiracy theories among supporters of the regime, with Russia also alleging the group were a creation of a former British intelligence officer and funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros.

READ: Syrian child dies as boat sinks off Lebanese coast

Only Canada has agreed to take in more White Helmet volunteers than the UK, with Germany and France to resettle the rest between them. The US, which is still implementing US President Donald Trump's so-called "Muslim Ban", has refused to take any from blacklisted Syria.

Earlier this year, the US temporarily froze funding to the White Helmets, funds which make up a third of their total budget, prompting concerns amongst the organisation as to the spread of conspiracy theories. Last week the Netherlands also cut funding to the civil defence group, amid a campaign of disinformation by the Syrian regime that the group was responsible for staging "false flag" chemical weapons attacks.

This suspicion is not shared by the UK, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt rejoicing at the news earlier today.

READ: UNHCR suspends aid for 8,000 Syria families in Lebanon

"The actions of the White Helmets demonstrate true modern day heroism. They are rightly respected for their courageous, life-saving work and have previously been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. We welcome the first White Helmets to be resettled in the UK," he said.

White Helmets volunteers face harassment, arrest and torture in areas recaptured by the regime. Those that are to be resettled have undergone extensive vetting by British immigration officials using criteria established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UK has resettled over 12,800 refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. The government has committed to resettling 20,000 by 2020.

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