Members of the group and their families will be settled in the UK under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), the Home Office announced on Monday.
The White Helmets “saved the lives of thousands of innocent civilians during the Syrian conflict,” said Home Secretary Sajid Javid, adding he was “proud that the UK is resettling these brave individuals and their families and giving them the opportunity to rebuild their lives here.”
“We welcome the first White Helmets to be resettled in the UK,” said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, calling their actions “true modern day heroism.”
“These brave volunteers have rushed to pull people from the rubble when bombs have rained down on Syria and I’m proud that the UK has led the way in their evacuation and resettlement,” added Hunt.
London has granted asylum to 29 “White Helmets” and up to 70 of their family members, the Daily Telegraph reported. The first family has already arrived, with the rest due next month. The Home Office did not include any numbers in its announcement. Back in July, the UK led efforts to evacuate 98 group members and 324 of their relatives from an enclave in southern Syria, via Israel.
In a sense, the White Helmets are coming home: the group was set up in 2013 by former British intelligence operative James Le Mesurier, and is funded in part by the US and UK governments. Though calling itself the “Syrian civil defense,” the group has operated exclusively in areas controlled by anti-government rebels, among whom is Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The government in Damascus flat-out accuses the White Helmets of being terrorists, offering them a choice between surrender and amnesty, or death.
“You have videos and photos of this group’s members holding swords and celebrating the death of Syrian soldiers,” President Bashar Assad told Russian journalists in July.“What more evidence do you need that they are not a humanitarian organization, but a mask used by Al-Qaeda?”
Members of the group have featured prominently in rebel propaganda videos that later turned out to be staged, “rescuing” children from bombed-out buildings or helping “chemical attack” victims while not wearing any protective gear.
The Russian Ministry of Defense accused the group of staging a “false flag” chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma in April, which was used as a pretext for US-UK-French missile strikes against Syria. Another false flag attack is being prepared in Idlib, the last remaining bastion of jihadists in Syria, the Russian military said earlier this month.
(The secular Syrian Arab Army recaptures an airport near Damascus, Syria)
According to the UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, however, the White Helmets are facing “persecution from the Assad regime” and have a lot of “valuable experience and expertise protecting civilians in need.”
“We should be so proud of Britain’s role supporting their life-saving work and now providing them and their families with sanctuary and helping them rebuild their lives,” Mordaunt said on Monday.