Following Civil War in Syria, millions of Syrian nationals have fled the armed conflict. 8 million are displaced within Syria, forced to move and find new homes. 4 million have fled to neighbouring countries including Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Around 350,000 Syrians have made the journey into Europe, to places such as Greece and Italy.
The Civil War began in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring. Protests in Syria were met with violent force by the government. An armed opposition to the government formed from groups including the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front. ISIL has also entered into the conflict against both the government and the other opposing forces. As of April the death toll for this war has exceeded 310,000. Under these volatile and deadly conditions and on top of all those displaced, millions of people have been left in poor living conditions with shortages in food and drinking water.
The countries surrounding Syria face many of the same problems of war, civil unrest and shortages of resources. While Syrians have the right to apply for asylum in Europe, they cannot do so in the European embassies of Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq. They have to make the difficult and illegal journey to a European country to apply for asylum there. This means refugee families have to rely on criminal gangs to take them across the sea on desperately overcrowded, unsafe boats. Some of these boats have capsized and refugees including children have drowned as a result. Within European countries, lorries filled with dead refugees have been found. Because of their proximity to Syria and out of necessity, refugees have traveled to southern European countries in the Schengen Area where passports and border controls have been abolished. The countries most affected include Greece and Italy, which are themselves going through economic crises and are unable to cope with the numbers of people coming in.
In response to the crisis, Angela Merkel has supported quotas for countries to meet in taking in refugees. Germany has taken in 105,000 refugees and will work to accept more, saying that it could take in as many as 500,000 this year. In 2013, Sweden ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers would be allowed permanent residency as well as their families, and has taken in at least 40,000. The UK however has only accepted 5,000 Syrian refugees so far.
Prime Minister David Cameron originally stated “We have taken a number of genuine asylum seekers from Syrian refugee camps and we keep that under review, but we think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world. I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.”
However, after pressure from constituents signing a parliamentary petition for a debate on the issue, as well as councilors and councils volunteering to accommodate refugees, Cameron has announced we would be increasing aid to Syria up to £1 billion and accepting 20,000 refugees in the next 5 years. That's 0.003 percent of the UK population. He hasn’t stated how many this would be year on year, but 4,000 refugees a year would amount to 6 per constituency. It has been argued by others such as the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper that we could take in at least 10,000 this year alone and should be working to help as many people as we can.
Cameron has also stated he would not take in refugees from Europe, but only those in camps in Syria and the surrounding Middle Eastern countries. He argued taking in refugees who had made the dangerous journey to Europe would encourage more to make the illegal journey. However, those traveling to Europe are doing so out of necessity and are fleeing for their lives. The push of civil war and deprivation, rather the pull of Europe, is the overriding motivation. The refugees, all 350,000 of them, who have made the journey need help urgently as they are in a life threatening situation.
On September 8th, a debate was held on the refugee crisis, after the petition to debate the matter was signed by 400,000 people. During the debate, the point was made that there are many people from other parts of the world, such as Libya, Somalia and Iraq, seeking refuge. The question was also asked if child refugees who are taken in will be sent back to the country they fled from after they became 18. Paddy Ashdown has said that this has been confirmed by the House of Lords: child refugees would be sent back at age 18. Yvette Cooper remarked in the debate this would be “inhumane”, rightly so.
This crisis is something we all have to work together to tackle. Individuals and councils, politicians and charities, Europe and the rest of the world. A task of this magnitude cannot be left to the Schengen Area, to Greece and Italy to take in all these people who are suffering. It’s to our credit that councils and individuals have come forward to welcome and receive refugees. We should also take pride in the fact we are giving £1 billion in aid to Syria. But we still have a lot more to do. We need to work with communities in the UK as well as with Europe to decide how to best and most humanely help and resettle the many people who are homeless both in Syrian camps and traveling to Europe. We need to house these people for the long term, not just for a few years and then turn them away. We also need to plan for more refugees in the years to come.
New Hope works with the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Partnership throughout the year. This organisation works tirelessly with asylum seekers and refugees by helping them to complete applications for asylum, providing for their basic needs, finding ways to house them in the immediate and long term and providing legal advice. If you feel you can help out, I would suggest you consider volunteering for an organisation like WTRRP. You can also write to your councilors or MP to ask them to step forward and offer to accommodate a number of refugees. Some people who have the space and the desire to help have even opened their doors to accommodate some of those seeking refuge.
The government has now appointed the Watford MP Richard Harrington as the Minister for Refugees. He will oversee the housing of some 20,000 refugees over the next few years. People have been seeking refuge in the UK as a result of the Syrian crisis for some time now; our Haven Support Centre recently helped two people from Syria who had fled the civil war. Let's hope the UK will welcome as many refugees as possible in the near future and will show these people who have been through so much the courtesy and inclusion we have shown refugees before. As we did with the Huguenots fleeing persecution from Catholics in the 15th century, with the Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, with the Basque children fleeing Spanish Civil War, with the Vietnamese refugees who fled on boats after the Vietnam War. We haven’t always been so reluctant to help refugees looking for a home. We have room for the refugees from Syria and elsewhere in our country. The government should acknowledge the public's generosity and willingness to help with an appropriate response to this crisis.