Don't Forget the Refugees Plight
20 Dec 2015The many millions of displaced people have fallen off the news agenda. This just can’t continue, writes Diane Abbott MP
Christmas is around the corner and the plight of Syrian refugees has dropped off the front pages.
It seems much of Britain’s media would rather criticise one of British civil society’s largest popular movements, the Stop the War Coalition (which organised the biggest ever demonstration in Britain), than report the actual plight of actual victims of the war.
My friend and colleague Yvette Cooper MP was right to draw attention recently to the fact that in Britain and Europe “calling for support for refugees has got harder.” But she was also right to conclude that “none of this is easy. But ignoring the problem or hoping other countries will solve it will only make it worse. This is the biggest humanitarian challenge Europe has faced since WWII. We have no choice but to act.”
The publication of the key points of the 2015 refugee crisis by the UNHCR on December 8 acts as a timely reminder of why it’s absolutely vital that we work together now to keep this issue at the top of the political agenda.
As of December 7 more than 911,000 refugees and migrants had arrived on European shores since the year began and some 3,550 lives had been lost during the journey. Over 75 per cent of those arriving in Europe had fled conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.
It was only last month that the media was widely reporting that a French court ordered water, toilets and refuse collection at the Calais refugee camp.
While far-right politicians across Europe have tried to link refugees to Isis in order to say less should be done to help them, the reality is that many of these refugees are fleeing war and repression, including at the hands of Isis.
One report in the Guardian outlined “the horror of the Calais refugee camp” with Karzan, 35, an Iraqi nurse, explaining: “We feel like we are dying slowly.” Karzan’s story is one of many that challenges many misconceptions (including in the media) regarding the population present at Calais.
The report explained that “Karzan had no desire to leave his home in Kirkuk, or his well-paid job in the hospital where he has worked for the past nine years” until “he was forced to flee two months ago, when Isis told him that if he didn’t agree to work as a nurse for their fighters, they would kill him.”
His hope for the future? He does not “want to be an illegal immigrant” and instead “wants to come and work as a nurse.”
But the situation in Calais is just one small representation of this ongoing crisis around refugees.
At my first parliamentary opportunity to question Tory International Development Secretary Justine Greening I reported to the House that “there are terrible reports of the conditions in the Syrian refugee camps on Greek islands such as Lesbos, with no dry clothes, no shelter, no food and children sleeping in bin bags — and conditions can only get worse as winter approaches,” asking if the government was “really prepared to turn their back on people like these?”
In a shocking piece for the Huffington Post Lliana Bird wrote of how volunteer organisations Help Refugees and CalAid had told her that “the children’s feet are rotting,” adding that “you guys have one month and then all these people will be dead.”
This is just the situation in two parts of Europe. Lebanon, neighbouring Syria, now has the highest per-
capita refugee population in the world, hosting over 1.2 million of them.
This winter an estimated 190,000 economically vulnerable Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugee families are likely to be exposed to the cold and in need of basic assistance and shelter improvements and weatherproofing support over the ruthless winter months in Lebanon. Of those, 11,500 families have been identified as highly vulnerable.
A study by the Norwegian Refugee Council, No Place to Call Home, found that almost 50 per cent of refugees interviewed in Lebanon were living in unfurnished housing, accommodation without a toilet or running water or exposed to the elements — and that 18 per cent were living in informal settlements.
The specific effects on children of this crisis must also be recognised. Unicef reports that in Lebanon, for example, Syrian refugee children as young as 10 are victims of bonded agricultural labour.
This is one area where more can — and must — be done in terms of a holistic approach from both Britain and Europe, recognising the severity of the situation as a whole as winter approaches.
More widely, the British government has offered to resettle 20,000 refugees over five years and give £100 million in aid, and has shown itself as out of touch with the population on this issue.
The popular consensus is that the government has not resolved to take a reasonable number of Syrian refugees — let alone refugees from elsewhere — and in terms of the broader global context leading to this crisis its own aid watchdog has criticised its support as failing to make a “real difference to fragile and conflict states.”
Over the summer, 442,288 people signed a petition — leading to a debate in Parliament — arguing that “the UK is not offering proportional asylum in comparison with European counterparts,” and that “we can’t allow refugees who have risked their lives to escape horrendous conflict and violence to be left living in dire, unsafe and inhumane conditions in Europe.”
Now we need to build up the pressure again. The government must find additional emergency funding and ensure we do all we can to avert further humanitarian catastrophes this winter.
* This article was first published in The Morning Star.