We need a comprehensive strategy for humanitarian relief for all refugees

04 Feb 2016
Today, London will host the Syria Donors Conference. It aims to raise $9 billion dollars for Syrian refugees and is co-hosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations. 

The problem is that this conference will totally ignore the plight of Syrian refugees who have found their way to Europe. There are hundreds of thousands of such refugees crossing the Balkans and making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. But it suits David Cameron in particular, to turn his back on them. For instance he has turned down flat the campaign to get the United Kingdom to take 3,000 unaccompanied child migrants.

So, whilst the UK should be applauded for raising and spending money on Syrian refugees in the region, the UK attitude to Syrian refugees if they find their way to Western Europe is not so praiseworthy. 

And it is not just Syrian refugees who are being failed. Europe is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As the Arab Spring turns to winter and conflict rages on in the Middle East, even more people will leave their countries to escape persecution, war and famine. 

Since last year, Asylum claims in Europe have gone up 70% more than in the UK. But the UK is an island, outside of the Schengen free-movement zone, with some of the tightest visa controls in the world and gives the impression of wilfully ignoring the severity of the migrant crisis. 

I visited the refugee camp in Calais last month and was saddened by the stories I heard of people traffickers extorting money from refugees on the often empty promise of safe passage to Britain. Meanwhile, France ties up asylum seekers in red tape in the hope that they will become Britain’s problem instead. This is a Europe-wide problem and there should be a collaborative Europe-wide solution. 

The UK government should be working with Interpol and the security services in Britain to ensure people smugglers are arrested and tried in court. It should also be straining every diplomatic muscle to persuade France to do more to facilitate asylum seekers living in its territory to actually register for asylum there, rather than waving them on into the hands of smugglers to take them to Britain. 

More could be done to help pro bono lawyers to go into the camps and help those with a legitimate claim to apply for asylum in Britain. 

But ultimately the real way to stop migrants risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean and being exploited by people smugglers is to find a way to establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the UK.  

Only in this way can we save people risking their lives making the perilous and costly journey to make it here by land and sea. 

Also, whether or not we are signatories of Schengen, the UK needs to step up to its responsibilities as a member of the European family of nations and take its fair share of refugees. 

Lastly, the British government should make use of the British people’s generous offers to house Syrian refugees. When the Archbishop of Canterbury offered to house Syrian refugees at Lambeth Palace, he was told by the minister responsible to contact Lambeth Council. Settled Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Eritrean and other diaspora communities should be empowered by the government to help support the social care of their compatriots. 

Not only does this potentially reduce the burden on council housing, the private rented sector and psychiatric services, it will also help end the neglectful practice of outsourcing the housing of refugees to companies such as Serco and G4S. Refugees should not be scattered across the country, possibly behind a red door, by a cost cutting outsourcer. 

Whether it was the Vietnamese in the 1970s, the Ugandans in the 1980s, the Kosovars in the 1990s, Britain has a proud history of giving sanctuary to those escaping war and persecution. We demean this legacy by turning our backs or neglecting desperate refugees who wish to escape and build lives and careers here. 

I call upon the government to take its head out of the sand and show some leadership in helping tackle this great global challenge. The Syrian conference to raise money for Syrian refugees in the region is good as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. 

We need a comprehensive strategy for humanitarian relief for all refugees whether they are in camps or not and whether they are Syrian or not. 

Post war Europe rose to the refugee crisis precipitated by the Second World War in a genuinely international spirit. In the twenty-first century we should do no less.

* This article was originally published in The Times.

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