Why the UK Government Should Show True Leadership and Welcome the Forgotten Refugees of Syria to Britain

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It is not enough to say ‘the West’ has let down Syria. The whole world community has. The United Nations has failed the Syrians as it did the Rwandans before. A powerful democratic resistance movement has become demoralised, bombarded and infiltrated by extremism. A monstrous dictatorship slaughters its own citizens with conventional and, almost certainly, chemical weapons. Both sides of this civil war, increasingly divided by bitter religious differences, commit some of the most heinous crimes against humanity unabated. All this while the global community digs yet another hole in the sand to bury its head and abstractly discusses in the grand palaces of London, Moscow, Washington, Beijing and Paris how it “must do something”

But what has often been off the table in recent discussions is the plight of the millions of innocent Syrian civilians. The growing refugee crisis has been described by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guteres as ‘the greatest tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history’.[1] Over two million Syrians are now refugees outside their own country. According to Guteres, the first million fled in the first two years of the conflict. The second million have fled in the last six months. Oxfam GB report that half of these refugees are children, three-quarters of whom are under 11.[2] Commendably, if belatedly, the UK government has recently pledged to increase its share of humanitarian assistance aid to £500 million.[3] But the United Nations’ official aid programme has a reported £1.9 billion shortfall in funding and the situation is only worsening.[4]

However, some countries are helping out in Syria’s time of desperate need. Neighbouring countries are taking on vast numbers of Syrian refugees as they flee from the violence. Turkey has over 490,000 refugees, Lebanon has over 776,000 refugees, Jordan has over 534,000 refugees and recently Kurdistan opened its borders and tens of thousands of people fled through them in the hope of safety.[5] However, the sheer number of refugees means that, unsurprisingly, these countries are struggling to cope and, in many cases, their infrastructure is crumbling as the refugee camps overflow. They are collapsing under the weight of their own generosity. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, no matter how much humanitarian aid the world provides, the situation is dangerously volatile and totally unsustainable. Recent estimates put Syrian refugees as now 10% of Jordan’s entire population – equivalent to 6 million refugees arriving in Britain.


This brings me on to the policy I would most like to see come from the British government. I would like to see Britain pledge to provide asylum for at least 5,000 (preferably 10,000[KSB1] ) Syrian refugees for a minimum of two years. Such a policy was recently adopted by the German government. They are offering 5,000 refugees from Lebanon two-year residence and work permits provided they undertake an intensive two-week training course on life in Germany. In an even bolder move, the Swedish government has promised that all Syrian refugees arriving in Sweden will be allowed permanent residency.  By matching such programmes, I believe that the UK would be setting an impressive lead not only for the rest of Europe, but the rest of the world. The number proposed may appear an insignificant “drop in the ocean” compared to the burden of Syria’s bordering countries but, by working together as a continent and global community, we could make a real difference. If 30 European countries followed such a lead, that could be 300,000 refugees. If 50 countries throughout the world got involved, that would be 500,000 refugees. It would not solve the problem, but it would start to lighten the load on Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Kurdistan.


I can already hear two arguments being used against this policy. Firstly, in the UK we are told our domestic problems are so disastrous that we cannot afford financial benefits to the poor and disadvantaged in our own country let alone for Syrians. I can only sympathise with anyone in this country who is forced to use a food bank or is struggling to get by on a low-income. But, political and economic decisions in this country are not the fault of the Syrian refugee living in a camp equivalent to a prison where even clean drinking water is not guaranteed on a daily basis. The United Kingdom is a member of the G8 and, if we had the genuine political will to help, I am convinced a mixture of government funding and charitable donations could make this happen.


Secondly, that this is an internal political affair in Syria hundreds of miles away, so why should it be our responsibility? To which I would say, firstly, that the isolationist argument of “stop the world, I want to get off” may be politically convenient but it is morally reprehensible. We have a duty to the world’s most vulnerable regardless of opinion polls and, in a country supposedly based on tolerance, we should be able to successfully transition to accommodate and welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees. But, secondly, ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it vanishes. Syria neighbours Turkey which is, both metaphorically and politically, on the verge of the European Union. To pretend that refugees in desperate need of help are not going to find ways to get to wealthy countries like Germany, France and Britain is naive at best. I believe it would be better to help Syrian refugees to register via the official channels rather than, in a sense, force them to find dangerous and illegal paths to Britain.


We have heard so much over the past few weeks in vague party political conference platitudes about how “great” our country is. That is all very well but I believe, by standing with the Syrian refugees, we would be sending a much clearer message. It would show Britain as practically engaged with the world and its problems. It would show Britain leading the global community in finding common solutions. It would show that when we reach out our hand in solidarity, we mean more than simply holding out a cheque. Most importantly, it would show to the too often-forgotten Syrian refugees that their hope and struggle for a brighter future is, through our common humanity, our hope and struggle as well.


David Cameron called the Syrian civil war ‘the refugee crisis of our time’. He is right but as Amnesty UK’s Refugee Programme Director, Jan Shaw, has written; “to provide money but turn our backs smacks of buck-passing, and meanwhile Syria’s neighbouring countries are buckling under the strain”[6]. It’s time the buck finally stopped here[KSB2] .


Written by Phil Armitage, edited by Katherine Bruce



 [KSB1]Maybe just include the 10,000, if that is your preferred policy proposal.

 [KSB2]Maybe add in a brief (1 or 2 sentences) reminder of what your policy proposal is.