Open our borders to Syria’s refugees

Published in The Independent (September 12th, 2013)

Azad Sino fled with his wife and two children from the Syrian city of Aleppo nearly two years ago, when the carnage of civil war arrived on his doorstep. Since then, his family has been surviving in one cramped room in a flat just south of Beirut, with his health deteriorating and his wife forced to sell her jewellery to survive.

Yesterday, they were given the chance to salvage their shattered lives. They joined 103 other Syrians on a chartered plane to Hanover, the first of 25 flights in an airlift taking 5,000 refugees to Germany, which has granted them temporary sanctuary. This symbolic move takes the tiniest sliver of pressure off Lebanon, where every fourth person is now a Syrian and sectarian divisions are spilling over from its larger neighbour.

Amid all the talk in Westminster and Washington of intervention, along with honeyed words about helping victims of “the century’s great tragedy”, this flight is a reminder that there is something concrete Western countries can do to help other than wringing hands or firing missiles. So why is Britain not also offering refuge to some of those families whose lives have been ripped apart by this war? After all, as Azad Sino says: ‘We are immigrants by force, not by choice.’

He is just one of two million people driven from their country, with another four million displaced within its borders. Everyone has their own horror story: homes destroyed, friends and family killed, families torn apart. With 5,000 people fleeing Syria each day – half of them children – the dangers of conflagration grow daily as the region struggles to cope with the influx. In Egypt, people are turning on Syrian refugees with violence and abuse. In Jordan, there is barely concealed anger over rising rents and food prices. Iraq, with sectarian violence exploding again, has shut its borders.

Last year 988 Syrians applied for asylum here, the majority accepted as genuine refugees. Yet Britain is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, despite the downturn, and we should set a moral example by offering resettlement for thousands of the more vulnerable families. We already have a strong Syrian community of perhaps 5,000 people in this country; we could take in four times that number without too much trouble. History shows many would go back to their homeland when peace returned.

Such numbers would make only a small impression on the swelling tide of human misery. But if Britain joined Germany in setting a lead, we would be in a position to demand that other rich nations follow. During the Balkan crisis, this country took in nearly 20,000 refugees as part of a major European and US response. Yet while Europe takes in nearly two million immigrants a year from outside its borders, it has left Turkey to cope with 10 times as many Syrian refugees as the rest of the continent combined.

We are witnessing a national tragedy for Syria, a regional disaster, and a global problem. Instead of cheap talk or cruise missiles, how about some action to show we really care about this crisis?

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