Comment: If Britain really cares about Syria, it will open its doors to refugees

Ian Dunt: 'The danger of European and British inaction is severe.'
Ian Dunt: 'The danger of European and British inaction is severe.'
Ian Dunt By

There's always something we can do.

Britain is a comparatively rich, powerful and safe country. When it looks at foreign disasters and holds up its hands, it is a failure of imagination and compassion, rather than a failure of British power. For now, the military intervention is off the table, but that is not all we can do.

Britain must open its doors to Syrian refugees. It should not do so out of compassion, or at least not merely for that reason. It should do it out of self interest. It should do so as a vital element of its containment strategy.

Today, the number of Syria refugees passed the two million mark, jumping up by 1.8 million in the last year alone. The vast majority are being hosted by neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. With 5,000 Syrians fleeing to their neighbours every day, the burden is overwhelming.


There are currently 110,000 in Egypt, 168,000 in Iraq, 515,000 in Jordan, 716,000 in Lebanon, and 460,000 in Turkey. Fifty-two per cent of these refugees are children. Inside Syria, a further 4.25 million are displaced. We have not seen this level of displacement since the Rwandan genocide. But in this case it takes place in a regional tinderbox.

Syria's neighbours cannot bear this level of demand. Lebanon is a tiny country with its own barely-concealed ethnic and religious tensions, primed to be sucked into the Syrian civil war. After all Hezbollah is already there. One in five people in Lebanon are now Syrian refugees. In a sign of the endless generosity of the Lebanese people, it continues to keep its doors open. I wonder if Britain, a far wealthier and more stable country, would be so generous.

But in Iraq, sectarian clashes are escalating and the country has shut its borders, leaving just a trickle of new arrivals. Egypt turned several flights back to Syria last week, demanding visas and security clearances – an almost impossible task. Turkey and Jordan together hold nearly a million Syrian refugees and have started manning borders. They are not closed, but there is a sense that the process by which they will eventually be closed has begun.

In Britain, the Home Office has no policy for Syrian refugees and instead forces them to go through the usual laborious, demeaning asylum process, complete with the common use of detainment. In a speech to EU home ministers in July UN high commissioner for refugees António Guterres said many Syrian asylum seekers faced "sub-standard reception conditions, including the sometimes excessive use of detention".

Europe has not pulled its weight. Despite its vastly greater wealth than Syria's neighbours, it has taken just 40,000 refuges since the start of the crisis. Just two countries – Germany and Sweden – have received two-thirds of the Syrian refugees, with Germany (which always pulls its weight on these matters) offering to take another 5,000.

Three EU member states did not recognise a single Syrian applicant in 2012. Turkey has taken ten times as many Syrian refugees as the rest of Europe combined. It has spent £450 million on refugee camps.

The over-reliance on neighbours is not just a product of our indifference. It is also a result of optimism among refugees. Many want to stay near their home, convinced they will be able to return soon enough. 

Every day there are buses going back to Syria from the Za'atari camp in northern Jordan, about 15 kilometres from the border. But this is not usually for a long-term return – they're usually checking on property and friends and then travelling back.

The conflict is now entering its third year. It shows no signs of ending soon. We need sustainable alternatives.

Britain is not doing too badly. In 2012, 988 Syrians applied for asylum here, an increase on the 355 in 2011. We accepted 78% of them, making them the fourth largest group to receive asylum in Britain.

But it is not enough.

The danger of European and British inaction is severe. One of the frightening things about Syria is its capacity for regional destabilisation. Military analysts balk at the civil war because of fears about a potential third world war. That sounds like hyperbole, but it is not.

If neighbouring countries get sucked into the conflict, amid the ongoing (call a spade a spade) shia-sunni war, we would be looking at one of the most dangerous global events since the 1945, particularly given the off-stage roles of Russia, China and the US.

If Britain is not prepared to undergo military intervention – or even if it is – it can still help the situation by assisting in a large humanitarian evacuation. It's been done before. During the Kosovo crisis the international community mobilised, with Germany taking 46,190, Switzerland taking 30,590, the UK taking 18,510 and the US taking 15,650.  Similar operations took place during the Bosnian conflict.

There is a pre-existing mechanism we can use. The Gateway Protection Programme, managed in a partnership between the UNHCR and the Home Office, currently allows 750 refugees a year to settle in Britain, although it topped 1,000 last year. This is a comparatively small number, especially in comparison to the US, Canada, Australia, Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. These individuals do not have to go through the asylum system. The system is pre-existing, it is live, it has legal recognition and avenues of movement. We should expand it and aim it at Syrian refugees. We did it before for Iraqi translators. We can do it again, but this time on a larger scale.

If we are generous enough, we can use it to radically alleviate the burden of refugee displacement on Syria's borders.

We should do it out of kindness. We should do it because we see disaster and we care and we want to help. But if we can't bring ourselves to look at it that way, perhaps we should do it out of self-interest.

In a morass of disaster and bad options, alleviating the refugee burden in the region is a basic first step towards preventing a civil war turning into something much, much worse.

It's not charity. It's a containment strategy.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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