On Tuesday 15th March, the civil war in Syria celebrates its fifth anniversary. As the hostilities enter their sixth year, this is no cause for celebration.
The numbers of refugees fleeing from the conflict are simply staggering. A pre-war population has been devastated – according to the UNHCR around 7 million internally displaced and 5 million refugees. This is the biggest refugee crisis in a generation. The announcement of ceasefire is welcome and we pray that it holds – but it may only add to the numbers of those seeking refuge, as scared and vulnerable families seek the relative safety of the ceasefire to look for a place of genuine safety and stability.
Most of those who have fled Syria are in neighbouring countries. Lebanon, with a pre-war population of around 4 million, has a refugee population of around 1 million. Lebanon is a small and less prosperous country than many others. The camps in neighbouring countries may themselves not offer the stability and safety those fleeing the horror and trauma of war may need.
The response of many countries to this human crisis has been admirable. Germany has committed to resettling 800,000; Sweden has welcomed 180,000; and Canada has resettled 25,000 in just two months.
Meanwhile, our own government has committed to resettling just 20,000 over 5 years (the course of this Parliament). The government should be thanked for their commitment to this number, and more especially for the level of international aid being sent to the region. However, given the scale of the crisis many believe we can go further and faster in welcoming those in desperate need.
Several groups – including the Bishops of the Church of England, the community organising charity Citizens UK and others – have called on the government to increase their pledge to 50,000. This number is still modest (just 4 families per consistuency per year), yet remains more in line with the response of other countries, and is a more significant contribution to bringing much needed safety and security to those in need.
In times of crisis, it is easy to forget each of these figures represents a human being – a sister or brother or mother or father. Human crises need a human response. Human beings fleeing the horror of war need a place of safety and stability and welcome as soon as possible.
What can we do, wherever we are, to help bring about this human response? The Refugee Welcome movement led by Citizens UK has been working hard to increase the number of Syrian refugees resettled to 50,000 and to establish groups of people across the country to make sure that they receive the welcome they deserve.
There is much you can do – make contact with your local Refugee Welcome group (or contact Citizens UK to see whether one might be set up); contact your local council to ask them to support the resettlement of 50 refugees, to your MP to ask them to sign the pledge to resettle 4 families per constituency per year; find out what skills and language provision there is in your area to help integrate those refugees arriving in your area as soon as possible. The most essential task is to help identify private landlords (to avoid pressure on social housing) willing to offer their properties for refugee resettlement with rents guaranteed by the local authority. All of these will already be being done by your local Refugee Welcome group, and contacting them will help you learn how you might most effectively help your local campaign.
Most important of all, we must make those seeking refuge from conflict feel welcome. Our country has a proud tradition of helping those in need – the Huguenots, the Jewish people, those fleeing the war in Bosnia – let us call on that tradition now.
A human crisis is a test of our shared humanity. By changing the attitudes of those around us who might be hostile to refugee resettlement, and by making each and every Syrian resettled here integrate into our society and find safety, security and stable employment, we can outdo ourselves in passing this test.