Midlothian to take 40 Syrian Refugees

Thursday November 5th 2015

Article by Councillor Ian Baxter, Green Party

This week, Midlothian Council discussed preparations to welcome and offer support to around 40 Syrian refugees as part of the UK Government’s commitment to the current crisis. There was no debate or dissent, all 18 councillors were in agreement that this is the right thing to do and it’s the least we should do.

I am also heartened by recent activities and fundraising by local people to help support refugees in Calais, and by comments in social media welcoming such efforts. However, I’m also disappointed and concerned by some of the comments by those who think we should do nothing and ‘look after our own’ before offering compassion.

Some people are asking why so many are travelling to Europe. To understand this we need to recognise what they are fleeing from, how many are affected and the causes of the crisis.

Imagine civil war came to your town in Midlothian. Now look at the picture below. Apart from the palm trees and sunshine, this could be any street in Midlothian. Your street, my street.

A street in Homs, Syria in 2011 and 2014

Photograph courtesy of www.theguardian.com

This is not just civil war, it’s total destruction. and it’s repeated across most of Syria. Whole neighbourhoods and towns reduced to rubble. No water, no food, no shelter. Winter is approaching, and with a winter climate not much milder than our own, snowstorms in Syria are not unknown. Faced with that, what would you?

Add the dangers of war into the mix and it’s not hard to see why millions have already left. “Why are they coming here?” I hear people ask. Well they’re not. According to the UN, over 12 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid. 7.6 million have been forced to flee their homes, of which about two million have been taken in by Turkey – and Lebanon, the size of Devon and Cornwall – has also taken in over a million. Jordan and Iraq count for about another million and a few hundred thousand have travelled to Europe. And that’s not counting the millions dispersed throughout Syria itself.

These are not migrants in search of a better life, they are desperate people fleeing death. More than anything, they are people, like you and me and under normal circumstances, leaving their homeland is the last thing they wanted to do. During the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, millions of refugees were expected to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. In the event, only around 30,000 people did. So clearly Syria must be different. And it is – it’s total destruction.

So how should we react? How would you want people to react if it were you? Around 30,000 have already been welcomed in Sweden, with Germany offering to take up to 500,000 a year. In contrast, David Cameron has offered to take just 20,000 spread over five years (of which Midlothian’s allocation would be around 40). To put this into context, 20,000 people represents a 0.03% increase of the UK population. Even Germany will only see an increase of well under 1% per year if it meets its promise in full.

There is no question in my mind that we need to fulfil our humanitarian duty and welcome far more desperate people. But who is to blame for the crisis in the first place? It’s easy to lay the blame on insurgents, rebels and fanatics, but we cannot absolve ourselves of the part we played in creating the conditions which led to conflict.

During the last century, Britain and France carved up Syria – splitting ethnic groups into separate countries (like the Kurds, covering parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq), and forcing different cultures to live together within the same boundaries. This was a recipe for conflict. Even since the conflict began, the west has bombed the regime of the country’s ruler Bashar al-Assad and is now bombing his opponents. Effectively, bombing is achieving nothing but further destruction..

Climate change has been recognised as a key driver in the conflict, which was preceded by a record drought between 2006 and 2010. The drought displaced many people and water became a valuable resource to fight over. And it is our lifestyles, not Syrians’ which contribute most to the causes of climate change.

“Rehouse our own homeless first” people also say.

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world. We have the money and resources to house and feed everyone, and keep them warm – it’s just those resources are concentrated in the hands of very few people. The richest 10% of households hold 44% of the country’s wealth and the poorest half have less than a tenth of it in total. Perhaps if we made Amazon, Starbucks and Facebook pay their taxes, we could afford to do a lot more for our own dispossessed.

So it’s not those fleeing desperate circumstances we need to blame for their predicament, but we need to look at our own role in bringing about the conditions which allowed it to happen. Above all, we need to look to our own humanity and compassion, welcome those who desperately seek our help, and learn what we can to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes abroad and we put right injustices at home.

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