Leader: Britain’s moral obligation to Syrian refugees

By opening its borders to the Syrians, the UK can honour its liberal tradition of offering shelter to those in need and encourage other western states to do the same.

9 January 2014: Syrian refugees sit in a room shared by five people at the main refugee centre in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty.

Syria is enduring a humanitarian crisis from which the world longs to turn away. In the three years since the uprising against the Assad government began, more than 130,000 people have been killed, a third of them civilians, while 2.3 million have fled the country and become refugees. The UN expects another two million to leave, or attempt to leave, this year.

The burden placed on Syria’s neighbours, many of them with deeply entrenched ethnic and sectarian tensions of their own, has been remarkable. In Lebanon, refugees from Syria now account for nearly a quarter of the population (one million out of 4.4 million) and have cost the economy £4.5bn, pushing as many as 170,000 people into poverty and inflaming sectarian conflict. Jordan (567,000), Turkey (540,000) and Iraq (207,000) have similarly accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrians, leaving these countries, as David Miliband has said, “beyond what in the west would be considered the breaking point”.

It was this that prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, to call for western countries to accept 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees (just 1.3 per cent of the total) by the end of this year, including those with medical needs or disabilities, torture survivors, women at risk and the elderly. To date, as Daniel Trilling writes in his report from refugee camps in Bulgaria and Turkey on page 32, European countries have largely “remained closed”. Since the crisis began, just 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries, including the United States. Meanwhile, hundreds have died trying to enter by sea from North Africa. Although Germany has now pledged to accept 10,000 refugees, the remaining 27 EU countries have offered to take just 2,340. Eighteen states, including the United Kingdom, have taken none.

Since the vote by parliament against military intervention last summer, Britain’s political parties have mostly ignored the war in Syria, as attention has focused on the crisis in domestic living standards. It took the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, to stir the conscience of MPs when he called for Britain to “honour the spirit of the 1951 declaration on refugee status” and “help some of those people in Syria fleeing in fear of their lives”. Ukip members and supporters were outraged by their leader’s intervention and he has since said, in a grim appeal to sectarianism, that his demand applied only to Christians. Yet his original point stands: why should the UK, as the sixth-largest economy in the world, bear none of the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis?

To this, ministers point to the £500m of aid that Britain has provided, its largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. But as Mr Guterres has said: “It is not only financial, econo­mic and technical support to these [neighbouring] states which is needed. It also includes receiving, through resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification or similar mechanisms, refugees who are today in the neighbouring countries but who can find a solution outside the region.”

The suspicion prompted by the government’s inertia is that David Cameron is unwilling to act for fear of putting his pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” even further out of reach. However, this commitment, which Mr Cameron has conceded is unlikely to be met in this parliament, should not be allowed to override Britain’s humanitarian responsibilities.

Nor should ministers assume that voters will make no distinction between those fleeing persecution and war and those seeking work. Polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown that more than 60 per cent of the public believes that we must “always protect genuine asylum-seekers who need a place of safety in Britain”. By opening its borders to the Syrians, the UK can honour its liberal tradition of offering shelter to those in need, including the Huguenots, the Jews and the Ugandan Asians, and encourage other western states to do the same.

In the days following the vote by parliament against military action, Mr Cameron urged MPs to talk to “those in the refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere – to see how they feel about how badly the rest of the world is currently letting them down”. So long as Britain and other EU states continue to turn away those seeking refuge, they will ensure that this remains the case.