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4 November 2015

Enough handwringing – here’s something that could actually be done to help Europe’s refugees

We need to move on from being upset - to getting stuff done, says Richard Howitt MEP.

By Richard Howitt

The real victims of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe are neither statistics nor pawns in a geopolitical game.

The shameful spectacle of hand-wringing then hand-washing in the face of the mass exodus of Syrian refugees cries out for fresh thinking, and a visit to meet refugees themselves in their makeshift camps on the borders of the war zone in neighbouring Lebanon might well be the starting point in which to discover new ideas.

Just thirty minutes from the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley, refugee Mohammed tells me how he fled from ISIS fearing his son’s life, by-passing our Arabic interpreter by hand gesturing the cutting of his own throat to impress on me the urgency of their escape.

Later at the El-Hilweh camp in the south of the country, refugee Etaf tells me she spent twelve hours watching her daughter bleed to death.

Both of them said they would move to Europe. 

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To demonstrate the futility of simply seeking to prevent them doing so, Etaf adds: “I want to go to sea and to die there. I am desperate.”

That is the case for creating “safe routes”.

One of the popular bits of jargon in the debate about the refugee crisis back in Europe, is “responsibility sharing.”  But what would that mean in practice when viewed from Lebanon?

More than one million refugees have arrived in the country, now numbering one for every three Lebanese people, the fastest rate of population increase of any country in world history.

It is a country without a functioning government because of inter-religious tensions, with rubbish piling up on the streets, its fifteen year civil war in recent memory and a risk of state breakdown which could create fresh battlefields for Isis/Da’esh, after what is described to me as a ‘spike’ in terrorist violence in June of last year.

There is an overwhelming case for a substantial European investment in Lebanese schools and health facilities, in its barely functioning public water and electricity supplies. 

It is a humanitarian case to combat the deep penury of refugee families living on food rations of US$21.50 a month, against a local living wage of $400 said just to be able to survive.

It is a development case to ease the pressures on Lebanese host communities, already suffering as previously buoyant economic growth has plunged below zero. Local people are worried that the conflict might spill over the border from Syria and  that the social consensus which tolerates the presence of so many newcomers might be fractured, when international aid efforts have left more Syrian refugee children in school than Lebanese themselves. 

It is a security case, to sustain the stability of Lebanon and cut-off a future source of terrorist threat. Sectarianism within Lebanese society reflects divisions within the region as a whole. Overcoming the political stalemate between the different factions in the country, is a microcosm for working towards resolution of conflicts right across the Middle East and North Africa.

Ironically, it is this very weakness of the state which means it has less to ‘offer’ to Europe in return, although the very idea it should do so leaves a sickening taste.

But surely if the European Union is prepared to offer a ‘grand bargain’ of ‘cash for cooperation’ over refugees across Syria’s border with Turkey, why not with far more precarious Lebanon too?

The immediate barrier comes from Beirut rather than Brussels as, whilst Turkey can offer to ‘control’ the flow, Lebanon rejects any moves which could lead towards long-term integration locally of the refugees.

Lebanese political and public opinion does so partly because of the ‘phobia’ created by the Palestinian refugees who arrived temporarily only to still be present in the country 70 years later; and partly to avoid distorting the country’s highly delicate sectarian balance between Shia, Sunni and Christians, by threatening an injection from the largely Sunni refugee cohort arriving from Syria.

Let me be clear, Britain and the rest of Europe should accept greater refugee numbers. The Middle East office of Amnesty International based in Beirut sets a target of 400,000 against the 160,000 currently agreed in Brussels. 

The UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon backed up by European officials says there will be a huge psychological shift if the numbers in Lebanon can be reduced below the one million mark, and that flexible solutions including humanitarian visas, scholarships and other temporary as well as permanent resettlement programmes, can go a long way towards reaching that target.

Europe’s “offer” to Lebanon shouldn’t just be about money and numbers, but – copying from the demand of Palestinians – advocacy for the “right of return”: giving explicit support that Syrian refugees will be enabled to go back when a genuine peace is restored. 

Indeed the educated, middle class doctors, engineers and other professionals who have most had the means to pay the people smugglers to escape the war, are actually the people most needed to stay near to the country, and to be ready to return to enable post-conflict reconstruction.

The error in the failure to plan for rebuilding after the Iraq war, should now weigh heavily on politicians in relation to Syria.

But Lebanon can “offer” something in return.

Already, despite what appeared to be an implacable anti-refugee rhetoric, the country has been painstakingly persuaded to open up its education system to the Syrian refugees.

Next, it is necessary to win the argument that the refugees must be allowed to work, ending reliance on the utterly inadequate handouts and confronting local fears that it will root them in the society.

My discussions with the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs suggest it may be possible.  First, the rejection of refugee rights leaves those affected holding the status of Syrian “visitors”, theoretically fully able to work, even if the current system of work permits has hitherto been all but-ignored. Second, EU investment in the construction and agricultural sectors would de facto guarantee jobs for Syrians, because typically these jobs have been refused by Lebanese and taken by Syrian informal workers in any case.

With education and livelihoods, Syrian refugees would have reason to stay.

Is this all a messy compromise? Yes. Is it a morally dubious transaction? Certainly.

But the alternative is escalating humanitarian disaster amongst Lebanon’s refugee population, a dangerous cocktail of potential radicalisation amongst its youth and a breakdown of the structures which can control it, and no respite against the forces which ultimately drive the refugees to risk their lives on the Mediterranean and for survivors to batter down the door to Europe.

Does Europe have the diplomatic skill, the cultural sensitivity and the political will to achieve this solution?  I don’t know.

Talk of a new EU investment package has to be seen in the light of a continuing shortfall, which sees the UN’s donor target for just the short-term humanitarian assistance needed still less than half met.

Nevertheless, I have declined to write one more article simply cataloguing the shocking human suffering of the refugee crisis, in favour of one which makes a real effort to suggest some concrete solutions in which it might be tackled.

A greater commitment to resettlement, aid to promote sustainable solutions within the region, a firm commitment to the return of refugees in planning for post-conflict reconstruction, are all essential to complement the EU’s necessary diplomatic efforts to secure an end to Syria’s civil war.

One final note:  I was told by a representative on the international ‘core group’ for Syrian refugee resettlement in Lebanon that the British plan to accommodate refugees explicitly excludes welcoming mothers and children whose fathers are left in Syria. Of course these divided families mean there will be later problems of reunification for our immigration system.  But I am also told that these are the most vulnerable families who are precisely those who are most susceptible to putting themselves in jeopardy at sea.

Yet again this is a political safety first policy for David Cameron which is about defending his position against his Tory Eurosceptic backbenchers rather than securing genuine human safety for people whose lives are at risk.

Europe may not have responded well to the refugee crisis but the British Government’s failure to make any commitment to a collective response is both morally reprehensible and contrary to humanitarian values.

Whether it is Britain alone or the whole of the European Union, we should be tired of hearing politicians calling for “actions not words” then failing to define what those actions might be.  

This is my own attempt to do so.

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