The number of Syrian refugees in Britain is so small because they are caught in a Catch-22
Amid the diplomatic to and fro ahead of next week’s scheduled Geneva talks, the reports of jihadi massacres in the north or chemical weapons disposal, it is easy to neglect Syria’s great human tragedy: the plight of more than 6 million displaced people who have fled their homes, 2.3 million of them crossing the country’s borders to become refugees. Half of this vast exiled population are children. No wonder the refugee crisis has been characterised as the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is working to feed and clothe the displaced, who are now living through the frost and snow of the war’s third winter, and to ensure that the most desperate are prioritised for assistance. It is to this end that UNHCR has called for 30,000 of the most vulnerable to be taken in by the other countries by the end of 2014, including at-risk women and girls, torture survivors, refugees with medical needs or disabilities, vulnerable older adults and refugees in need of family reunification. The international community has responded: the United States is expected to accept several thousand under the programme. Germany has said it will take 10,000 over three years, limited to a two-year stay. Norway, Finland and Sweden have each accepted between 400 and 1,000; Austria and France 500. Moldova is taking 50. Britain’s contribution to the UNHCR callout, meanwhile, is so far none at all.
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, spoke about Syrian resettlement in the House of Commons last week. He answered testily that Britain had already taken in “hundreds upon hundreds” of Syrians under the UK’s international asylum obligations. As Mr Clegg must know, the 1,500 or so Syrian asylum-seekers the UK accepted in 2013 represent drops in the oceans of both the total refugee population and the number of people who are allowed to settle in Britain each year. He may also know that the number of Syrian refugees in Britain is so small because they are caught in a Catch-22. To claim asylum they must reach British territory but to do so they are almost always obliged to break the law. A putative refugee would need a visa before an airline would let them board, and as there are no visas given for the purpose of asylum-seeking they would have to lie about their intent in the UK. More likely, our refugee would take the dangerous journey through one of the third-party countries, such as Greece, where they could face the threat of xenophobic violence, or Bulgaria. Under a European law known as the Dublin regulation, if they ever reached the Channel’s northern shores they would be sent back to apply for asylum in the European country they entered first.
In lieu of acceding to the UNHCR requests for resettlement, and in a political climate where Ukip and the Tory right have rendered all discussion of immigration toxic, ministers are proud instead of spending £500m on the Syrian relief effort in the region. We can applaud the substantial sum but lament the lasting impression that Britain is exporting its obligations to Syrian refugees overseas, to countries that already bear a near-impossible strain. In Lebanon, riven by sectarian tensions long before the Syrian war, the number of refugees is expected to reach 37% of the population by the end of 2014, according to a recentWorld Bank report, with 170,000 people pushed into poverty. Jordan, meanwhile, is running short of water, and food prices have shot up. Turkey has spent an estimated $2bn it can ill afford on the refugee crisis.
As the UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, has pointed out, Syria’s neighbours do not just need financial and technical support, they also need western countries to receive “refugees who are today in the neighbouring countries but who can find a solution outside the region”. The Syrian crisis shows little sign of abating. It is time for the UK to change its shameful stance and accede to the UNHCR’s wish.