Lord Roger Roberts writes…Focussing attention on the humanitarian cost of the Syrian civil war

This afternoon, the House of Lords will discuss the tragedy of the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Syria. Lord Roberts secured the debate, and here he sets out his views exclusively for LDV.

The crisis in Syria, which the UN has described as ‘the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times’ is now reaching overwhelming levels. The total number of Syrian refugees is now estimated to be 2.3 million, of whom 0.5% – around 12,000 souls – are spread across the whole continent of Europe. Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, is bearing the brunt of this: an estimated 100 Syrians enter Bulgaria daily, many of them illegally. The country simply cannot cope.

The United Nations and its non-governmental organisation and local government partners in the region face many pressures. These organisations are fighting to ensure social stability. In Lebanon, in light of extraordinary population growth, essential resources, space, and labour are all causes of significant social tension. In East Lebanon, a makeshift refugee camp providing shelter for hundreds was burnt down last month, and the Lebanese town of Tripoli saw bloodshed mirroring the Syrian conflict in the latter months of 2013. Alarmingly, car bombs in Beirut are once again headline news. The spread of violence will continue, threatening to destabilise the whole region, unless practical and immediate measures are taken to relieve the pressure on Syria’s generous but inundated neighbours.

The international community has responded admirably to the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s call for financial assistance. As well as the £500 million in aid already pledged, a further £16 million was promised at the beginning of January. However, it is immediate, practical help that is now needed. We have so far failed to allow any extra space for Syrian refugees. It is now absolutely imperative that we do so.

On Tuesday, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that we have accepted 1,500 Syrians seeking asylum in the UK since 2012. This number, however, requires context to be properly understood. It only represents those who were able to reach the UK independently in first place, effectively precluding the most vulnerable. Indeed, the UNHCR has called for us to take Syrian refugees in addition to our current resettlement quota, in order to assist those with greatest need, and to protect asylum seekers from other parts of the world who would otherwise suffer. A system to do this, created and run by the UN, is already in place.

Amongst the 16 countries that have signed up to this resettlement programme, Germany has pledged 10,000 places on the basis of (temporary) humanitarian assistance. Austria and France have each offered 500. Norway, Finland and Sweden have each accepted 400-1000 on a permanent basis. Canada has accepted 200, but has pledged a further 1,100 places through private sponsorship.

The selection process to find and assist the most vulnerable includes women and girls at risk, survivors of torture, refugees with severe disabilities, those at risk because of their sexuality, and those who face persecution because of their political views, ethnicity or religion. And let’s not forget that accepting such refugees is not without precedent. The decision to help the so-called Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in 1979 meant taking in 10,000 refugees over the course of three years. Fears of a public backlash in this case were unfounded: the British people again proved their compassion and their hospitality.

35 years on, in light of the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of modern times, we are called upon to do so again. We can no longer afford to sit back and wait. The social, financial, and human cost of doing nothing is climbing – and that cost will be felt by all.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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  • @Lord: I usually support military research and advanced weapon development, but to mention well know facts, The First Gulf War, the sanctions and the Second gulf war and the aftermath have been the cause of death of 10-20 more people than Syria. It is a far cry from the greatest humanitarian crisis of modern times. Afganistan is also not comparable as it is an order of magnitude higher.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jan '14 - 8:31am

    Thanks for the article and securing the debate, Lord Roberts. I certainly think doing more to help Syrian refugees would be a good thing and do a lot for east-west relations. We need to get across the message that we are friends of muslims – not enemies.

    The only thing I object to in the article is the idea that women and girls are more vulnerable in Syria than men and boys. Boys are certainly vulnerable, but it is also the men who are expected to do most of the front-line fighting, often through fear of their life from the Taliban.

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