Roger Roberts writes: We need to change our culture and welcome people here

It is essential that we keep focused on Syria, because it is possibly the greatest humanitarian tragedy since the Second World War. In a message only this week, a girl, Siham, who was in the Aleppo hospital and was suffering from 70% burns, said, “Please let it be over now. We have to find a way out. We’ve had all we can take”. Seven years of civil war have slaughtered 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people and driven nearly 12 million Syrians from their homes, with many thousands more missing.

A few weeks ago at Westminster, we had a coach-load of the wives of some of those who are missing in Syria. They did not know whether their husbands were alive, whether they had been tortured or killed. This very week I had a group of 10 young Syrian refugees here at Westminster. They were glad to be here on an English language course, which of course is essential. We shared many of their problems, from accommodation to the need to learn English so that, if the opportunity comes—and I hope it will be made available in legislation very soon—they will be able to take up a job here in the UK.

Mesopotamia was once the cradle of civilisation, yet now of those cities which were part of our historical legacy all we have is pictures of destruction. That irreplaceable heritage is no longer secure and important historical and cultural landmarks, of which Palmyra is one, are being reduced to rubble. Not only are the buildings being reduced to rubble, but the psychological effects on those who lived there or live there still, especially the children, has yet to be contended with. People will be scarred for the remainder of their lives.

Every child should share the right which we enjoy to have a balanced life with opportunities and with laughter—a life where people say, “I believe in you; I have faith in you; you have got a potential there”. Of course, that does not happen. It is a complete violation of everything in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, whether the outrages come from the ruling regime or opposition forces. A time must surely come when those who are responsible for such outrages will be prosecuted for war crimes.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can remember that we ourselves are partly to blame for the situation in the Middle East at the present time. Who drew the lines on the Middle East map after the First World War? France, Turkey, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and ourselves—we drew the lines, not for their advantage but for ours. They were the proxies, in a way, for the disputes that were going on in Europe and elsewhere. Later, of course, we were at the mercy of the oil producers. Times have changed, but I think that the old imperialism must never be allowed again to reign supreme. We were imposing our beliefs and structures on people whose culture, whose history and whose needs were very different. We have a historic debt to Syria, and we have a responsibility to Syria: we sowed the wind, and they have reaped the whirlwind.

The challenge of the present day is not to deal just with countries but with peoples—peoples of different traditions who respond in ways that are different from our own. Of course, the Syrian people must decide their future for themselves, and this is our great difficulty at the present time. Our opportunity is to facilitate, not to impose. The co-operation and the settlements must be of their bidding: they will decide their own future.

I thought once, as many of us did, that the troubles in Northern Ireland were sufficiently complicated, and they were, but they were nothing compared to the catastrophe of the Middle East. Mind you, Europe has been in similar positions. I remember during the last war, I was only a young lad in Conwy when, standing on the steps of the house, we saw the searchlights over Liverpool as the German bombers were going to target Liverpool—and they did. The destruction of Liverpool has been recorded and it is a very sad story. Who would have said that, some years afterwards, we would be talking to Germany and would be in harmony with one another? Who would have said that we would think the world of Angela Merkel? Who would have said those things? But it happens. I think it was Nelson Mandela who said:

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Our debt to Syria is to unite its peoples. In doing so, we must not impose on them; they must decide their future. We saw that miracle happen in Northern Ireland and we only hope that it continues. In Europe, the Second World War brought about a situation where people were enemies destroying one another. The division was easy to see, and when you saw it you abandoned all hope that we would talk, discuss and laugh with those we had been trying to destroy. But it happened. Someone said it was Winston Churchill who said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”—others say it was someone else and he has just been credited.

I am a devoted fan and a fervent supporter of the European Union because it has achieved what could have been impossible. We have discussed trade ad infinitum over the past few weeks, along with other important things, but to me the great advance and achievement of the European Union is peace and understanding. I am so sorry that we are leaving and I hope there might still be time left for the Government to change their mind, because withdrawing from the European Union and weakening that Union just when it is so necessary is a great tragedy.

I am a dreamer. For some time, I thought we could have in the Middle East the sort of federation, union or understanding that we have in Europe: if we can do it in Europe, can we not try to do it in the Middle East? Can we not try to get the various people, tribes and cultures, with their various histories, talking and working together? I am sure it is not easy—it was not easy in Europe or in Northern Ireland—but I repeat Nelson Mandela’s words:

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

This could be one of our contributions. We have had ceasefires in the Middle East that have misfired; that is, they do not seem to hold the peace. Should we not give some sort of vision for the future? In doing so, we must not impose; we must facilitate.

We praise the efforts of those who have devoted their time and resources to bringing hope and stability to this area. Refugee camps have been a home for so many millions of people, and we praise the work of the tens of thousands of people from our country and many others, some of whom have put their own careers on hold so that they can give aid to those in the most desperate of need. We back them all the way; we have a terrific debt to them and thank them for all that they are doing. In Syria itself, organisations like the White Helmets battle on. I am told it has saved 99,000 lives. Could we not somehow nominate it for the Nobel Peace Prize? If any organisation deserves it, this one does.

What can we at home do to improve matters in Syria? It is easy enough to say that the UN should do this and somebody else should do that, but what can we do? I am not sure if this is a true story, but there was a farmer in Wales whose field was full of stones. A workman asked him, “How shall I start to clear these stones”, and the farmer replied, “You must start at your feet”. Can we not be an example? Every week, the voluntary organisations in the UK try to resolve the problems faced by asylum seekers. They want to work, and we are denying them that opportunity. They just want to earn a living and be able to live a decent and independent life. We will have an immigration Bill at some point, but I hope that even before then we can resolve some of these problems that deny asylum seekers that respect that every human being needs. They have skills and potential that could enrich our communities. These are families, children, women and men, just like ourselves. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response. He and I have spoken of these things many times. I hope that we can at least see a way ahead to overcome some of the obstacles in the present regulations that deny them that respect.

I came across a poem by Warsan Shire. This is what it says:

“you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten


no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching”.

No one chooses to be a refugee or a victim of inhumane actions wherever they live. Can we not change our own culture on welcoming people here? It is easy to say, “Let us reduce the number who come in from this number to that number”. Is it not time we welcomed people with a smile, not a frown?

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

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  • Malcolm Todd 30th Mar '18 - 12:30pm

    Bravo. Bravo.

  • English is essential? Refugees will have the right to claim benefits in Welsh (to give but one example) so while a language to communicate in is essential, and English is by far the most used language in the UK, it’s important when talking about respect to be careful with phrasing.

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Mar '18 - 1:33pm

    Thank you for this meditation on great themes, Lord Roger. Whatever our powerlessness in the tragedy of Syria, which our television channels and other serious news media rightly keep drawing our attention to, you are right, we should welcome more of their displaced people here. And do we do enough to offer aid to maimed and disabled survivors in the refugee camps, I wonder?

  • An important and compassionate message in keeping with the spirit of Easter, Lord Roberts.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Mar '18 - 1:58pm

    Lord Roberts is a credit to our cause.

    We can be radical and sensible, we need to be compassionate but moderate.

    There is much wrong with the EU but far more that is right about it to lea us to prefer staying in it, yet reforming it.

    As for refugees , we should combine on this, as on much, and be careful not to be either like Germany or Hungary, one too caring, now suffering backlash, the other too cruel, now disliked by Liberal minded people.

    We can be far more pragmatic and be principled.

  • Sue Sutherland 31st Mar '18 - 10:52am

    Thank you.

  • There are so many tragedies, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Burma, North Korea, DRC. The people suffer while leaders brush their egos. Syria is certainly a mess. You’d think in a global trading era, sanctions would work. The United Nations needs reform as we’ve argued for for a long time so these vetoes are not available for vested interests.

  • My fellow Methodist minister colleague Roger brings a warm internationalist heart to the big issues – and all the better for coming on Easter weekend. He will be as familiar as I am with St Paul’s curious reference to “bowels of mercy”. If our liberalism is rooted in our guts anything is indeed possible.

  • suzanne Fletcher 31st Mar '18 - 11:13pm

    yes superb speech. Good from Shas Sheehan too in same debate.
    Proud to have Roger as president of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary.
    you can read more in our web article, which also gives a link the amazing poem that Roger quotes part of, do look at it.

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