David Miliband, the former Labour foreign secretary, is calling on Britain and other western nations to take in more Syrian refugees because neighbouring nations in the Middle East “can no longer cope with the burden” of civilians fleeing the civil war.
In a report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the New-York-based aid agency Miliband leads, he says Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees, but are now “increasingly unable to maintain the levels of hospitality they have provided”.
Instead Syria’s neighbours are closing borders. On average more than 150,000 Syrians were able to cross into neighbouring countries each month in 2013. However, in October this year, the number of new refugees declined by 88% to just 18,453.
Miliband argues that the time has come for countries outside the region to do more – and increase the number of Syrian refugees they have promised to take in from 50,000 to 130,000.
With the Labour party apparently divided over whether to back ministers over bombing the Syrian holdouts of Islamic State (Isis), Miliband’s call to action over refugees – which would see Britain accept about 1,000 people – is a reminder that the war in the Levant remains the “biggest humanitarian crisis” of this century.
Miliband argues that “the international community can make the symbolically important step of agreeing to take in its fair share of refugees. More refugees have been displaced from Syria in the last month than have been resettled outside the region in the last three years. It is a depressing failure of international solidarity, and should spur the world’s wealthier countries into action.”
The report notes that “from the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011 until August 2014, only 7,000 refugees were resettled worldwide … European countries are not doing enough”.
It points out that the main coalition partners launching strikes against Isis “need to do more”. France has pledged to resettle a mere 500 refugees, and Canada says it will offer just 200 resettlement places. The United States, which has been in the forefront of air strikes in Syria, had taken in only 166 Syrians by September 2014.
Until January this year the British government had declined to resettle any Syrian refugees, arguing that it was spending £700m in humanitarian relief – with half the money going to relief operations on Syria’s borders. However, following pressure from both Tory and Labour MPs in January, ministers relented and said they would take in a “few hundred” Syrians. By June this year only 50 Syrians had been resettled with “two or three” families a month being relocated.
In contrast Turkey is home to about 1.6 million refugees and the influx has made severe demands on the country, with resentment building over crowded hospitals and cheaper Syrian workers displacing local Turkish labour. Faced with “limited international support and huge strains on their economies”, the countries neighbouring Syria – the IRC warns – are making it harder for refugees to escape the conflict.
Other international agencies are backing Miliband. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which co-authored the report, said: “Humanitarian organisations have repeatedly warned that the capacity of the host communities has been stretched to the limits and argued for better international burden-sharing. What we are witnessing now are the results of our failure to deliver the necessary support to the region. We are witnessing a total collapse of international solidarity with millions of Syrian civilians.”
On Wednesday night a Home Office spokesperson pointed out that Britain already had an asylum application process for Syrians who were in the UK to work or study, or who managed to reach the UK independently. “Since the crisis in Syria began we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to more than 3,000 Syrian nationals and their dependants.”
“In addition, through our Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme we are working closely with the UN high commissioner for refugees to identify those most at risk and bring them to the UK. The scheme is not designed to fulfil a quota – it is helping those in the greatest need, including people requiring urgent medical treatment and survivors of torture and violence.”
“The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the Syria crisis after the United States and has also committed more than £700m to the relief effort – our largest contribution ever given to a single humanitarian crisis – helping hundreds of thousands of people to access food, essential supplies and healthcare.”