We must end the shameful paralysis on Syria

5th February 2016

Britain’s generosity to the region’s refugees should be matched by all nations. This week’s London conference is pivotal. An article for The Times with Clare Short.

Her features distorted by pain and anger, Haifa told how she had arrived at a refugee camp in Turkey. With her two children aged ten and nine and pregnant with a third, she fled her home in March 2011 as Syrian troops burnt it down. Twenty-one members of her family were killed. Her husband and eight other men were lined up against a wall and shot. Miraculously he survived, but with bullets lodged in his head. Haifa sold what little gold she had to pay smugglers to take her and her family across the border into Turkey.

We spoke to Haifa on a visit to the Nizip refugee camp, where she lives in a small Portakabin with her three children, and were struck by her determination and bravery. She is one of two million Syrians living in Turkey. Her camp holds nearly 5,000 people in 908 container homes. All the children are being educated and there is decent healthcare provision. Haifa and her family are among the lucky ones. There are 330,000 Syrians in camps in Turkey, while nearly 1.7 million are living with families or on their own. Turkey has been extraordinarily hospitable and the Turkish taxpayer has spent more than two billion dollars on these camps in the last year.

Now other countries must start to shoulder their share of the burden. This week sees the start of talks between all parties to this conflict in Geneva, while in London on Thursday the prime minister will host a fundraising conference organised with Norway and Kuwait. While this conference can only treat the symptoms and not the causes of this catastrophe, the world is on trial for its humanitarian conscience.
Rehanlyi is a town on the Syria-Turkey border where the population of 80,000 has swollen to 300,000. While we were there last week, the Russian air force just over the border in Latakkia were bombing displaced people living in a camp. Twenty-six hospitals have been hit by Russian bombs in the past three months and only one was in an area controlled by Islamic State.

In 2010 Syria had a population of 21 million. Today no fewer than 12 million have been displaced. Life expectancy has reduced from 76 to 55 and one in three children have received no vaccinations — with dire consequences. The Syrian death toll exceeds a quarter of a million, while a million Syrians have been maimed or wounded. This is the largest displacement of people and the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War.

Almost all the Syrians we met want to stay put. They certainly don’t want to migrate to Europe. Rania, who fled Syria four years ago after being arrested and imprisoned by the regime, runs a workshop training 125 men and women in sewing clothes. Almost all the women are widows. Next to the workshop 50 trucks loaded with flour destined for 200 bakeries in Syria’s Idlib province were about to make their monthly journey across the border. They also carried 5,000 blankets and mattresses, heaters, groundsheets, tents and charcoal. This convoy had been funded by UK Muslims. Seven British Muslim charities have raised nearly £250 million in response to the crisis since 2011. We are very proud of this fine British response.

The international press has focused on starvation in Madaya, where 40,000 people are under siege. But there are 14 other areas under siege by the regime, threatening the lives of another three million Syrians; 400,000 of them are starving.

The fact that the borders are now closed to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan means that Syria is a pressure cooker, with the number of displaced people rising every hour. Despair breeds fanaticism and hopelessness radicalises. Syria was a sophisticated and ancient civilisation with a proud history and proud people who only become refugees as a last resort. It is the professional class and those with money who largely make up the 4 per cent of refugees who have made their way to Europe. Yet for every pound spent looking after refugees in the region, it costs nearly £100 to do the same in Europe.

The London conference this week will show whether the rich world is willing to take the necessary action to tackle the effects of this catastrophe. The UK has provided more support for refugees than the rest of the EU added together. But the need is desperate. The World Food Programme has reduced rations in camps to 50 per cent of basic need through lack of financial support. This is intolerable. With half of all Syrian children receiving no education, and with five thousand schools destroyed, we must ensure that this generation of Syrians receives an education if they are not to be alienated beyond reason. In all areas with refugee camps and within Syria itself livelihoods, training and employment must be prioritised. We must invest in people’s lives and futures while they are in camps rather then leave them to despair, misery and anger. Britain has pledged £1 billion of taxpayers’ money towards rebuilding Syria and re-energising its economy. We will see whether others — particularly in the Gulf — put their money where their mouth is.

The introduction of safe havens, notably around Idlib in the north and Derra in the south, must urgently return to the agenda. The increased bombing in recent months has reduced access for humanitarian aid and the situation is deteriorating. We must insist that Syrians driven from their homes and terrified are protected. Access for humanitarian agencies to all areas is essential.

The international community is guilty of a grotesque lack of action. The authority of the UN is being flouted and grossly undermined by this paralysis and failure.

Clare Short (1997-2003) and Andrew Mitchell (2010-2012) have both been international development secretary