A vast complex of British military tents which could be used to shelter hundreds of Christian refugees fleeing from Isis fighters remains unused because the British Government refused to fly it to northern Iraq.
The Barnabas Fund has already paid commercial agents acting for the Ministry of Defence £450,000 for the tents, which were left behind in Helmand by British forces following the end of their mission in Afghanistan. Despite public figures making a personal plea to David Cameron to help, the Department for International Development (DFID) told the charity no help could be given because the RAF was overstretched and the trip would be costly.
The aid group could not afford the cost of commercial air freight of more than £1.25m, and the tents are now being moved overland at a cost of almost £300,000. The charity says this money could have been spent on food and clothing for the hundreds of families who have had to abandon their homes and possessions to escape forced conversion, killings and rapes by the Islamist extremists.
The persecution of Christians in the region has led to rising concern. Last week, in a message at the launch of a report by another Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, the Prince of Wales said: “It is an indescribable tragedy that Christianity is now under such threat in the Middle East, an area where Christians have lived for 2,000 years and across which Islam spread in AD700, with people of different faiths living together peacefully for centuries.”
More than 100,000 Christians are among half a million dispossessed, including those from the Yazidi community, many of whom are sleeping on pavements in the regional capital, Erbil. Another 100,000 Christians are estimated to have been killed in the civil war in Syria.
The time needed to make the road journey across three countries, through unstable areas, means that the tents would not be set up until midwinter. The UN and other relief agencies have repeatedly stressed the gravity of the unfolding crisis.
The state-of-the-art tents were used to house around 300 military personnel in Helmand. That capacity can be doubled to 600 by putting in bunk beds, and the numbers can be raised to around 1,500 with the use of additional canvas awnings and heating – being supplied separately from the UK.
Baroness Cox, the head of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, wrote to the Prime Minister about the dire situation facing Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq. In her letter she wrote: “People are living in the streets… This camp would be a beginning – a core – for their desperate need for shelter. Alternative forms of accommodation such as Portakabins/caravans are not readily available in Kurdistan. New-build homes would take too long to build with winter approaching.”
Lady Cox said: “I got a letter of acknowledgement but that was all. I discovered afterwards that there would be no help. I am very disappointed by the response.”
Dr Mark Huckstep, the project manager for the Barnabas Fund, said the charity has received support for its work with Christian refugees from the office of Prince Charles. “The British Government could have really helped some desperate people here, but they have decided not to.
“We have already paid a considerable amount of money for the tents and all we were asking was for them to be flown to northern Iraq before winter sets in. The RAF has aircraft and the personnel to do this, they are involved in the Iraq mission, what we are talking about is just the cost of aviation fuel for the trip.”
Major-General Tim Cross, whose Army teams built shelters for mainly Muslim refugees during conflicts in the Balkans, is among those offering their help to charities in northern Iraq and Syria. He said: “The Government’s response is likely to reinforce the view of the Christians in the area that the West does not care about them because they are deemed to be of no economic, political or military significance. Having built and run refugee camps myself in Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, I know how vital it is to give hope to people who are carrying their lives alongside them in plastic bags.
“There were Muslim families I met who were brutally thrown out of their homes and dumped in open fields with little except the clothes they were wearing. We gave them hope by showing they were not abandoned, and we should do the same now for these people in Iraq.”
A DFID spokesman said: “Our priority is to ensure every penny we spend is used in the most cost-effective way to help the greatest number of people. DFID officials made clear to the Barnabas Fund before they purchased the tents that transporting them to Iraq – by military or other means – is an extremely expensive logistical challenge and that there are more cost-effective ways of helping Yazidi refugees.”Reuse content