A population bigger than London's has been displaced in Syria, so why has the Government only accepted 90 refugees?

While the Government drags its feet, millions continue to suffer

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The Independent Online

This Thursday marks the first anniversary of the Government finally accepting the call from Labour, and thousands of campaigners, to accept the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

The people of Britain have reacted with generosity and humanity in response to this tragedy, which is the worst humanitarian crisis since WW2. The DEC Syria Crisis Appeal raised £27m in 19 months, and there was widespread support for campaigns raising awareness of the Syrian peoples' plight. Over 10,000 people signed Amnesty International’s petition to get the government to accept Syrian refugees.

However, it wasn’t until last year – long after Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and myself, along with Labour backbenchers, pledged Labour’s support for the campaign – that the Prime Minister finally U-turned from his opposition to allow Syrian refugees to come to the UK.

In the year since the Government made its commitment, the situation in Syria has deteriorated even further. There are over a million more refugees than this time last year, with the UNHCR registering a staggering – and heartbreaking – 3.7m refugees in the region (although they acknowledge the actual number is likely to be much higher).

Since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011 an estimated 9m Syrians have fled their homes and according to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), around 1.2m houses have been damaged, with 400,000 totally destroyed.

The scale of this crisis and the suffering meted on the Syrian people is horrific: a city the size of Manchester has been destroyed, and a population bigger than London’s displaced.  But unfortunately, despite the Secretary of State for International Development last year saying that the crisis had reached “catastrophic proportions”, and despite the Government making promises to provide support, according to the Refugee Council, the Government has only accepted 90 refugees from Syria in the last year.

To make matters worse, in December the Government refused to send any Ministers to a key United Nations conference in Geneva to see if more could be done to increase the numbers of refugees countries across Europe could take.

Ministers from the Foreign office and the Department for International Development have used the excuse that most refugees want to stay put, so they might be able to one day go home. It is true that many refugees do want to go back to their homeland once the war is over and it is safe to do so. And Labour have supported the work the Government is doing to fund and lend expertise to those NGOs running refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria.

But some people simply cannot survive in these camps – children who have been orphaned in the conflict with no one and nowhere to go, women who have been raped, people with serious medical conditions or disabilities. These are the people the UNHCR are asking some of the wealthiest countries in the world (including Britain) to give a home to.

And it is unrealistic to expect countries in the region to bear the entire burden of this humanitarian crisis. Lebanon has recently closed its borders and extreme poverty exacerbated by winter conditions and electricity cuts in Jordan mean it is neither feasible or credible for Ministers to claim it is safe and possible for all refugees, including the most vulnerable, to stay in the region.

Britain must do its part. The worsening crisis in the region has only served to strengthen the Labour party’s desire to ensure the UK honours its obligations and responds to this crisis. The humanitarian aid that the government has given is vital and welcome, but at a time when countries around the world are redoubling their efforts the 90 people allowed into the UK by Ministers simply isn’t enough.

A Labour government is committed to increasing the numbers of Syrian refugees coming to this country to ensure we are meeting our international obligations in line with neighbouring countries like France.  Yvette Cooper has also called on the Government to hold a summit with local councils across the country to see how many more places can be offered after some Council leaders have come forward saying they would like to – and are able to - help but have been ignored by the Home Office.

The UK government represents the people of Britain on the global stage, and I think it is vital they portray the humanity and compassion so many feel in response to this crisis.  I hope this week ministers will use the opportunity of the anniversary of their pledge to recognise their failure so far and commit to redoubling their efforts.

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