The UK has had a proud tradition of welcoming those whose lives have been ravaged by violence, persecution and discrimination – Uganda Asians, Vietnamese, Kosovans and many more, back to the Kindertransport which saved the lives of Jewish children from Germany in the 1930s.
Whatever grumblings and anxieties we are encouraged to express by some elements in the media, the fact is that most people in the UK know when a crisis demands generosity. They recognise that they are dealing not with distant statistical realities, but with families and children whose needs are like their own.
So the arrival of a small number of refugees from Syria under the Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme is very much in tune with this tradition. The number may not be large, but it gives us an opportunity to register more clearly the scale of the humanitarian disaster that has overtaken not only Syria but the whole region. These are people who have suffered trauma, humiliation and fear that we cannot imagine, rape, torture and constant terror.
It is good that the Government– in accordance with the Foreign Secretary’s declared concerns about victims of torture and gender-related violence – has opened the door to them, albeit after considerable pressure from the Refugee Council and others. We, the public, now need to promise our support for more humanitarian action, globally co-ordinated.
It is not only Syria’s problem. Neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt – have between them received nearly two and a half million refugees. They have had no choice in the matter. And these are countries ill-equipped to absorb such a level of need, given the instability, stress and stretched resources many of them are already living with. Plenty is being done on the ground by various agencies like Christian Aid and others; working with courageous groups within Syria who take the gravest risks for the sake of the care of vulnerable people in the country (two of those working with Christian Aid’s local partner have been killed in recent months).
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
1/20 Syria refugee crisis
A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
2/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees transport small stones for their tents at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria
3/20 Syria refugee crisis
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
4/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian refugee family rests inside their shelter in Hatay, Turkey
5/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
6/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syria's air force struck rebel-held areas around Damascus and Aleppo as face-to-face peace talks tentatively began in Switzerland
7/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees look out from an evacuated house in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul. Syrians fill houses which have been evacuated for urban development projects. Destitute Syrian refugees who have fled the war in Syria and camps in Turkey are fighting for their lives in different parts of Istanbul
8/20 Syria refugee crisis
Refugees who moved into the houses in Kucukpazar neighbourhood near the historic Suleymaniye mosque, are struggling to live without water and heating
9/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian woman and her child stand inside a building in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
10/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian boy sits in debris in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
11/20 Syria refugee crisis
Damaged buildings line a street in the besieged area of Homs
12/20 Syria refugee crisis
People sit around a fire along a street lined with debris in the besieged area of Homs
13/20 Syria refugee crisis
Children cut wood pieces in the besieged area of Homs. Efforts to get food and medical aid into Homs have become a test case on whether peace talks in Switzerland can produce any practical results almost three years into the Syrian conflict
14/20 Syria refugee crisis
Boys walk along a street past damaged buildings and vehicles in the besieged area of Homs
15/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrians stand in a destroyed street following a reported airstrike by government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
16/20 Syria refugee crisis
Rescue teams search for survivors on the rubble of a building following Syrian government air raids in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
17/20 Syria refugee crisis
A graveyard in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
18/20 Syria refugee crisis
A view of destruction in Aleppo's ancient Umayyad mosque, in the UNESCO-listed northern Syrian city. The mosque's minaret was blown up during clashes between opposition and government forces
19/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrians attend the funeral of victims who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus
20/20 Syria refugee crisis
A man holds the corpse of one-year old baby Adbul Jalil Mohamed Hamis wrapped in shrouds, who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus during a funeral ceremony
But there needs to be globally co-ordinated action – as the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has recently insisted, appealing for governments round the world to provide an additional 100,000 resettlement places to refugees from Syria in 2015 and 2016.
We have to keep up pressure in our own and other governments to stand together in this drive for a global resettlement strategy, along with pressure for a firm guarantee of humanitarian access to communities under siege.
It may suit some to portray the arrival of refugees as another drain on our resources. Indeed, this has been said at every important point in the last century when Britain stepped up to shoulder its moral responsibilities to those at mortal risk. And at every point the compassionate and hospitable instinct of the British people triumphed over the negative voices and sour predictions.
We can hardly be happy that such help is needed, but we can reasonably be thankful that the UK is still able to honour its historic commitments to those who have been the victims of tyranny and atrocity. And we can hope that it will set the pace for the development of a global response to one of the most appalling humanitarian catastrophes of our era.