Syrian refugee crisis: There are lessons to be learnt from the Kosovo evacuation programme

It was a swift, well-run project that did something  simple and brilliant; it saved lives

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Since the violence erupted in Syria nearly three years ago, 2.3 million people have fled the country, more than half of them children. The Syrian refugee crisis has been called “the most pressing humanitarian disaster of our time”, yet the UK government’s reaction has been tentative, to say the least. The UN refugee agency set a goal of securing 30,000 resettlement places for especially vulnerable Syrian refugees across the world. Until last Wednesday the UK completely refused to participate in that scheme.

Now though, David Cameron has announced that he is prepared to “look again” at that decision and tomorrow MPs are set to debate the issue in parliament. As ever, there are lessons to be learnt from history and the Prime Minister would do well to “look again” at the earlier example of Kosovo. It is easy to think that every new disaster is unique - specific to the present day - but in many ways the challenges involved in offering sanctuary to some of the most vulnerable people who have fled Syria are the same challenges we have faced before.

Fifteen years ago there was another refugee crisis caused by fighting - this time between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav military. Then, as now, scared and desperate civilians caught in the middle of the conflict fled their homes.

Then, as now, camps were filled with vulnerable people: the elderly, unaccompanied children, torture survivors, women who had been raped.

Back then, in 1999, I was working for the Refugee Council and helping to run the UK’s emergency evacuation programme from Kosovo. When the decision to help had been taken, we moved fast. It was well-resourced and when the green light was given the first plane carrying refugees arrived in Britain very quickly. Over an eight-week rescue period, flights collected scared and vulnerable civilians, six days a week.

Then, as now, there was concern about how that decision would play out with the voting public. When one of the very first flights was arriving back in the UK we were warned of a “demo” outside Leeds airport and were braced for a frosty reception. When we arrived we were met with home-made signs which read: “Welcome to Leeds”. That welcome extended beyond the runway. Local people came to the “reception centres” with food, clothes, treats, and games for the children. It was a reminder for me personally that people can be amazingly generous.

The benefits of the programme to the people rescued included the immediate provision of healthcare and all-round human comfort. People were grateful to feel safe. There were also women who had been raped and survivors of torture - as a country we literally saved lives.

Much of the help given was needed urgently - and was simple: food, bedding, clothing, medical care, shelter. Yet there was also a longer-term incentive in helping the refugees brought to the UK. The lives of the people rescued under the programme were turned around. They were able to play an intrinsic role in reconstructing their shattered country. Having recovered here, and perhaps even learnt additional skills, the refugees helped by the scheme went on to be part of the recovery story for Kosovo on their return. And return they did. The first flight back, which I was on, took off on 26 July 1999; just four weeks after the last flight had arrived. By May 2000 half of the evacuees had returned to Kosovo.

It was a swift, well-run programme that did something as simple as it is brilliant: it saved lives.

Coming back to the present, over the past weekend 10,000 people across the UK contacted their MP and asked them to support a UK Syrian refugee evacuation programme for the most vulnerable refugees. The question now is will those calls be heeded?

The Kosovan refugee rescue programme was a success because it had total political leadership from the Prime Minister down. If David Cameron is considering his position over the resettlement of Syrian refugees with an eye on the history books, then there is one lesson worth remembering above all else: it’s never too late to do the right thing.

Kate Allen is UK Director Amnesty International UK

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