Playing the numbers game is rarely useful when discussing immigration, but in the case of the refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, the sheer scale of the exodus bears repeating.
Estimates vary, for obvious reasons, but many more than two million people have left the country since the conflict began. And, although we in the West often assume it is our countries that routinely take in the largest numbers of refugees, a glance at the facts reveals a far different reality. For it is Syria’s closest neighbours that have to bear the greatest burden – countries with problems enough already.
Lebanon, for example, has taken more than 800,000, approaching a fifth of its total population. That’s the equivalent of the UK experiencing 12 million starving, freezing men, women and children flowing across its borders. Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq (including the autonomous Kurdish region) have taken substantial numbers. So far, in the West, the most generous home for the Syrian expatriates has been Sweden, at more than 15,000.
So the UN’s plea that the West takes in an additional 30,000 has to be seen in the context of this vast humanitarian catastrophe. Anyone who has read the first-hand accounts, or seen the television pictures of these beleaguered people trying to find shelter, food and water in cold, inhospitable shacks can see the scale of the tragedy that has affected so many families and individuals.
So it is with a degree of pride and passion that we publish today the letter from aid agencies and charities working in the field to the Prime Minister. The moral case for our taking in a proportion of the refugees is overwhelming. Families in the UK may well be feeling the squeeze, but most would find the suffering of these innocent civilians difficult to comprehend.
So much for the case for taking in our fair share of refugees, which, in any case is going to account for only a small proportion of the total. More important has to be the provision of fuel, food, water, shelter and sanitation to those struggling to survive in camps across the near east.
There are many arguments about international aid – the Indian space programme, for example, and an unpleasantly vocal minority of Tory MPs who would like to see it cut – but the Prime Minister and Chancellor have bravely and stoutly stood against the instincts of their most mean-minded backbenchers.
Here is an opportunity for them once again to impress the country and the international community, to demonstrate magnanimity of outlook and common humanity by welcoming some thousands of Syrian refugees and to allocate substantial funds to buy necessities for the refugee camps, as a part of a co-ordinated international effort.
As the parties gather for peace talks in Geneva next week, the Western partners should be able to agree on such a plan of action. The outlook, after all, is grim.
There is no early end in sight for the civil war, and, like the one that prevailed in Lebanon for decades, it could drag on for years. Sadly, we will have to support the Syrians for a long time yet.