Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat turns spotlight on UK’s failure to take in more refugees

In an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain’s lack of ‘humanity’

Jamie Merrill
Tuesday 27 January 2015 23:39 GMT
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee

The Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat has spent four decades on the front line of satire, skewering the evils of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, but now the Middle East’s most famous living satirist has turned his pen on the British Government’s failure to help more than a handful of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.

In this cartoon, published exclusively in The Independent, Ferzat, 63, draws stark attention to the plight of 3.7 million Syrian refugees as he accuses Britain of lacking “the warmth of morals and humanity” by allowing just 90 refugees from the conflict region to come to Britain.

In a brazen act of defiance in 2011, his award-winning caricatures depicted President Assad as a broken dictator, sitting on a broken armchair over a broken country. The regime’s response was rapid and brutal; he is now living in exile in Kuwait after masked gunmen, who he describes as “Assad’s thugs”, attempted to silence his sharp satire by pulling him out of his car, shattering his hands and leaving his fingers broken.

Ferzat has not been silenced, and to mark the anniversary this week of the British decision to grant a limited number of Syrian refugees asylum, he has called on the UK to “carry out its duties” and live up to its promise of helping those affected by the “biggest tragedy in the world”.

Ali Ferzat works in his atelier in Damascus. He now lives and works in exile in Kuwait

Four years of conflict in Syria has created nearly four million refugees, and last January – following a campaign supported by The Independent – the Government committed to resettling 500 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. However, that pledge was reduced to a commitment to resettle “several hundred” Syrians over three years. And to the dismay of aid agencies, just 90 Syrians have arrived under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) scheme.

Ferzat, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Peace in 2012 and named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, said: “I do not think that the West in general [has] carried out its duties towards Syrian refugees… It has used the policies of the three monkeys: I do not see, I do not hear and I do not talk.”

Ferzat is now working with Amnesty International UK and the London-based aid agency, Mosaic Syria, to bring attention to plight the 3.7 million Syrian refugees, some of whom are in their fourth winter in tented camps.

Tomorrow is one year on from when Home Secretary Theresa May bowed to pressure from Labour and the Lib Dems to establish the VPR scheme and this anniversary will see Amnesty International call for rich countries to resettle 10 per cent of Syria’s refugees by the end of 2016.

In November, the charity joined a call by 30 relief agencies for Britain to resettle up 10,000 refugees in response to a call from the UN’s Refugee Agency UNHCR. Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, said: “Given the scale of the crisis on Syria’s borders, the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has been pitiful… History will judge the UK’s shameful lack of action on taking in refugees as unforgivable – we are talking about people for whom the chance of resettlement may be, literally, a matter of life or death.”

Ferzat was beaten by a gang of what he calls ‘Assad’s thugs’, in 2011 (Getty)

Ferzat’s call for action comes as faith leaders in Britain have called on David Cameron to act. In a letter published on The Independent website, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders, have called on the PM urgently to increase the number of Syrians being resettled in the UK.

A Home Office spokesperson said the UK has been at the “forefront of the international response” to the crisis and had pledged £700m in humanitarian aid. The spokesperson added: “We have granted asylum or other forms of leave to over 3,400 Syrian nationals and dependants. In addition, through our Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, we are working closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those most at risk and bring them to the UK.”

Arif’s story: ‘Life is better’

When 12-year-old Arif came to Britain this summer he was in urgent need of medical care. With his parents and three siblings he’d fled Syria for Lebanon in 2011 as civil war tore his country apart.

His parents, Nabil and Yara, said it was the “feeling of impotency” that forced them to flee from the “risk of arrest” and bombs that “fell from all sides”.

It was little better in Lebanon, where the family were forced to live in a room with no running water. An accident in the hut in October 2013 left Arif with terrible burns to his legs and, with little money, advanced medical care was hard to come by.

It was only last spring, when the family were selected to be resettled in Britain under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, that Arif finally got the treatment he needed. Now, his parents say, he’s “loving being back in school” and, for one family at least, “everything has changed for the better”.

To protect their identity, The Independent has changed the family’s names and isn’t revealing where in the UK they live

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