If May really wants to show leadership in Europe over Syria, then she should accept more refugees

So far, some 10,500 have been accepted on to the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme and it appears to be working well. But this is a drop in the ocean

Monday 16 April 2018 20:06
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Theresa May denies UK bombed Syria 'beacuse Trump asked us to'

Theresa May could hardly have been surprised that some MPs would react with fury at being denied the chance to approve the air strikes in Syria before the event. Last week, she took a calculated decision to avoid a Commons vote she could not be certain of winning. While she has the constitutional right to deploy UK forces, she knew full well she was tearing up the convention since the 2003 Iraq War for parliament to approve most military action.

In her Commons statement on Monday, Ms May insisted that she needed to act quickly while parliament was on its Easter break, and in a way that did not compromise the security of UK forces. But this will fool no one. After Donald Trump advertised the attacks – on Twitter, of course – there was plenty of time to recall MPs for an emergency session if Ms May had wanted to. She argued that parliament’s job was to “hold me to account” and pointedly rejected requests from MPs to guarantee them a say before any further action if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons again.

The prime minister made a powerful case for intervening to prevent the normalisation of the use of such weapons, telling the Commons that “we cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering”. But there was a hole in her argument: the number of people killed in Syria by chemical weapons is estimated at 1,900, while about 400,000 are thought to have been killed by conventional weapons. She did little to set out a blueprint for the future in Syria, beyond yet another attempt at the United Nations to secure a ceasefire.

Ms May tried to dispel Jeremy Corbyn’s doubts about the legality of her action by justifying it on humanitarian grounds. But there is another way she could tackle the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

It is two and a half years since we saw the heartbreaking photograph showing the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, washed up on a beach as his family tried desperately to get to Europe. The image pricked the conscience of most of the world.

This newspaper secured almost 400,000 signatures on a petition that, for a time, appeared to change the previous Conservative government’s policy towards refugees. Sadly, however, the effect on the political debate proved temporary. Angela Merkel’s brave actions notwithstanding, the EU as a whole failed woefully to live up to its promises to accept Syrian refugees amid rising support for right-wing populists.

At a time when the UK aspires to show leadership, it would enhance the country’s reputation it if shouldered a greater burden of the refugee crisis caused by the seven-year Syrian war. At least 6.1 million Syrians are internally displaced, while another 5.6 million have fled abroad, meaning that more than half the pre-war population has been displaced, according to the UNHCR.

With such huge numbers involved, clearly a crucial step in the ultimate resolution of the conflict is to persuade Bashar al-Assad to accept that these people have a right of safe return. But we have seen how much he can be trusted; and there can be little doubt that some Syrians will have a valid claim to refugee status abroad. We should be planning for this now.

The UK has provided generous financial support of almost £2.5bn, largely to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Ms May said that this had helped hundreds of thousands of people, and was the most effective way to act. But the government stood aloof from the United Nations resettlement scheme, promising only to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. At the time David Cameron announced that, there were as many Syrian refugees arriving on Greek islands every day as the UK is taking each year.

So far, some 10,500 have been accepted on to the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme and it appears to be working well. But this is a drop in the ocean. Sadly, Ms May rebuffed calls by Mr Corbyn and Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, for the government to do more – especially by helping children. The 2020 target date should be brought forward and the medium-term goal on numbers doubled to 40,000.

For those who baulk at any refugee number with multiple zeroes, it is worth remembering the value of immigration of all kinds to the UK. Few here would be so foolish as to refuse to acknowledge the contribution of the Windrush generation, as evidenced in the cross-party outrage expressed in the Commons at the suggestion that some of those who came here 50 years ago have recently been deported.

As the image of Alan Kurdi faded in people’s memories, media attention moved on to the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. It took a suspected chemical weapons attack of horrific proportions in Douma to turn the spotlight back to Syria. It should not have done. The world should never forget Alan Kurdi; nor the many like him whose faces we never saw.

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