I am in Lebanon with Birmingham-based charity Islamic Relief to see the frontline of the refugee crisis. All summer there have been daily reminders of the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war. The harrowing picture of Syrian toddler Alan al-Kurdi, lying lifeless on the beach close to Bodrum in Turkey, reminded the world of the experience of millions of people escaping conflict in Syria and Libya.
Every day brings new tales of horror. People fleeing death at the hands of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Islamic State are dying needlessly because of the west’s indifference and inertia. In Lebanon’s refugee camps I met families who have fled Assad’s barrel bombs and Isis’s terror.
The Assad regime imprisoned Iman, a 65-year-old grandmother from Aleppo, for more than two weeks. She told me how she had bravely returned to Syria after her son was killed, to rescue her five grandchildren. They now live together in a shack made of breeze blocks, cardboard and plastic sheeting on rocky land.
Hadia’s husband, a Red Cross volunteer, was killed in Syria. Four of her children are still trapped in Homs. The UN had offered to take her and her younger children to Germany. She refused to leave because her mother could not go with her.
I met Imad, who lost an eye when terrorists blew up the Baghdad cafe where he worked.
At a Baptist church north of Beirut, it was humbling to see Islamic and Christian charities working together to help Christians in need. Yousif told me the story of how he fled Mosul with his four children when Isis took over the city.
I promised these refugees I would share their stories to help people in Britain understand why they had fled their homes. They are refugees, not economic migrants.
Towards the end of 2014, Lebanon took in 10,000 Syrian refugees a day. That means every two days the country was offering shelter to as many refugees as David Cameron wants to take in five years.
Britain has a proud history of giving sanctuary to people fleeing persecution. In the 1930s, Britain took in 70,000 Jewish people. During the Balkans conflict we offered shelter to 2,500 Bosnians and 4,000 Kosovar Albanians. We must honour that legacy.
Cameron’s promise to take 20,000 refugees is a welcome U-turn. But it does not match up to the scale of the crisis we are facing. His five-year timescale is simply too long for desperate people to wait. More than 4 million Syrians have left their homes and crossed the border – with more than 1 million in Lebanon alone. Another 7.6 million have been internally displaced.
The UK government is failing to engage with the crisis on our doorstep – countries such as Hungary, Italy and Greece are struggling to cope with the number of refugees arriving. Britain has a responsibility to offer support – including taking some of the refugees who are already in southern and eastern Europe. It needs to urgently bring together local authorities and NGOs to work out a plan for accommodating Syrian refugees.
There has been an outpouring of sympathy from the British public. The government needs to show real leadership and step up to its responsibilities. Having escaped Assad and Isis, the refugees I met deserve a second chance at life.