Over the last 20 years, cities like Wakefield rose to the challenge of becoming cities of sanctuary. I had the privilege of presenting UK citizenship certificates to a Kosovan family at Wakefield Town Hall in 2010. They were accompanied by their support worker, now a family friend, who wept tears of joy for them. She knew just how much they had suffered and lost to reach this milestone.
This has been the week when the people of the United Kingdom, prompted by tragic image of little Aylan Kurdi, and the Independent’s #refugeeswelcome campaign, showed that we stand ready to play our part, and forced David Cameron to U-turn.
UK taxpayers have generously given £900 million in humanitarian support for Syrian refugees displaced in Syria and neighbouring countries. But the UK’s excellent humanitarian response does not absolve us of our responsibility to welcome refugees. Which is why, in June’s Queen’s Speech debate, I challenged the Government to accept more refugees through the UN programme.
The UK has a proud tradition of offering sanctuary to people fleeing war and persecution. We sheltered 2,500 Bosnians and 4,000 Kosovan Albanians in the 1990s. But, until the heartbreaking photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach at Bodrum on Wednesday, we have not shown the same solidarity to Syrians fleeing conflict today. Our response to the Syrian war should not be either aid or sanctuary. We must offer both.
Many of our EU neighbours are spending untold millions dealing with refugees on their soil. The UK has been shirking its responsibilities. The Government has repeatedly refused to take part in UN and EU schemes to relocate refugees. Instead it established a separate “vulnerable persons relocation scheme” which has taken just 216 refugees since it began in January 2014.
Compare this to our European neighbours.
Close to 350,000 applications for asylum from Syrians have been made across Europe since April 2011. According to the UNHCR, Britain has had just 7000 of these applications. Germany and Sweden have received nearly half, with 100,000 and 64,000 asylum applications respectively. On Monday, Germany announced they were expecting to receive at least 800,000 asylum applications, from all countries.
Europe’s problem is dwarfed by the refugee burden for Syria’s immediate neighbours. According to the UNHCR, Lebanon, which I am visiting next week with UK charity Islamic Relief, has more than 1.1m registered refugees, and many more unregistered, for its population of just 4.5 million people. That is almost one refugee for every 4 people, the equivalent of the UK accepting more than 15 million refugees.
Turkey has accepted over 1.9 million refugees from Syria. Jordan has over 628,000 refugees in camps, for its population of 6.5m. Last summer, Lebanon was receiving 10,000 refugees a week and closed its borders to all but extreme humanitarian cases. If we do not wish that to happen, we have to step up to the plate and act in solidarity.
Of course, the ultimate goal must be an end to war in Syria. I have written elsewhere of the strategic missteps of Obama, Cameron and Ed Miliband after Assad's chemical weapons attacks in 2013. But in the meantime, the UK must take more refugees directly from countries around Syria. We need to work across Government and with local councils to offer not just shelter, but a proper British welcome.
Aylan Kurdi was not the first child to escape Assad and Isis, only to meet his tragic death at the hands of the Mediterranean traffickers. But if we are to honour his short life, and the unknown thousands who have died alongside him, we have a moral duty to ensure David Cameron keeps the promises he made this week.