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Syria and the Refugee Crisis

syria_dsc_7258Diplomat reports on the special House of Commons session on Syria and the Refugee Crisis, chaired by Khalid Nadim on 17 December 2015

AFTER A FEW INTRODUCTORY remarks, Chairman of the South Asia and Middle East Forum Khalid Nadeem said, “I believe you cannot force any country, be it in the West or in the region, to take refugees. It has to be a decision of the sovereign government in question”. He emphasised the problem as a “global crisis,” stating that there should be a unified approach across the world to spread the burden equally.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the Scottish National Party MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, expressed the UK’s “moral duty” to expand plans to give shelter to refugees fleeing Syria. Calling on politicians to take a “people-centred” and humanitarian approach to the crisis, she recounted some personal stories of the Syrians she had met during her visit to the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey this year. Ms Ahmed-Sheikh also made the case against military intervention in Syria, stating that the British government should abandon the “military mind-set,” and focus on more practical methods to counter Daesh, such as counter-propaganda.

Former British Ambassador to Syria Henry Hogger addressed future prospects for the country and the role of the West. Mr Hogger highlighted the need to focus on conflict resolution and country reconstruction in Syria. He identified entrenched corruption, factionalism and the negative inter-ference from external actors (such as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia) as potential obstacles to a peace plan. Mr Hogger envisioned a settlement based on the six-point peace plan put forward by Kofi Annan in 2012, which he views as the most plausible set of solutions to the conflict. He pointed out that civil society organisations would be integral to any future peace process. Mr Hogger called for a more concerted international effort to reach a peaceful solution, with Russia and other states encouraged by the West to take a “positive stake” in the process. He also called on members of the international community to meet their pledges of humanitarian aid, which reach £4.8 billion in total, as only 40 per cent has so far been delivered. Finally, Mr Hogger affirmed the need for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for post-conflict reconstruction.

Steve Symonds, Director of the Refugee and Migrants Rights programme at Amnesty International, criticised the international community for relying upon some of the world’s poorest countries to hold most of its refugees. He pointed out that for years, Lebanon and Jordan have hosted half of the world’s Palestinian refugees. These countries, with Turkey, now also hold four million Syrian refugees between them, for which their overstretched resources can hardly provide. Mr Symonds challenged the British government’s approach of concentrating aid on camps in the region, stating that the majority of refugees are not able to access these camps. He described the large criminal networks making a lucrative business out of people smuggling, and emphasised the need for European states to manage migration and accommodate more refugees.

Dawn Chatty, Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University, focused her talk on making a migration policy that protects refugees. Professor Chatty pointed out that the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR was set up post-WWII to manage 200,000 people, not the 60 million-plus refugees that are now under their mandate. Professor Chatty called for the UK to agree to a temporary protection agreement to accommodate more refugees, as it has done in the past. (After the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, for instance, the British government offered temporary protection for 75,000 refugees in one single year.) Professor Chatty emphasised the importance of work opportunities for refugees, as have been provided in Turkey, and of access to education. She also commended civil society initiatives, which aim to help refugees settle into Britain. Finally, Professor Chatty described Syria’s long history of providing refuge for others, and her regrets that other countries have not managed to do the same for Syria.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, the first Syrian priest to be ordained in the Church of England, passionately presented the audience with a Syrian perspective of the crisis, which emphasised the key role that economics play in the conflict. He invited the audience to consider the political and economic interests that lie behind the involvement of every major player. He stated that Daesh has been exporting oil to neighbouring countries for the past two years, and until recently, states have turned a blind eye to these activities. Reverend Nassar stated that bombing Syria will fuel terrorism rather than end it, and that instead of military intervention, the international community should make sure the conflict stops being profitable for those involved.

Andrew Mitchell MP, Former Secretary of State for International Development, emphasised the need for a diplomatic and military solution to the crisis but challenged the argument that Britain should accommodate more refugees, stating that there was no need to ‘recreate Syria within the UK.’ He believes that the overwhelming majority of Syrians want to remain near to home, and therefore the solution lies in creating more safe havens in the surrounding area.

Tom Brake MP, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, concluded the session emphasising the role of the private sector in helping to ease resettlement in the UK, stating that his party is looking into private sponsorship strategies, similar to those in Canada.

In conclusion, a number of common themes arose during the event. All panellists emphasised the need for practical plans to protect Syrians on the ground and to rebuild the country. Panellists also addressed questions from the audience, which included several Syrian attendees, many of whom highlighted the need for humanitarian initiatives. Many speakers spoke in favour of increased investment in education, and of private sector involvement in supporting education opportunities and resettlement in Britain.

The most divisive topic related to the UK’s role in resettling refugees. While six of the seven panellists urged the government to expand its intake of refugees, Andrew Mitchell MP spoke strongly against it. Panellists also heatedly discussed the necessity of air strikes, with only the Conservative and Lib Dem representatives in favour.

The role of the Gulf countries in the crisis was touched upon briefly. Some panellists, including Dawn Chatty, saw funding projects from these nations as signs of their expanding role in aiding the crisis. Others, including Steve Symonds, were more sceptical of the Gulf’s intentions and prospects of playing a practical role.


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