11 million people have fled their homes as a result of the Syrian civil war- the vast majority are sheltering elsewhere in that shattered country, or in Turkey (2 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (650,000) and Iraq (250,000). This year, around 500,000 have entered Europe, 400,000 of them via Greece. In addition, refugees continue to flee conflict and vicious repression in Afghanistan and Eritrea, amongst others, and separately, poverty and state failure are also driving migration from parts of Africa and the Indian Sub-continent. The crisis in the Mediterranean- where an estimated 2,600 people have drowned this year attempting to cross both from Libya and from Turkey- demonstrates the appalling risks facing people who see no safe or legal means to claim asylum.
The UN refugee agency says a loss of hope and appalling living conditions are major factors behind the recent spike in the number of Syrian refugees from the region seeking asylum in Europe. Last month, David Cameron was forced to back down and accept 20,000 Syrians over the next 5 years, having admitted fewer than a hundred through an earlier scheme. This is welcome but insufficient and more must be done. However, it also right that that we should be supporting refugees close to home wherever possible, and play our full part in a wider response which includes proper facilities for processing applicants arriving in countries like Greece. Individual claims have to be swiftly and properly assessed so that refugees from war and persecution get the help they need, while those seeking to travel to Europe for work are discouraged from making the dangerous journey, and the people trafficking gangs that exploit this desperation are tackled effectively. The distinction between refugees fleeing war or persecution and those wanting a chance to build a decent life is not always as clear cut as everyone would like, but there is a difference and policy approaches to the two issues are therefore different.
Ultimately, solutions lie in ending conflicts such as the hideous civil war, minimising the impact of other factors in migration such as climate change and poverty. Neither are easy, to say the least- 14 years after the campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda began in Afghanistan, fighting continues and refugees continue to leave- yet conflicts do end and global poverty has been reduced. There is an urgent need to put new life into a Syrian peace initiative, including safe havens for Syrians within the country’s borders. ISIL is a vile organisation that the world cannot ignore. But air strikes against ISIL , in the absence of a much broader approach to Syria will fail to deal with the wider problem, not least since most refugees are fleeing Assad, not ISIL. In the last few days, of course, the dramatic scale of the Russian intervention seems to have set back any early hopes of creating safe havens backed by ‘no-fly zones’ and the situation is changing almost by the hour. This is bad news, but it doesn’t change the essence of what we need.
We need effective action to tackle ISIL/ Daesh, the creation of Safe Zones in Syria to shelter those who have had to flee their homes; the referral of suspected war crimes to the International Criminal Court; increased humanitarian aid to those who have fled to neighbouring states; an international agreement for countries to welcome their share of Syrian refugees; and a major international effort bringing together Russia, Iran, Gulf and neighbouring states, the United States of America and Europe to agree a post-civil war plan for Syria.