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Why Newham should help the Syrian refugees

(This is the first in a number of blog posts about the first Newham and Barking and Dagenham Lib Dems’ meeting, held at the brilliant View Tube on Thursday 3rd September)

I was five minutes away from arriving at the launch of ‘Newham and Barking and Dagenham Lib Dems’ (we’re working on a less unwieldy title!) when I received an email from Tim Farron. It was asking me to join with people from across the country, across political divides, in signing the government petition to accept more asylum seekers and refugees into the UK (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/105991). To date it has nearly 450,000 signatures; by far the most popular petition on the government website, with roughly 440,000 signatures more than all of the anti-refugee petitions combined. The refugee crisis is one that is reaching everyone – I’d be surprised if even people living in hobbit holes in the Outer Hebrides hadn’t heard about it. So it was fitting that, at the launch, our first speaker was broaching the topic of immigration, refugees and the UK’s position in the EU.

Jonathan Fryer is not only the former Chair of the London Lib Dems; he’s also an extraordinarily experienced journalist who’s travelled the world reporting the news and is well-versed in the real history, statistics and laws behind what is turning out to be one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our times. As he spoke, the true nature of what the refugees are fleeing from became clearer. When you pair the statistics with those heart-wrenching photos of Aylan Kurdi, the pain, grief and fear that the Syrian refugees must be experiencing is almost unbearable:

  • 6 million are still living in Syria, but have been forced out of their homes. That’s nearly equivalent to the entire population of London.
  • Over 220,000 have been killed during the civil war – half of those are civilians. The UK equivalent would wipe out Aberdeen.
  • Roughly 4 million Syrians have fled their country altogether and are living as refugees.

As Jonathan pointed out, these people are fleeing the worst conflict since the Balkan Wars. The Assad regime has, in the last four years, committed numerous atrocities, including genocide on the Sunni peoples, the torture and execution of men, women and children, and the use of mustard gas against civilians. All as a result of peaceful protests back in 2011 – just imagine if Tony Blair had ordered a similar military crackdown on those protesting peacefully against the Iraq War in 2003. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it, for any British government (no matter how flawed!) to take such an action against its own people, its own lifeblood?

Yet no matter how distant the Syrian troubles may seem to us, no matter how hard to imagine, we must do everything in our power to help them, because Britain is – both historically and in the present day – partly responsible for them. We were the ones who replaced Iraqi soldiers’ jobs, sending them home with their weapons, unemployed and disaffected. The problems associated with robbing youth of power, usefulness and outlets for their energies are well documented in the poorer areas of our own cities; so is it any wonder that these armed, unemployed young men looked to other military groups who could offer them meaning and purpose?

And as far back as 1920 we were meddling in the geography of the Middle East. Rather than breaking up the Ottoman Empire naturally, we drew straight lines across the map, creating artificial countries that lumped vastly different religions and cultures together, without any of the gradual osmosis of immigration and emigration over decades that has helped Western countries to assimilate different cultures, by and large, successfully. And no matter what some people say, I think that nowhere is the success of multiculturalism more evident than in Newham, where I can walk through one building and have the mouth watering smells of curry on one floor, Sunday roast on another and Caribbean spices on the next; where one of the city’s best Thai restaurants – The Pie Crust on Stratford High Street – operates as a British café by day, and where the local park sees people of every race and creed playing football, tennis and cricket together.

And let us not forget that the reason people see Britain as a haven is because of our Imperial history, and because of our human rights record – it’s ironic then that David Cameron is trying to wipe that out by removing us from the EU’s convention of Human Rights (and thereby from the EU as a whole). We are a country who oversaw some of the greatest human rights milestones in history, from the creation of the Magna Carta to playing an instrumental part in drafting the Human Rights Convention. So where other countries like Turkey are abolishing the death penalty and guaranteeing freedom of expression so that they can join the EU, it feels as though the Conservatives are trying to wind Britain’s clock back to the 1940s.

So what can we do to help? Well, in the Lib Dem meeting a two-pronged approach was discussed – to solve the crisis in Syria and to offer more immediate aid to the refugees. Should our long-term goal be to negotiate peace in the Middle East? This would inevitably involve negotiating with more unsavoury groups such as ISIS and Iran. Should we risk sending British troops into Syria, thereby creating more extremists in our own country?

Or should we put pressure on extremist regimes in a subtler way? Jonathan believes that ISIS and extremist governments take their mandate from countries such as Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also practices an extremely conservative and brutal form of Islam, and currently executes one person every two days. Yet David Cameron is happy to cozy up to King Salman bin Abdulaziz, thereby covertly approving of his government, who actually aren’t, when you look at them side by side, that much better than ISIS. Should we urge the British government – and indeed the Western world – to sacrifice our interest in Saudi oil to place sanctions on Saudi Arabia? Would this show a more concrete solidarity with those fighting for less brutal regimes?

However we approach it, this is a long-term aim, and shouldn’t come at the expense of offering immediate aid to the Syrian refugees entering Europe now. Under pressure from public outrage, Cameron has conceded to accepting a few thousand refugees, but not over 10,000. Compare this to Germany, who have offered to home 800,000 refugees (to those who will state that the UK is far smaller than Germany – we are actually 70% of Germany’s size). We can, and should, be doing far more – more, even, than Yvette Cooper’s sensible suggestion that each city houses 10 refugee families.

So if you want to know how we can both put pressure on the government to take action, and offer more immediate aid, here are some suggestions:

– Next Saturday (12th September) people from across the country will march on Westminster to urge Cameron and Theresa May to welcome more Syrian refugees. Meet at midday at Marble Arch to join the 80,000 people already signed up to go.

– The Newham Liberal Democrats are arranging a trip to Calais in late October, when the weather turns colder, to take donations of food, clothes, tents and other necessaries to the refugees camping there. If you have anything you’d like to donate please get in touch with us as we’ll be arranging collection points over the coming weeks.

– Elaine Bagshaw, a candidate for the Mayor of neighbouring Tower Hamlets, is running 5km to raise money for the British Red Cross, who are running a Syria Crisis Appeal. You can donate to her here – https://www.justgiving.com/Elaine-Bagshaw2/

If you have any other ideas on how we can help the refugees or which policies might help to solve the crisis in Syria and the Middle East, do post a comment below!

~ Holly B

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