Herald Article – Saturday 25th February 2017

Three years ago, I saw hundreds of Yezidi refugees from Northern
Mosul, huddled in an abandoned building site in Northern Iraq. and
heard one family describe being forced to abandon a dying grandmother
as they fled from ISIS; and how another had lost a baby. Again, last
December, I met a man in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, whose sister
had been killed by a landmine, and another who had lost his fourteen
year-old son.

I am now the Minister with responsibility for humanitarian disasters
(whether driven by floods or civil war), and for refugees outside the
United Kingdom. I was reflecting on these conversations when I saw
that Mr.Tidbury, who has just launched the Green Party in our area,
has written a letter to the Herald questioning my stance on refugees.

A refugee, in my experience, faces a triple horror – at home, in
flight, and at their destination. The individual may have been driven
from their house by barrel bombs, experienced abuse at the hands of
governments and traffickers, and will now be struggling to reconcile
themselves to a foreign country – millions of them are marooned, often
in a tent, or a shipping container for years with no home, or school,
or apparent future.

I am proud that British people – through our Department for
International Development – are the second largest contributors in the
world to the cause of Syrian refugees. I am also an admirer of Lord
Dubs – with whom I have discussed these issues – and supported his
desire to bring children from France. But addressing the needs of
every one of the five million refugees from the Syrian crisis, let
alone those of refugees currently displaced by famine and state
collapse in the Chad baisin, in Somalia, in Yemen and in South Sudan
is a vast and overwhelming task. (Since 2000 the world has faced one
famine, this year we may face four). And although, I am lucky enough
to have spent much of my life living in the countries from which many
refugees come, know the cities from which many of them have come, and
can in some cases speak their local languages, I don’t feel I have any
easy answers.

Last year, for example, I visited empty buildings in the suburbs of
Athens, which were filled with hundreds of makeshift shelters: acrylic
blankets strung from the ceiling, and behind them families whose
relatives I often knew, talking to me in Dari about their homes in
Kabul, about hiding from the Iranian police, wading through marshes on
the Turkish border, and finally clambering onto tiny boats in the
Aegean.

But I don’t think I was well-placed to decide whether it would be
better for Muhammed, a fifteen year-old, who was sent by his parents
from Kabul, and whose uncle lives in Hamburg, to be moved alone to
Britain, or to be reunited with his family. And I didn’t know what to
say to a father who had bankrupted his family paying people smugglers,
endured terrifyingly dangerous conditions with a baby in his arms, in
the hope of a better economic life, and who now felt he had made a
mistake and wanted to return to Pakistan.

I have no formula, which allows me to weigh our obligations towards
young men in Calais, against those of Syrians in Turkey, or the needs
of the ten million still trapped in Syria itself, who are exposed to
unimagineably worse conditions than anyone outside – subject to barrel
bombs striking their homes and hospitals, or the mass executions of
militia.

There is no ‘right’ answer to any of these things. Instead, each of us
has to struggle to determine where we feel our greatest obligations
lie, and where we feel we can make the greatest difference – without
ever allowing complexity to become an excuse for doing nothing – which
is why I am proud to be responsible for a department, which supports
millions of refugees worldwide with water and sanitation, food
supplies, shelter, education, and counselling, often in very dangerous
situations.

But my experience – working with DfiD staff on the ground, our
international partners such as UNICEF, the International Committee of
the Red Cross, or Save the Children, and our local partners – suggests
that the best way to do this, cannot be through competitive moral
outrage, but must be through very practical programs, which can
involve making the difficult choices to help a hundred people in one
country, rather than two people in another.

Very few of these ‘crises’ are short-term. Many of the refugees will
be trapped in these conditions for more than a decade. Ninety per cent
of refuges live not in the West but in neighbouring poor countries,
which struggle to look after their own populations. And in order to
help we need strategies that support the long-term government and
economy of countries like Jordan or Kenya.

And our prime focus must be on preventing these horrors happening in
the first place. What more can we do to really understand the local
politics, influence events before they get out of control, create the
structures, which allow local societies to respond more effectively to
disaster?

Mr.Tidbury asks what I feel personally. My answer is that I think of
the mother I talked to on an earth floor in a camp in Jordan a few
weeks’ ago. She had fled four hundred miles across the desert from
Palmyra with her young children, leaving her sheep behind. And was now
living locked behind a wire, her only possessions two blankets and a
child’s teddy bear. Her home was a simple shelter, on a dirt lane,
leading a hundred yards to a water-pump and two shared latrines. And
she is one, not of a few thousand, but of seventy million refugees,
who we are struggling to help, with the number growing every day.

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