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 basin, 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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