The Refugee Crisis: Containment and solution

This speech was give by William Morris, at last night’s Refugee Crisis event held by Initiatives of Change.

To tackle the refugee problem, the British government must commit to confronting it “at source”. That means not merely confronting illicit migration and dealing with the people smuggling rings but also finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria and diminishing ISIS’ capacity to continue its operations. And that means serious collaboration with on-the-ground political and humanitarian organisations.

British aid has played a significant role in alleviating the plight of refugees. Britain’s £1 billion in humanitarian funding means that it tops the donors’ league table and plays a vital role in ensuring refugees have access to basic services, food, shelter and medical care.

So much for the good news.

Not all of that vast sum of money provided by the UK is for humanitarian use. Far from it. Some is used for the vaguest of purposes like “capacity building for the Syrian opposition” and there is absolutely no transparency as to the UK’s dispersal of money in the region.

But whatever the use that is being made of UK taxpayers’ money – humanitarian or otherwise – The problem is that money can only do so much. This is part of the containment of the problem, not its solution. These refugee camps are not a solution in and of themselves. They cannot, in the long-term, accommodate the millions that they cater for and many camps are over-stretched and poorly serviced.

The subsistence money from the UN going to those within refugee camps has now been cut to $13 a month (according to Scott Darby of initiatives of Change who has just come back from Lebanon). This pathetic income leaves refugees with two options: either fight for Daesh (the group we in the West call ISIS) or flee to the West. So, if we are to keep refugees in the region more must be done.

And unless Syria stabilises and returns to some form of normality, it is only through resettlement that Syria’s refugees can achieve some form of viable future, particularly since they are also treated inhumanely and as second-class citizens in places like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.  But then what else can these countries do? Official UNHCR figures for September of this year indicate that there are 1,938,999 refugees in Turkey and 1,078,338 in Lebanon. The real figures are much higher of course. These countries cannot cope. Furthermore Syria itself has seven million refugees within its borders (people the UN terms in anodyne bureaucratic fashion mere IDPs or internally displaced persons).

But it is possible for refugees to be given alternatives to the dangerous and costly prospect of fleeing to Europe.

  • Syrian Kurdistan could act as a safe haven. It is the most stable part of Syria. The 1990s Iraqi Kurdish experience proves that an autonomous region that has a decent political process and a stable security environment can function as a safe-haven. That, however, is an ambitious proposal. It requires convincing the Turks that this would not jeopardize their territorial integrity; it requires investing resources in Syrian Kurdistan so that it can build the infrastructure and institutions necessary for housing refugees. Getting the international commitment for this might be difficult. The Assad government, Russia and Iran would however come on board, given that Syrian Kurdistan has effectively constituted a de-facto ally in the war against ISIS and Syria’s opposition rebels.

But to solve this crisis, which of course isn’t just the UK’s crisis but the international community’s crisis, some serious shortcomings have to be addressed in terms of the way that the debate has unfolded, which itself is a reflection of the failures of leadership. The toxic nature of the discourse surrounding the refugee crisis has marginalised constructive debate, which, in turn, has prevented effective and sustainable policies from being implemented.

You are all well aware of the difference between a refugee and a migrant. A refugee is someone forced to flee home. A migrant is anyone who moves to another country, whether a refugee or not. Most of those who flee their homes in Northern Iraq or Syria have little hope of becoming migrants to the West. They cannot afford to pay the air ticket to Istanbul and the subsequent fee to the people smuggler. Baghdad is being stripped of its educated young men from prosperous families as they seize this opportunity for a new start in Europe. The queues of young men to the Turkish Airways office in Baghdad today go round the block.

So let’s look at containment.

What we need is the kind of refuge that has been set up in St George’s Baghdad by Cannon Andrew White. This acts as a place Christians as well as those from other confessional groups can come and meet and get support from one another.

  • The Next Century Foundation proposes that the community centre on the approach road to the Christian town of Al Khosh in Northern Iraq be converted into a similar refuge offering free dental care, basic health care, primary education, a meeting room for worship and a soup kitchen to care for the displaced of any heritage.
  • We propose that something similar be done in the Yezidi town of Basheika in the Ninevah Plane.
  • We also propose the construction of a similar community centre in the Kurdish town of Qamishli in North Eastern Syria
  • And in the Christian town of Qatana on the outskirts of Damascus on the airport road. All of the above to support those who have not yet been displaced in those regions as well as the many displaced families that cling to life in those areas.

We then need havens within the region.

  • We need additional housing in the Ninevah Plane.
  • We need a new town in the Kurdish Region of Iraq to accommodate refugees.
  • We need additional housing in Qamishli in Northern Syria, and we need corridors for the free movement of aid to Qamishli. Six ambulances donated to the people of Qamishli by a German charity have been held up in Arbil airport for months because the Turks object to their movement. The Turks have nothing to do with it. Just because of the extraordinary hatred of the Syrian Kurds by the Turks, it should not mean that they can then constrain the movement of aid across the territory of a neighbouring state over which they have no hegemony. There is one more issue that needs attention.
  • We also need Western support for new housing in Kirkuk to accommodate the huge numbers of Internally Displaced Refugees migrating to that city.

However there is also some need for refugee resettlement. At the moment much of the burden for this falls on Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdish Region of Iraq, as well as, oddly, the failed state of Libya.

  • We need Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Israel, most particularly Israel, to start to take significant numbers of refugees and to be supported so that they can do so. I find it extremely distasteful that on the 6th September of this year,Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls from opposition politicians for Israel to accept refugees from Syria, saying that Israel was “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.”

As for those that do need to be accommodated in Europe:

  • One practical step would be for Western nations that offer asylum, like the UK, to give preferential treatment to those that claim asylum at embassies in the region and whose claims can be processed there, thus discouraging dangerous life threatening migration by boat.

We must be very careful, however, as to how we deal with the resettlement of refugees in Europe. I am a believer in the Khalil Gilbran dictum of a world without frontiers. I am completely convinced that we must work towards the free movement of peoples. I am a believer in the sixties doctrine as expressed in the Blue Mink popsong: “What we need is a great big melting pot. Big enough to take the world and all it’s got. Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more. And turn out coffee coloured people by the score”.

However, whether or not we are to have a melting pot, what we do not need is sectarianism. Most of us at both Initiatives of Change, our hosts this evening, and at the Next Century Foundation, believe in the importance of building a future world in which the absolute selfishness of materialism is replaced by an ethos of absolute selflessness. This is an ethos consistent with the teachings of the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

We must therefore campaign to undermine as thoroughly as possible the sinister program of groups like the Barnabas Fund that, out of a misguided sense of love, are working to cleanse the Middle East of its Christians by giving preferential treatment to Christian refugees.

There are actually petitions that are being signed by misguided Christians in churches up and down the country suggesting that the British government should give preferential treatment to Christian refugees. This goes against the basic tenets of Christianity. The Barnabas Fund seems to have forgotten the underlying meaning behind the story of the Good Samaritan whereby Christ advocates help for the stranger. But this is a sickness that is gripping the world.

The Polish government selects refugees from the region based on religious criteria – they demand that the refugees should all be Christian. There is currently a strong anti-Muslim campaign in Poland (including posters in major cities from nationalist groups attempting to convince the population that accepting Muslim refugees is tantamount to accepting terrorists).

The Next Century Foundation would contend that groups like the Barnabas Fund and the Government of Poland may be making the situation in the Middle East worse with their sectarian attitude.

If we do talk of “Safe Havens” within the region, we must distinguish them from the safe havens which the Barnabas Fund espouses. Their notion of Safe Havens for Christians represents a “sectarian” approach, which is abhorrent.

The Slovakian President has refused to take in Muslim refugees as he claims it would be unfair for Muslim populations to have to reside in a country with no mosque. Slovakia has therefore rejected the EU quota. A pretty horrible attitude but in practice it is at least less disruptive than the sectarian policy promoted by the Barnabas Fund and the Government of Poland respectively.

Bishop Angaelos of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council, a Bishop General of the Coptic Church went on record to tell me “We are not only supposed to tolerate, but love our enemies. To tolerate is merely to put up with. To love is to say truly Father forgive… with the right amount of grace and an understanding of the value of humanity, and why people need to be valued equally, we can love them.” He went on to say, “As Christians we are taught that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, which is our core identity… We must respect and accept that of the other.”

Similarly Dr Ahmed Al-Tayyib, the Grand Sheikh al Azhar, has denounced the forced displacement of non-Muslims in Iraq and called on them to remain in their homes.

Ayatollah Safavi of Iran also echoes these views. Indeed there is no major religious leader, Christian or otherwise, that supports this selective sectarian migration to the West that amounts to a form of ethnic cleansing that will ultimately result in the end of Christianity in the Middle East.

There are actually some members of the Jewish community who have set up a Safe Havens project whereby they see the Saturday people as helping the Sunday people in return for what the Allies did for the Jews at the time of the holocaust. It would be commendable if the prime focus of the project was resettling refugees of any heritage in the Middle East, just as the immediate recourse of those helping the Jews resettle under persecution was to move them to other countries in Europe. But no, the focus of this effort is to take Arab Christians, and Arab Christians only, direct to their promised land, which ironically turns out to be Germany. This is not helpful.

Much of the above is about containment. What of solutions? By which I mean solutions to the cause of this human tide of misery. We need more political action. For example:

  1. We need the return of the Embassies to Tripoli, Libya to foster a peace process. The mandate of the internationally recognized rump government in Tobruk runs out in a few days on October 20th at which point the embassies could return to the capital and promote a new power sharing agreement or caretaker government.
  2. We need the total removal of the US imposed de-Baathification laws that continue to cause such resentment in Sunni Iraq and have been a prime generator of support for ISIS amongst the young men of Sunni Iraq.
  3. We need the reformation of the Awakening or Sawah Movement in Iraq, most of the leaders of which were murdered by Malaki loyalists. Certainly an independent Sunni force loyal to the centre but regionally recruited and also loyal to an autonomous Sunni region.
  4. The constraint of Turkey’s disruption of the region and end to their practice of bombing the Kurds, supporting all anti-Kurdish insurgents, and facilitating the transit of volunteers to ISIS. Turkey’s decision to claim to be supporting the fight against ISIS came after the Kurdish Protection Unit (YPG’s) had made rapid territorial gains within Syria. Erdogan stated that: Turkey ““will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria”. Such statements are indicative of Turkey’s tactics in the region.
  5. We need a swift settlement in Syria predicated on new elections in which all in the diaspora are fully enfranchised and enabled to vote at UN polling stations.

There is much that can be done but the Western practice of terrorizing the region with drones, American F16s, British Typhoons, and Russian SU30s does little or nothing to contain the Hydra that is ISIS and actually increases not decreases the flow of refugees to the West.  We are the problem. We are not the solution. We made this mess and we continue and continue, and continue to poor petrol on the fire we ourselves ignited.

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