The world is in the middle of the most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War and the numbers involved are staggering.
More than 60 million people have been forced to flee their home because of conflict and violence. More than 5,400 people died in 2015 making treacherous journeys in search of safety, while 2774 people have died up until 1 June 2016 alone.
Faced with numbers like these, it can be easy to forget that we are talking about people. People like the Syrian woman in Greece who asked Oxfam: “my home is gone, my city doesn’t exist, where am I supposed to go?”
People like the parents in Yemen who cower with their son in a cave each night just feet from their home, unable to sleep in their beds for fear of being bombed.
People like the one-year-old boy from Syria, who died while his family waited in Jordan to be resettled in the US, where he could have had the open heart surgery he needed to have a chance of survival.
My Oxfam colleagues are working around the world to help these people, and hundreds of thousands like them. Oxfam is bringing safe water to people in Syria, building water systems in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, supplying food in South Sudan, and providing warm clothes, toiletries, food and legal aid in Greece, Italy, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia.
While some countries like Germany have taken in significant numbers of refugees, in general European governments are failing to step up and protect the world’s most vulnerable people. More than a million people arrived in Europe in 2015, but more than 86% of refugees are still living in developing countries.
The UK Government is playing a leading role in providing funding to countries like Jordan and Lebanon – and its ongoing support is vital. But this does not absolve the government of its responsibilities to welcome more refugees, including families desperately trying to remain together, and to provide safe and legal routes for people in search of refuge here.
The things that people are fleeing from can seem like insurmountable challenges – war, conflict, natural disaster. For those of us here in Europe who want to show solidarity with people forced to flee, it’s easy to feel helpless. But we have a role to play in making sure that the places people are fleeing to are welcoming, fair, safe and humane.
In Glasgow, the UK city that has so far settled most Syrian refugees, the community has come to the fore. This includes the inspiring “Refuweegee” project –the creation of local mum Selina Hales who was motivated to act by harrowing images of refugee children.
“Refuweegee” – with its apt slogan “we’re all fae somewhere” – gives Glaswegians the chance to write welcome letters to arriving refugees, as well as to donate gifts for welcome packs. Over the six months since Hales started the project, hundreds of letters and mountains of goods have been donated. These letters and packs do not solve the refugee crisis or erase the suffering people have experienced, but they do inject compassion and human kindness at a time where it is sorely needed.
Scotland has a proud history of providing sanctuary, including to Jewish refugees during World War II and, more recently, refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. Immigration and asylum are issues reserved to the UK Government, but refugee integration into Scotland is a devolved issue and the Scottish Government and Parliament should continue to do all they can to support compassionate resettlement. The cross-party support shown to date should make Scotland proud.
Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling are already designated ‘Cities of Sanctuary’– our Parliament should now promote Scotland as a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’. In practice, this would mean doing all it can, including providing financial support, to support local authorities in resettling refugees. It would send a powerful message to the UK government and other world leaders.
Governments across Europe must stop turning their backs, and instead do all they can to welcome refugees and protect people on the move. Human empathy must prevail.
Letters to welcome new arrivals to Scotland via Refuweegee can be posted at any Oxfam shop in the Glasgow area
• Lisa Stewart, Oxfam Scotland Campaigns & Communications Manager