We must act together, and act now, to avert the crisis that threatens to engulf both the Middle East and Europe, says Alistair Dutton
IMMIGRATION is crippling this country. With 1.3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees desperately looking for safety, church halls and public buildings have been converted into makeshift cells where families cram together for somewhere to stay. Rents have soared, forcing local people out of homes. Schools work two shifts a day to try to provide education for all the extra children. Clinics and hospitals can’t cope with the number of patients who are coming to them. Asylum centres and refugee camps have swollen to the size of large towns.
The UK has been incredibly generous to humanitarian programmes
This country isn’t Scotland, nor is it anywhere in Europe – it’s Jordan. With a population of four million people, one in three is now a refugee. Yet still they keep their doors open to their neighbours who are fleeing from their homes, frightened for their lives, as their towns and cities are destroyed around them.
In contrast, our TV screens are full of stories highlighting the growing numbers of refugees from the Middle East and beyond coming to Europe. In some places there has been outright hostility. Firing teargas at refugees on the Macedonian border and Hungary’s new wall of barbed wire to keep migrants out are stark examples of how we should not treat people in desperate need.
To its immense credit, Germany has said it will take 800,000 refugees this year and welcomed 105,000 in August alone. The European Union has also started to put in place a sustainable plan to help those coming into Europe with Germany, France and Spain taking the lead. Belatedly, under intense public pressure, the UK government has offered to take 20,000 refugees from Syria over the next five years. This is not fast enough. The refugees fleeing war in Syria are living in squalor and need our help now.
Nor, as David Cameron has proposed, should the aid budget pay for this. The government should provide new money from national funds to bolster essential public services such as health, housing and education. This mustn’t become a millstone left hanging around individual councils’ necks.
To the government’s credit, the UK has been incredibly generous to humanitarian programmes in the region. To date it has spent over £1 billion on aid to people in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, making it the second largest donor to the crisis. The UK has given more than all the other European countries put together.
Through the Caritas family of Catholic international aid charities, SCIAF is helping to support refugees in the Middle East and Europe. We have launched an urgent Refugee Crisis Appeal so that we can get more food, clean water, medical care and shelter to those fleeing the war, including those in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Earlier in the year I visited the Middle East with SCIAF to see how we’rehelping refugees in Jordan. I saw the barren, pitiful camps in which hundreds of thousands languish, and several church halls in which small makeshift rooms each house whole families. In one such room I spoke to two elderly ladies, Souad and Hanyha. They told me how they had fled their homes and were desperate to reach their sons who are working in America.
Yousef described how he had nowhere to go. With no end to the war in sight and the fabric of Syrian society torn apart, he sees no prospect of his family ever going home. Forbidden from working in Jordan, they are unable to make a future for themselves there. Their only hope, he told me, was to be able to settle in Europe, North America or Australasia.
And there’s the rub. With asylum policies becoming more and more restrictive in many countries, Yousef’s last hope is fading. Settling in another country is highly unlikely, and so he and his family are left languishing in the most basic of temporary accommodation.
The Judeo-Christian faiths maintain that all people are made in the image of God with intrinsic dignity and worth that are inviolable. The temptation to behave selfishly to those who desperately seek our help must be resisted.
Instead, let us rediscover the joy of sharing what we have with those who have nothing. Archbishop Philipa Tartaglia, President of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference in Scotland, has written to the First Minister offering the Churches’ help. The generous response of charities and the Scottish people is also extremely heartening. We now need the UK government to show greater compassion, agree to take more refugees, more quickly, and provide the money needed to support them.
• Alistair Dutton is director of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF).