WHETHER in appalling camps or struggling to get to safety in Europe, there is little respite for refugees, writes Jane Bradley
On Tuesday, it will be five years since people in Syria have known peace.
Five years since children have been able to go to school unafraid that a bomb might fall on them in the classroom – or that their home will be destroyed when they get back.
Five years since families have been able to plan for the future, or enjoy any aspects of a “normal” life which is, in my experience of speaking to Syrian refugees, their ultimate – and highly modest – aim.
On 15 March 2011, civil war broke out following an uprising against Bashir al-Assad’s government. The result has been the displacement of 11 million people – both inside and outside of Syria.
Those who have stayed in their country but have been forced to flee their homes are mainly living in terrible conditions in refugee camps. Others have fled to nearby countries such as Lebanon, which, with a population of just five million, is now housing a million refugees. Yet people believe that we cannot cope with the comparative trickle of refugees destined for the UK – just 1,000 so far, with Scotland doing more than its bit to house 400 people.
Scot Gavin Crowden, head of policy and public affairs at children’s charity World Vision UK, pointed out to me that Lebanon is equivalent in size – and population – to Scotland.
“One small country, Lebanon, is taking the vast bulk of the refugees,” he said. “One in four people living there is a refugee. It is in a far more difficult position.”
Of the four million people who have left Syria since the war began, half are thought to be children.
Unaccompanied children – of which there were estimated to be 26,000 last year alone – are particularly vulnerable.
Crowden tells me that a total of 10,000 children who have entered Europe alone have gone missing – disappearing out of the system completely. Many will have been people trafficked, or sent into prostitution. Others are caught up in violent clashes between refugees and government security forces, their eyes, lungs and skin damaged by tear gas, which is banned in war in use against children, but is somehow acceptable to be used in civilian situations.
“I grew up in Linlithgow and 10,000 was the population of the town when I was a child,” says Crowden. “The idea that the entire population of Linlithgow has gone missing so close to our own doorsteps is unthinkable.”
Meanwhile, those who have tried to make their way to Europe in hope of a better life, are now trapped in makeshift refugee camps as political machines far bigger than they are fight over how best to deal with them.
Meanwhile, things in Syria are little improved: entire cities flattened by bombs, almost every family living in fear, or grieving for a lost relative.
A United Nations-brokered ceasefire is currently under way and things are said to be somewhat calmer. However, the ceasefire does not apply to the battle with jihadist groups Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front.
In Europe, those refugees waiting to be settled through the European Union’s resettlement programme are stuck at an impasse in Greece and Italy as EU leaders battle with reticent member states doing everything they can to avoid taking refugees.
Macedonia has recently closed its borders to all but a trickle of refugees, egged on by Hungary and Croatia.
Britain, of course, isn’t even part of the discussion. We used some mysterious right to opt out to avoid taking any refugees who have travelled to Europe.
Instead, to be fair, we are welcoming some refugees directly from camps in the Middle East. In total, David Cameron has pledged to take 20,000 Syrians from camps in the Middle East by 2020 – with around 10 per cent of these destined for new homes north of the Border.
The UK government has also spent a not insignificant amount of cash on humanitarian aid for refugees both in the Middle East and in transit camps in Europe.
Two weeks ago, I visited Serbia, where thousands of refugees every day were travelling through – on their way to Germany, where they hoped they would be welcomed.
At the time, neither I, nor any of the aid workers there, had any idea that this route was likely to close within the month.
The fact that it has now closed – without Macedonia allowing people through, they are unable to access Serbia – means the well-oiled machine that I witnessed there is redundant.
The humanitarian aid and well set up facilities aimed at feeding, housing and offering emotional support to refugee families, are now unable to be accessed by those who need them most, who are living in squalor – in limbo – at the makeshift camp in Idomeni, Greece.
For, although the personal stories I heard from individual refugees were heart wrenching, I was pleasantly surprised by the transit conditions in the Balkans. Centres had been set up which were run smoothly by aid workers, and refugees were having to wait less than 24 hours at each border crossing. If they did need to stay overnight, the two centres I saw at either end of Serbia offered comfortable accommodation in bunks or hammocks paid for by DFID – the UK government’s overseas aid arm – and the Danish government; food available via soup kitchens and packed lunches.
Then, these were vital facilities to ensure basic human rights for those passing through. Just that short time ago, it looked like this would continue for some time – that there was no end in sight, a constant stream of refugees set to pass through the Balkans until this crisis came to an end. But, sadly, a long-term failure to co-ordinate a response between governments in Europe – both inside and outside of the European Union – has meant a lot of this vital aid will now be useless.
Yet at the Greece-Macedonia border, things are not so organised – or so peaceful. Refugees are, ironically, in desperate need of the aid which is waiting just 100 miles away in Serbia.
The 14,000 refugees gathered there have no idea when or if they will be able to leave. They are living in the mud, barely sheltered by makeshift tents. Many people have been waiting for two weeks to find out if they will be allowed to continue their journey to Germany. Understandably, some are getting restless.
The issue was debated at an EU summit this week, where a leaked document – rebutted by German leader Angela Merkel – suggested that plans to close the route officially just need to be rubber stamped. Yet an agreement was not reached.
Governments need to come to some sort of an agreement over this crisis.
War in Syria. Pandemonium in Europe. Let’s not see another five years of this.