Refugee Crisis: We must not turn our backs on refugees
In my job, some of the worst news comes by phone. The call that came earlier this year to say five of our Afghan colleagues had been abducted and murdered, leaving 12 children without a dad.
The ones that said the death toll from drownings in the Mediterranean had topped 1000 this year, then 2000, and then 3000. I can only begin to imagine the depths of despair for a French family answering the ring that told them their son or daughter was not coming home from a Friday night out in Paris.
In the midst of such tragedies it can be difficult to decipher what links a grieving Parisian mother, a bereft Syrian grandfather and a heartbroken Afghan child. But they are part of a whole, their shattered lives woven together by a shared experience of barbaric violence that says some lives have no value.
In the aftermath of Paris and in the current intense debate on military strikes there is a danger that we harden our hearts and blur the distinction between the terrorists and the terrorised.
It would be a tragedy if, in the midst of all this, Europe now turned on refugees, blaming or forgetting the thousands of innocent families who are setting sail in flimsy dinghies to escape the indiscriminate violence they have faced at home.
The extremism and violence which has overtaken the Middle East and in particular the brutal civil war engulfing Syria is causing millions of innocent people to flee everything they know. Some of them make it all the way to Europe asking only for our protection, a life-saving gift we should be glad to give.
We must not forget Syrian children
For the last few years the British public have been very moved by the people of Syria. Millions have generously given and campaigned for our leaders to act. Now as the world discusses how to respond to the latest terrorism in Paris it is important we put the people, and in particular the children of Syria, centre stage.
I am writing this from Greece where I have been visiting Save the Children programmes which help child refugees. So many of us have visited these beautiful Greek islands for summer holidays with friends and family.
If your image of Lesvos is of wine on warm evenings or reading in the afternoon sun it is hard to compute this is the same place when you see children sitting in the mud or shivering in soaking clothes.
A place of safety
Our team here is doing all it can to protect people from the cold and rain – often giving out as many as 8,000 cooked meals a day. Many of the families we work with are Syrians, people fleeing bombs and bullets only to be faced with terrifying sea crossings in which too many have drowned. When you speak with them they often describe their image of Europe in just one word: safety.
Refugees are coming to Europe because they believe we represent safety in a time when barrel bombs are dropped and people are savagely tortured and killed. In the midst of this we face a choice. Do we allow terrorism to turn us against one another, or do we fight it with the very unity its proponents fear most?
For me there is only one option which stays true to the best of what we are. In the run up to the Second World War, Britain rescued 10,000 children in what became known as the kindertransport. These children were fleeing Nazi persecution and have gone on to enrich our national life beyond measurement. The Syrian families who arrived in the UK last month, as part of the Prime Minister’s plan to resettle 20,000 refugees, could make a similar contribution if we stand together in the best British tradition.
The Prime Minister, Chancellor and International Development Secretary also deserve real credit for sticking to the 0.7% aid commitment and donating generously to the Syria region. We would now like them to help refugees already in Europe – specifically by bringing 3000 of the children who are in Europe all alone to safety here in the UK.
The question now, as we approach Christmas, is whether we can each do a little more. As people gather in schools and churches around the country to hear the story of a Middle Eastern family with no place to stay, is there any better response to those who want a clash of civilisations than to say that even in difficult and dangerous times, we stand with the Syrian people, and that refugees are welcome here.