The Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis: How can the UK help?


Throughout the summer, many people have written to me about the situation in Syria and the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis. Many have been about speculation that the UK Government is considering participating in military action in Syria. More recently, even more have focused on the huge refugee crisis which has been unfolding. Here I give some of my thoughts on both issues.

The humanitarian situation in Syria is both grave and utterly tragic. Thousands and thousands of civilians have lost their lives over the past four years. Over 10 million people have lost their homes in Syria and around four million people have been driven from the country altogether. That’s a greater number than if the whole population of Wales was forced to evacuate. The need for urgent assistance from the UK and other European countries is undeniable. If this was happening in our country, we would expect the international community to help us. The people of Syria deserve the same.

Working out how best the international community can help is the central challenge. It must consider all the ‘what if’ consequences that any possible action may have. That’s why I was opposed to the UK’s proposal to participate in air strikes back in 2013. You can read my views on the matter at the time here.

Given how the situation has continued to deteriorate since 2013 it is only right that the UK reviews its strategy. Except where circumstances which make it impossible, it is vital that Parliament is given the opportunity to give its view one way or another before Ministers authorise any involvement of UK forces in Syria. That is why I spoke out back in July when a Freedom of Information request forced the Government to admit that some UK personnel had already been operating in Syria in recent months. Even though they have been “embedded” with US forces rather than operating as part of a UK operation, I believe the principle remains important and the Government should not have allowed this to happen.

The situation has, of course, moved on from 2013 and, if anything, it has become still more complex. In 2013, the main international concern was the brutal way in which the Assad regime was attacking his own people, including the use of chemical weapons. Today, the regime continues its brutality, but the situation is still more serious with the emergence of the even more brutal Daesh (the so-called and mis-named Islamic State) in both Syria and Iraq. I believe that the massacres taking place in Northern Iraq from last year justified the UK joining in the international effort to oppose Daesh. This has included humanitarian work to save lives, assistance to Iraqi Government and Kurdish forces fighting Daesh including military air support. This assistance was requested by the Iraqi Government themselves and, in any event the United Nations Charter gives it an overall “responsibility to protect” civilians facing the kind of danger posed by Daesh.

Of course, Daesh does not recognise any border between Iraq and Syria and it poses as much of a threat to civilians in the latter as it does in the former. So the overall international responsibility to protect is as relevant in Syria as it is in Iraq. There are, however, other facts also at work there which makes the decision about any UK involvement in military action still more complex. First, the civil war beyond Daesh is still going on there with atrocities also still being committed by others – including the Assad regime itself. So we need to be clear that any action taken there, including who takes that action, can actually help improve the situation for the people of Syria and beyond – not make it worse.

My own view is that greater involvement of other countries in the region will be vital to securing a settlement in Syria and defeating Daesh more widely. Many of these, countries – from Iran to Saudi Arabia, have influence over several of the different sides in Syria and this underlines their importance to any settlement there.

How then, can the UK best contribute to all these efforts? If it can be shown that direct UK participation in military action in Syria would be both legal and effective to the overall effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, in principle I would not oppose it any more than I opposed UK participation in military efforts to save lives in Iraq last year. However, on the evidence I have seen so far, I am not convinced that direct UK participation in air strikes in Syria would add to that effectiveness.

Different countries can contribute in different ways and we may be better placed to take a more proactive role in building a framework for countries in the region to come together than to be directly engaged in air strikes on Syrian targets.

In addition to this, of course, the UK has a pivotal role to play in humanitarian efforts to relieve suffering in Syria and Iraq, as well as to provide assistance and logistical support in Syria and the refugee camps in neighbouring countries, and in meeting our international obligations to assist refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere

I have visited refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey for people fleeing the civil war in Syria more than two years ago and I am in direct contact with some of those working on the ground to provide humanitarian relief. There is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis passed breaking point a long time ago. It has only deteriorated further as more and more Syrian refugees flee not only the civil war but the atrocities committed by Daesh.

The UK is playing a leading role in humanitarian assistance in refugee camps, and should be commended for doing so. However the UK is falling short in our responsibilities towards refugees fleeing the region.

The images that we have all seen on our TV screens recently of desperate people dying trying to flee conflict are nothing short of heart breaking. Responding to this is, of course, is an international responsibility, not simply one for the UK. It requires much better coordination at both European level and beyond. The UK should be doing a lot more to help put this in place. But we can only credibly do that if we show ourselves prepared to shoulder our own fair share of responsibility.

Sweden, a country with a population of under 10 million, has taken in almost 65,000 Syrian refugees, the UK has processed just 7,000. That’s fewer than Austria, Hungary, Denmark and the Netherlands. You can see an interactive map here.

Even more shocking is that under the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme set up in 2014 specifically to help out Syrians, we have helped less than 300. That’s despite the fact, questions I asked back in January 2015, revealed the Scheme needed to do more.

Within the last week, Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Copper has written to the Prime Minister calling taking up many of these themes. I believe she is right to do so and a copy of her letter is here.

The scenes in Calais and its impact on the South East of England and on Cross channel travel this summer have not been isolated problems. They are a stark reminder of how issues stemming from thousands of miles away, if left unresolved can affect us. The heart-breaking scenes we have seen more recently across Europe and the Mediterranean have further underlined the scale of the human tragedies involved.  I hope this response gives you some idea of how I think we should be facing up to those issues.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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