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Global Britain has a responsibility to act as conflict and climate change push displacement to a record high

3 min read

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimates that 82.4 million people are displaced worldwide, 42 per cent of whom are children - and 32 per cent of whom are refugees. We need an urgent international response to address the root causes.

The “push” factors causing mass displacement rather than “pull” factors have dominated the consideration of the Nationality and Borders Bill.

War and conflict, persecution and terrorism, destitution, corruption, instability, grinding poverty, and man-made phenomena such as climate change, along with natural disasters, push people to leave their homes, communities, and countries – and to risk their lives in doing so.

Harem Pirot, a 25-year-old Iraqi Kurd, one of 27 people, perished five weeks ago in the world’s busiest shipping lane after setting off from the coast of northern France in a flimsy dinghy.

Khazal Ahmed and her three children also died in the biggest known number of fatalities in one Channel tragedy since refugees began making the perilous journey to Britain.

Millions are paying the price of our abysmal failure to hold to account those responsible for conflict, persecution, and atrocity crimes

Just 0.65 per cent of the world’s refugees are in the UK, which is ranked 17 in the table of European countries taking asylum seekers per head of population. We only take around half the number of asylum seekers we took 20 years ago. The top five countries hosting refugees have more than 9 million refugees in their territories.

As one of the four sponsors of the 2016 amendment moved by Lord Dubs on child refugees, it is particularly disturbing that of the 82 million displaced people 42 per cent are children.

Children make up almost 25 per cent of those seeking asylum in the UK and almost half of all identified potential victims of modern slavery or exploitation in the National Referral Mechanism.

When a Kurdish child drowns in the Channel, we need to ask what drives families and children to such desperation?

In 2019 I visited Bardarash refugee camp in Northern Iraq where Kurdish families from Syria had fled after their homes were bombed by Turkish aeroplane.

A mother of four told me “the war planes came at 4.00pm. As they dropped their bombs and chemicals many children were burnt. Some were killed. We all started to run. I just want to go home with my children- but everything was destroyed, and we would be slaughtered.”

When did it become acceptable for a NATO country to break the Geneva Conventions – and potentially the Chemical Weapons Convention –illegally occupy territory, ethnically cleanse a population, and face no investigation, little censure, no Security Council Resolution, no consequences?

Does it matter that such actions add to the millions of people already caught up in miserable displacement – denying them the chance “just to go home.”?

Many refugees spend their entire lives in sprawling, squalid, make-shift camps - some I visited decades ago are still there.

Bardarash and places like it are a symbol of the breakdown of global leadership. Millions are paying the price of our abysmal failure to hold to account those responsible for conflict, persecution, and atrocity crimes.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and UNHCR have warned that rising sea levels and climate change will displace millions more.

The UK has some generous and worthwhile initiatives but clearly we cannot meet these interlinked challenges alone or by hoping the problem will simply go away. It won’t. 

With our allies, Global Britain needs to drive this issue right up the international agenda.

We should be convening summits, commissioning hard-headed humanitarian solutions, tackling the problem at its roots, and creating secure Singapore-style safe havens in which people can prosper and make new lives. 

If we fail to do this, there will be many more fatal tragedies, many more Harem Pirots and Khazal Ahmeds.


Lord Alton is a crossbench peer. 

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