'We cannot and will not turn a blind eye' to the plight of refugees
Marking World Refugee Day, Dfid Minister Alistair Burt says tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis in "a meaningful, concerted way" is in our own national interest.
Being forced to flee your home is one of the greatest tragedies that can befall an individual.
In the 21st Century, it is truly devastating that refugee crises are becoming more common and more prolonged. Two in five refugee crises last more than two decades and, as wars across the world rage on, the number of refugees continues to increase year-on-year.
Today, on World Refugee Day, there are more than 68.5 million people globally who have been driven from their homes. Over a third of these people are refugees sheltering in neighbouring countries because conflict and persecution means that it is not safe for them to remain in their own country.
In the last year alone, people have fled appalling violence in Burma and Syria, relentless conflict in South Sudan and the worsening humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We cannot and will not turn a blind eye. Not least as migration, conflict and instability overseas directly affects us in the UK. Tackling these issues in a meaningful, concerted way is firmly in our own national interest.
Take the Syria crisis as an example. There are now 5.6 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries and they now account for around a quarter of the world’s refugees.
As Middle East Minister, I have seen first-hand the catastrophic effects that this prolonged conflict, now in its eighth year, has had on the innocent men, women and children who have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. This will continue to be at the forefront of my mind when I meet with refugees in the Syria region in the coming weeks.
Lebanon is a country that has shown enormous generosity and now has the highest concentration of refugees relative to its population anywhere in the world.
The UK has played a vital role in helping Lebanon cope with the added pressure of hosting refugees. UK aid has provided small vouchers and cash transfers to help over two million vulnerable refugees buy food and other essentials they need to survive; improved shelter and accommodation for more than 22,000 Syrians; helped expand the Lebanese education system to reach over 300,000 Syrian children as well as supporting Lebanese children and created improved infrastructure and services in 51 of the most conflict-prone areas.
On my previous visits to the region, I have heard about the challenges refugees face and how the generosity of the British people has helped them through the toughest of times. In total, we have committed £2.71 billion to support the victims of the Syria crisis.
Families have been split up, mothers have been forced to give birth on the move or in refugee camps and tragically children have grown up with no memories of home.
Despite the most challenging circumstances, the Syrian refugees I have met remain resilient and hopeful that one day they will be able to return to rebuild their communities. I think of those that told me of their plans to send their children to university so they can qualify as a doctor or, perhaps, a lawyer.
Mohamed is just one of thousands of refugees with an incredible story. He was forced to flee his home near Damascus following a massacre of civilians in Darayya and moved to Lebanon. With UK aid support, he started school in Lebanon and against all the odds, he recently achieved the second highest exam results in the national Lebanese exams. He is now 18 years old and is completing his final exams to go to university and study medicine to become a doctor.
We are determined to make absolutely sure there is no lost generation of Syrian refugees – whether that’s children that missed out on school or young adults who failed to find work, despite being fit, willing and qualified. We are helping refugees not only to survive but to lead dignified lives and, as well as giving them a primary and secondary education, we are also creating jobs and skills training so they can begin to support their families. UK aid is working to ensure people who have already suffered so much have the opportunities they need to stay close to home rather than risking their lives to make the perilous journey to Europe.
As a generous, outward facing global nation, the UK will continue to support refugees and play a leading role in responding to refugee crises around the world.
But the international community as a whole must do more. We must get better at tackling the root causes of refugee crises and we must get better at responding to the reality of complex emergencies and protracted displacement. That means working collectively to provide long-term support, jobs and education that boosts refugees’ self-reliance right from the start of a crisis, while also working in a way that benefits generous host communities and countries. It also means harnessing the creativity of the private sector to bring forward new innovative solutions and redoubling our efforts to prevent conflicts and find political solutions to existing crises.
Finally, we should pay tribute to those aid workers who are routinely the first ones on the ground when disaster or conflict strikes. Without hesitation, they put themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of those suffering in some of the most hostile places in the world.
Every day, I am reminded of this excellent work. The bravery and determination of refugees alongside the commitment and dedication of our aid workers is truly inspiring.
Alistair Burt MP is the Minister of State for the Department for International Development (jointly with Foreign and Commonwealth Office) Middle East and North Africa
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