Boris Johnson has celebrated the efforts of countries like Lebanon for bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis at the Syrian aid conference in Brussels this week.
To date Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees over the course of the county’s six-year civil war, with displaced Syrians now making up a quarter of the country’s population. The UK, in contrast, has taken in just 6,000 refugees – including, shamefully, just 340 out of the 3,000 unaccompanied minors we vowed to take in under the aborted Dubs Amendment. If taking in millions makes you a moral example to the international community, what does taking in a few thousand do? Perhaps Johnson should consider that before opening his mouth and blowing out more hot air.
The UK’s agreed strategy toward Syria is to provide aid over resettlement. Since 2012, it has committed £2.3bn to the humanitarian crisis: as well as funds being sent directly to improve the conditions on the ground in Syria, £463m of that aid has gone to Lebanon, £423m to Jordan, £317m to Turkey as well as Iraq and Egypt.
The aim is to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees at the regional level so that they are discouraged from making the journey to Europe. The same logic forms the basis of the EU-Turkey deal, which allows Greece to return refugees to Turkey, from where EU countries would organise their resettlement.
A problem out of sight is a problem out of mind, but it’s still a problem. Take Lebanon, the largest recipient of UK aid outside of Syria. Unlike Jordan and Turkey, there are no formal camps in Lebanon, with all aid provided by a civil society who are no longer able to cope with the demands on their resources.
At the state level, Lebanon is barely able to care for its own population. It is a country with its own long-term infrastructure problems (water and electricity shortages are frequent), and seeing its population increase by 25 per cent in just six years has taken its toll. Schools are struggling to cope with new and often traumatised pupils; overcrowding and a lack of sanitation are putting a strain on the country’s health service; and Lebanon’s annual economic growth has slowed from 8 per cent to an average of 1 per cent.
Lebanon’s PM Saad Hariri has spoken of the growing fear of tension between Lebanese and Syrian communities, and the development of civil unrest. This is a country that has for years strived to disassociate itself from foreign policy controversies in the region, and is still working to heal the rifts of war in its own society – to put this into perspective, an estimated six out of ten households still own an automatic weapon. Add millions of refugees, with minimal support, to the equation and you can see how easily the balance could be tipped in favour of widespread discontent.
In contrast, what are a few more thousand refugees to a relatively stable and affluent country like the UK? The UK has vowed to take in 20,000 refugees by 2020, but in the current political context, this seems highlight unlikely, especially given the Conservative Government’s inclination to U-turn on such matters.
If Boris Johnson really admired the efforts of Syria’s neighbours so much, he might want to put his money where his mouth is and lobby for the UK to take in its fair share, thus making Britain a similar “moral example” within Europe. Sadly, his bit-part in Brexit has made such a project way beyond his public profile now.