Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — UNHCR Syrian Refugees Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:01 pm on 29th January 2014.

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Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock 3:01 pm, 29th January 2014

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I welcome the Government’s statement, which is a positive step in response to a positive call, and I am pleased to hear that we will not descend into a political argument over this.

It is hard not to be moved by the images of suffering and pain that we have seen on our television screens and in our newspapers. The humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding is, as we have heard, the greatest in modern times. The numbers vary, but at least 2.4 million are displaced externally and many millions more internally. It is a story of human misery and suffering and a growing humanitarian crisis on which we cannot turn our back.

Some might notice that I am still wearing the Holocaust memorial day badge and I am doing that to remind us of our duty. Yes, we have duties at home, but our duties do not end at our borders. They extend beyond them. These are men, women and children who need our help and I for one am proud of what we have done so far and today. I hope that the combined actions will stop the crisis becoming another in a growing list of examples of man’s complete inhumanity to man.

We talk proudly of the £600 million we have given in aid, and we are right to be proud of that. It is an achievement, but having just visited a camp on the borders of Syria and Turkey as part of an Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists group, I must say that the countries in the region are playing their part, too. We might be giving aid, but they are delivering it on the ground. Turkey estimates that it has spent about £2 billion on setting up camps to house its guests.

The purpose of the visit was to get a better idea of the situation, and I certainly think that we did. We met Turkish politicians to hear about their efforts and understand their commitment. They have a lot to be proud of. We met the Syrian opposition groups, both the Syrian Opposition Council and members of the Free Syrian Army. The opposition is a complex group representing the majority, but not necessarily all, of those who oppose the current regime. Understanding that is part and parcel of trying to find a solution.

The most important and moving part was visiting the Nizip 2 camp, one of 22 camps set up by the Turks which house approximately 140,000 of the 600,000 or 700,000 refugees who are now in Turkey. The camp we visited is home to 5,500 people, half of whom are under 18, and is made up of nearly 1,000 containers and other buildings. During our time there, we met the refugees—or guests, as the Turks like to call them—and the overwhelming view was that they just want to go home. They are waiting. They are cared for, they are safe and secure and they are fed and watered, so moment by moment they are okay. Scratch the surface, however, and there is fear, frustration and—dare I say—desperation.

As you go about the camp, seeing beautiful, happy, playful children, it is quite cheering until you stop and think, and ask what their future will be. Are they the lost generation? What are their education opportunities or their life opportunities? You start to feel their pain and try to carry out a small act of kindness, giving out sweets and warm clothing, only to be mobbed. A sense of how a situation can change strikes you and if you think too much about it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sense of loss of hope.

Those people are our fellow humans, and anyone who is not moved by their plight needs to see it first hand. The problem is that Syria is a long way away and it is easy to push it out of sight and out of mind. If we were more local and it was in our own backyard, we would do even more than we are now, and we would persuade other people to do even more.

As I have said, I am pleased by today’s announcement. I have no objection to playing our full part in the UNHCR’s call for countries to take a number of refugees. Indeed, I feel that it is our moral and ethical obligation to play our part in helping the weak and the vulnerable, the displaced and the war-weary, but I do not want our action to be tokenistic. I am also concerned that we are taking people away from their natural communities and local support networks just to salve our consciences. I still believe that, as I have seen, the best place to provide the widest possible support to the largest number of people is on the ground, locally, within the region.