I welcome the tone of the debate and of the motion, which I was pleased to sign. I welcome the Home Secretary’s earlier statement, although I wish that our scheme was part of the UN’s wider scheme. I will use the few minutes that I have this afternoon to make a stronger plea for greater generosity in respect of the absolute number of people we will allow into this country.
So many hon. Members have wanted to speak in this debate because of the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding. As many people have said, this is the greatest refugee crisis of our time and we have a moral responsibility to act. The UNHCR predicts that the number of Syrian refugees fleeing the country will be more than 4 million by the end of the year. That will be the largest refugee population in the world. None of us have forgotten what the millions of Syrian people who need help are fleeing from: the death and violence preceding and following the deplorable chemical attacks on civilians in Damascus last August. The traumatic images of those attacks are etched on all our minds. We can only begin to imagine the scars that have been left on the surviving refugees by a conflict with an estimated death toll already of 130,000.
In the face of this enormous crisis and the horrifying number of desperate people that we can hardly begin to imagine, all that is currently being asked by the UNHCR is that 30,000 Syrian refugees be admitted to other countries. I stress that that figure is what the UNHCR thinks is politically and logistically realistic, not the full number of vulnerable people who may need to seek refuge on our shores. We should not get fixated on the figure of 30,000, because the number could be much higher. Although I welcome the fact that the UK has agreed to help an unspecified number of refugees, I fear that that number will be very small.
I want to compare that situation with the huge strain under which Syria’s neighbours are already buckling. Not surprisingly, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are under enormous pressure, and there is real concern that they may begin to feel that they have to turn refugees away from their shores. Scores of people trying to escape the fighting, including families with small children, are already being denied admission by those neighbouring countries. According to an April 2013 survey, 71% of Jordanians want the border with Syria to be closed to new arrivals. With thousands of people fleeing Syria every day, that would be catastrophic. That is why western countries have a moral responsibility to show solidarity with Syria’s neighbours by sharing responsibility for protecting some of the people fleeing Syria.
The current situation in Syria’s neighbouring countries is incredibly fragile. For example, the current estimate is that refugees equating to approximately a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million have already fled there, and by the end of the year the UN expects Lebanon to have 1.6 million Syrian refugees, an enormous 35% of the population of a country that was ranked 67th in GDP per capita in 2012. We, on the other hand, are a member of the G8 and one of the world’s largest national economies, and we are potentially being seen to be quibbling about a tiny number of people. The bottom line is that I fear we are not doing as much as we could and should, and that we risk sending out a signal to other countries that it is acceptable for them to do the same.
I hope that we can talk about taking numbers of refugees not just in the hundreds but in the thousands, and that we can talk about what is needed, not the number that it may be politically expedient for us to accept.