Saturday 24 March 2018

World cannot afford to let Syrian war enter another year

The flow of refugees will not stop until we face this crisis together as Europeans, writes Barry Andrews of Goal

A man walks past a burnt car and damaged buildings along a street at the al-Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, Syria. Photo: Reuters
A man walks past a burnt car and damaged buildings along a street at the al-Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, Syria. Photo: Reuters

Barry Andrews

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told me back in 2014 that it would take a single incident - an iconic photograph - to open the world's eyes to the conflict in Syria, and move the world to action.

She was wrong.

We had our iconic photo. When the upsetting image of Aylan Kurdi made its way around the world last September, I honestly thought we had reached a tipping point with Syria. Finally, I thought, after more than 250,000 deaths since and with more than half the pre-war population having fled their homes, the international community would act in the face of a wave of humanity seeking refuge from this vicious war.

Act they did. They've built razor wire fences while long-standing principles of solidarity and cooperation have disintegrated in the face of one million refugees.

The EU has convulsed itself to the point that its very future is questioned.

I was in Gaziantep a few weeks ago, a city on the Turkish Syrian border. Before the start of the Syrian war in March 2011, Gaziantep was a city of two million people. Now it is home to three million, a million of them Syrian refugees - exactly the same number that the European Union of 500 million people was totally incapable of coping with in 2015.

Despite what is clearly a huge burden in terms of social services, Gaziantep continues to do its best to manage a very difficult situation.

I was in the local paediatric and maternity hospital there. Built for a capacity of 200, it currently hosts 500 patients, all of them Syrians. I saw three babies in each incubator.

The Turkish population, which the hospital was built to serve, has been diverted to private facilities while their hospital is dedicated entirely to refugees.

I found their generosity incredible and wondered, as a former politician, how the public in any European city would react if faced with such an influx. There would be understandable disquiet and resentment.

We need now to come together as Europeans and face this problem together.

It is 60 years since what was to go on to become the European Union was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nations came together in an attempt to prevent future wars breaking out among the nations of Europe.

It has been remarkably successful. The EU has expanded to take in nations that spent 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, and others like Spain and Portugal that had spent a generation under dictatorship. It deepened the relationship between those states far beyond what was initially envisaged and has brought prosperity and peace to 500 million people.

Now, the prospect of increasing our population by just 0.2pc or one million people has brought us to the worst crisis in our history and threatens to row back years of progress.

We need a coherent response to a problem that is not going to disappear any time soon. Refugees will simply find new ways of entering the EU if current routes are closed off.

Any movement towards closing routes for refugees must be accompanied by measures to strengthen mechanisms for relocating refugees within Europe and resettling refugees from Syria and neighbouring countries through voluntary admissions on a proportionate basis.

Promises of help for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in particular in coping with 4.5 million Syrian refugees must be matched by concrete delivery.

Above all, we must focus on where the problem is emanating from - Syria.

The war has been going on for five years and the scale of humanitarian need has escalated each year. There are now 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria, with Goal meeting many of the needs of one million of those in its area of operations in north west Syria.

Humanitarian aid workers continue to work under risk of attack by air and land as the recent bombing of two MSF-supported hospitals illustrates. The first priority for any negotiations must be to ensure that access to humanitarian aid and those that provide it are protected.

We also need to ensure the humanitarian routes are kept open, an increasingly difficult task as frontlines are increasingly fluid.

Ultimately, the flow of refugees from Syria will only stop when the war stops. Every effort of the international community must go towards ensuring that an enduring and genuine peace emerges from the talks that are spluttering to a start in Geneva.

Neither Syria, nor the world can afford to mark the sixth anniversary of this war next year.

Barry Andrews is CEO of Goal.

Sunday Independent

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