Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Weekend Read: Syria, and the difference UK Aid can make

 Last weekend I travelled to the Syria Border to see for myself how British help is making a difference to the lives of thousands of Syrian Refugees. I went to the Nizip refugee camp. There are 17,000 refugees there. This is just a fraction of the 600,000 Syrians sheltering in Southern Turkey, who have fled the brutality of Assad. They are only able to survive with the support of the Turkish government, and the international aid that is given by many countries, not least Britain.

My trip lasted 4 days. My primary reason to go was to take part in a social action project, distribute warm weather clothing to the refugees for the winter snows that are coming to the region and also see what happens to the money that British people spend on international aid. It was one of the most humbling and disturbing visits I have ever experienced.

Nizip is on a famous site in Turkey, right on the bank of the River Euphrates; the camp has around 11,000 Syrians in tents, and just under 6,000 in containers. The camps have been in existence for around a year, and cater to Syrians fleeing Aleppo, Homs, and all of Northern Syria. Half of the 17,000 people there are children. I was able to see for myself the difference the British food aid was making in the shops that exist on the camp.

Indeed, Britain has provided over £500 million of aid to the Syrian Refugee crisis – the second biggest in the world after the USA. It is money well spent and it is getting to the right people. Life does go on even in the camp: I went round many of the classrooms that exist on the camp, as the Syrians try to provide education for their children. I met Suleiman, a former engineer in Homs, who was now a teacher of Year 6 and 7 children in the camp. He spoke movingly of the family members he had lost, his desire to return one day to his homeland, and the difficulties of teaching in the camp. I sat in on a primary school class and distributed presents from Playdo to sports equipment.

While in Nizip I also met representatives of the host Turkish Aid organisations, UNICEF, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and separately spoke to the Syrian opposition leaders and military commanders. The background to this visit is the upcoming Geneva II peace negotiations, beginning in Switzerland on 22 January, where the international community will be doing all it can to bring about a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria. The objective is a transitional government, which will allow the Syrian people to cross the border 20 miles south of the Nizip camp and go home.

Last year, most commentators believed that the Assad regime was finished, and that the fighting would soon be over. No one thinks so now. The refugee crisis in Syria has seen over 2 million people displaced: what I saw in Southern Turkey is a fraction of the consequences of the Assad conflict. The sheer number of displaced Syrians is impossible to compute: TV can show us families huddling in the snows; it can transmit pictures of injured children; it can broadcast footage of rubble. But it can’t convey the sheer vastness of what is going on.

So this week in the House of Commons I have raised with the Foreign Secretary the urgent need to take all steps necessary to enable Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, both diplomatically through the Geneva II peace negotiations, and ultimately through the provision of safe havens. In the meantime, we have to do all that we can to ensure the safe passage of aid to the Syrians both in, and outside, their homeland.

One final thing was clear to me, by reason of this weekend: British people are saving lives, making a difference, and allowing the Syrians a chance to live. We should be very proud of our action and our humanitarian support. This is giving the world the chance to develop a diplomatic solution which will ultimately allow the Syrians to go back to their homeland.