As the civil war in Syria nears its fourth bloody year, the country’s refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing. More than half of the country’s pre-war population is estimated to have been displaced.
A year ago, the government announced a scheme to resettle some of the most vulnerable refugees from the conflict. But some charities say Britain’s response isn’t good enough and that we should be taking in more of those fleeing Syria.
Ciaran Jenkins, Channel 4 News’s North of England correspondent, has been to meet two Syrians – both of them suffering from cancer – who’ve been resettled in Bradford.
In their council house in Bradford’s Little Horton area, Walid Al-Ahmad, his wife and three daughters (above) are getting used to life in a new country – one free of the fear and horror they experienced in Syria.
“We were frightened for our lives and the lives of our children,” his wife Esaaf told Channel 4 News.
“We were in the dark but we have moved to the light. Our lives have turned upside down. And for the better” said Walid.
Walid was resettled in Britain because he has cancer. After fleeing their home in Moarat al-Numan, near Idlib in northern Syria, the al-Ahmad family fled to Lebanon.
There, Walid had to make a perilous journey back into Syria every time he needed to receive treatment for the disease. “I used to leave my family… and not know if I was going to go back or not”.
Not only did he run the risk of death each time, but the treatment was cripplingly expensive and the disease was spreading fast. So fast, that when he did eventually make it to Britain – where he is now undergoing treatment on the NHS – he had to have his lower leg amputated.
Not too far away, another Syrian family (below) has cause to thank the government and the NHS. 11 year old Hamza is here to be treated for leukaemia. His father was killed in the first year of fighting.
“I feel sad”, he told Channel 4 News, “because most people’s fathers are alive, but not mine”.
Hamza moved here with his Mum Zakaa and two brothers, Ayham, 20, and Anas, 17. They’re building their futures here from almost nothing. Little remains of the lives they left behind.
For Ayham, calls to friends left behind are a grim reminder of the situation in his homeland. “Maybe someday I call somebody, his family tell me: “your friend is dead”. This happen for me.”
For their mother, this existence brings its own kind of agony.
“We have everything here”, she told Channel 4 News, “but still we worry about our own people and our own country. We may be able to live here but the rest of our families still stuffer the way we suffered.”
“I hope that the chance I was given will be given to all people in Syria.”
But Hamza is just one of ninety vulnerable refugees helped by the government’s flagship Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.
As the civil war in Syria nears its fourth bloody year, the country’s refugee crisis shows no signs of slowing. The UNHCR estimates more than half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced, with at least 6.5 million Syrians displaced internally and 3.8 million Syrians registered as refugees in countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Thousands of Syrians have sought to reach Europe – often with disastrous results. The UNHCR says upwards of 60,000 Syrians – including 10,000 children – arrived in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean between January and October 2014. Others drowned as their rickety boats sank beneath the waves.
The UNHCR has been attempting to resettle 100,000 of the 3.8m Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and North Africa. It’s secured over 78,000 pledges to take refugees from countries across the globe.
The UK’s contribution was announced exactly a year ago. The UK would take “several hundred” of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees over three years under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.
So far, according to the Home Office’s latest available figures, 90 Syrian refugees have been resettled in UK under the scheme. Charities like Amnesty and Oxfam say it’s not good enough.
Amnesty International’s UK Director Kate Allen told Channel 4 News: “We are in an extraordinary crisis at the moment. It’s the biggest refugee crisis for a generation: 4 million Syrians outside of Syria, most of them in the region. And Britain’s response to that is to take 90 people. This really isn’t serious. I was in Lebanon not so long ago, seeing the way people are living in tents in horrendous conditions and there are people there who will die unless they get support from the UK and other European countries.”
And a group of celebrity backers recently signed an open letter to David Cameron, condemning the scale of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, saying they “couldn’t have been more disappointed when we discovered the scale of your ambition for Syria’s refugees”. Amnesty described the scheme as “pitiful”.
“At the forefront of the international response”
We are in an extraordinary crisis at the moment. It’s the biggest refugee crisis for a generation: 4 million Syrians outside of Syria, most of them in the region. And Britain’s response to that is to take 90 people. Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director
But, according to the Home Office, the UK’s efforts go far beyond the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme and many more than 90 refugees have received help from this country.
The Home Office says that the UK “has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria” and that in addition to the 90 Syrians taken in under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, the UK has “given sanctuary to more than 3,000 Syrian nationals and their dependants” since the crisis began.
The department also says the UK’s pledge of £700m in aid is reaching “hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt”.
Of course, the idea of allowing large numbers of refugees into the country is controversial. With immigration a red hot topic on the political agenda and Bradford already a by-word for failed attempts at integration and community tensions, there are many who will feel uncomfortable about the prospect of more of new immigrants arriving.
Sweden, one country which is well known for its generosity to those fleeing from conflict, has allowed in 10,000 Syrian refugees. As Channel 4 News discovered in November 2013, it hasn’t gone without problems. Many Syrians find sanctuary and an escape from conflict, but also the old sectarian and political divides they thought they’d left behind at home, with pro- and anti-Assad factions intimidated and threatened by members of their own community.
Despite this, the Syrians we spoke to said they’d been warmly welcomed to the city.
“I am sure we will continue our life here, because we are offered everything here”, said Walid.
“At the beginning it was very strange, but people are very kind here.”