Mary Creagh: We owe it to refugees to act

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Having witnessed first-hand their courage and resilience in such desperate circumstances, it is time Britain recognised the plight of those fleeing Syria.

I HAVE just returned from three days in Lebanon with the charity Islamic Relief. I witnessed at first hand the refugee crisis engulfing the region.

Almost four million Syrians have left their homes and crossed the border. Another six million have been internally displaced.

Lebanon has taken in more than one million Syrian refugees. In the autumn of 2014, Lebanon was accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees a day. Every two days the country was offering shelter to as many refugees as David Cameron plans to accept in five years. This has put huge pressure on the country’s delicate social balance.

I met people fleeing the brutality of both Isis and the Assad regime. They were refugees, not economic migrants.

I met Iman, a 65-year-old grandmother from Aleppo. After her son was killed, she returned to Syria to save her five grandchildren. She was imprisoned by the Assad regime for 17 days. She now lives with her grandchildren in a shack made of breeze blocks, cardboard and plastic sheeting on rocky land offered to them by a Lebanese man.

Hadia told me how her husband was killed in Syria while working as a Red Cross volunteer. The United Nations offered to take her and her children to Germany, but she declined because her mum was unable to accompany them. Four of her sdult children are still trapped in Homs.

Yousif told me about how he fled Mosul with his four children when Isis took over his city. And Imad told me how he lost his eye and lost his hearing when terrorists blew up the Baghdad cafe where he worked.

I was moved by the courage and resilience shown by people in such desperate circumstances. These refugees want people in Britain to understand their plight.

There have been daily reminders that our world faces the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Throughout the summer terrible stories – people drowning, suffocating in lorries – have appeared on TV screens and in newspapers. But at times the language used by the UK government has shamed Britain’s proud tradition of offering sanctuary. David Cameron referred to ‘swarms’, and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond talked about ‘marauding migrants’. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister argued that the UK should not accept any more refugees. The Prime Minister has been a laggard, not a leader on this issue.

David Cameron was forced into a u-turn by the weight of public opinion. The terrible picture of Syrian toddler Aylan al-Kurdi, lying lifeless on the beach at Bodrum, showed the world the experience of the millions fleeing conflict. The #refugeeswelcome campaign and the call from Yvette Cooper for more refugees to be accepted pushed the government into taking action.

The Prime Minister has now pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years. But five years is too long for the people scraping a living in camps in Lebanon. Disabled children and old people will not survive the winter in cardboard boxes.

The Government must also engage with the crisis on the UK’s doorstep – countries like Hungary, Italy and Greece are struggling to cope with the number of refugees arriving. Britain has a responsibility to offer support and work with our European partners.

Britain has a proud history of offering sanctuary to people fleeing conflict and persecution. In the 1930s, Britain took in 70,000 Jewish people. During the Balkan conflicts we offered shelter to 2,500 Bosnians and 4,000 Kosovans. We must honour that legacy.

I am proud that cities like Wakefield have risen to the challenge of becoming ‘cities of sanctuary’ over the last 20 years. The generosity of local families, donating what they can or even offering rooms in their own homes, has been truly humbling.

The brutal civil war in Syria, the turbulence in Libya and Iraq and ongoing human rights abuses in Eritrea have created a severe humanitarian crisis. Refugees need our help now.

I have been heartened by the support that the British public have shown in recent days for refugees. The refugees I met in Lebanon had suffered terribly, but continued to hope for a brighter future. We owe it to them to act.

Mary Creagh is the Wakefield MP and Shadow International Development Secretary.