3 September 2015

Spare a thought for those left behind


All it took to prick the West’s conscience was a photograph. The image of a helpless child drowned on a Turkish beach has contributed to a remarkable shift in the public mood. As I write this, #refugeeswelcome is top of the Twitter trends and government ministers are rapidly backtracking from their “take no prisoners” (or refugees) stance.

The situation is certainly extraordinary, and heart-wrenching. As Zac Tate wrote for CapX, the number of migrants arriving in Europe has trebled within a year, reaching 107,500 in July.

Conflict in Africa and the Middle East has spurred what the United Nations calls “an age of unprecedented mass displacement”, with more people on the move than at any time since the Second World War. (Though it is worth noting that many of those arriving in the EU are still economic migrants from the Balkans rather than victims of war.)

But even as we open our hearts, and perhaps our homes, it is worth pointing out that there is a group in even greater need: those Syrians back in the Middle East. A new report from UNICEF, released today, found that as a result of the spasm of violence in the Middle East, 40 per cent of children there – more than 13 million boys and girls – are being denied an education. Among Syrian refugees, the proportion is more than half.

On its own, this would be an appalling situation. But it’s not just education. The Syrians left in the refugee camps may have their most basic needs catered for, but not their need for employment, or belonging, or purpose. Instead, they are shut out of the local economy – the formal economy, at least. Many, as Paul Collier says in the Spectator, drift into the cities to join the black market economy, or are tempted into criminality or prostitution, or are radicalised in turn.

This is, obviously, incredibly bad for the refugees themselves. It’s also incredibly bad for the countries that are unwillingly hosting them. Lebanon, for example, was already one of the most brittle and fractious places on earth – its stunningly diverse population forced into uneasy and often bloody coexistence. It has now had to absorb another 1.5 million people, swelling its population by approximately a third. Jordan’s ruling Hashemites were already a minority in their own country, thanks to the influx of a previous generation of refugees from Palestine.

The Palestinian diaspora provides a handy example of how this crisis could play out in the long term. Those refugees were left to rot in the camps for decades, denied the chance to play a full part in the economic and political lives of their new homes. Not only were they impoverished economically, but the camps became a breeding ground for terrorism and radicalisation. The same prospect faces the Syrians today – and those displaced into camps by other conflicts in Yemen or Libya or Iraq.

None of this is to minimise the challenge that Europe faces. But the people arriving are generally more wealthy and more capable than those they have left behind. And the strains and stresses experienced by Britain, Germany, even Greece, Spain and Italy are as nothing compared to those being felt in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – which are in turn as nothing compared to the suffering within Syria itself, now that those countries have been forced to close their borders under the sheer weight of refugee numbers. In short, the people we should be most worried about aren’t the ones arriving on our shores, but those they’ve left behind.

Robert Colvile was comment editor at the Telegraph and UK news director at BuzzFeed. He now writes on politics and technology.