Jan Royall on tackling the Middle East refugee crisis through long-term investment in the region
The indomitable human spirit never ceases to amaze me. At the weekend I met Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Beirut, whose courage and determination made me ashamed of the EU’s woeful response to the humanitarian crisis. Yes, more aid is now reaching the region – with the UK making a large financial contribution – and there are some funds available for communities in member states to make them more resilient, but it is not enough.
The countries in the region are hugely overstretched, yet they continue to welcome those fleeing conflict. Lebanon is a beautiful land whose political system is paralysed, where economic growth has stalled but which has provided refuge for hundreds of thousands fellow human beings. And the figures are stark.
A population of 4.5 million and now over 2 million refugees has led to enormous pressure on education, health, electricity and water. Not to mention increasing worsening poverty amongst the Lebanese. In contrast, in the wealthy EU, refugees are just 0.8% of our population. In the UK we worry about the possibility of integrating 1000 refugees before Christmas; one small town in Lebanon has welcomed 80,000. The pressures on the region, on public services and on individuals are unsustainable. In Jordan where there are over 1.5 million refugees, 88% of its population now live below the poverty level.
Special attention must be given to the needs of children. Great efforts are being made to provide education in Lebanon and the UK is very supportive, but 66% of the children have no access to any form of schooling. The average debt of Syrian families is $800, with 70% of their budget going on food. If rents go up, food goes down so they send their children out to work. Child labour therefore, is going up – along with early marriages. Water is an increasing problem as are related diseases. The future for children and young people is so bleak that it is no wonder that some parents are willing to risk the perilous journey to Europe as a family or send their children unaccompanied.
The talks in Vienna and the renewed efforts to end the war in Syria are welcome. But unless we address the root causes of the refugee crisis, the numbers will increase. And it must involve a political solution.
Other action is also needed on investment, with more money needed for humanitarian aid in the short term. At present, only 50% of the funds required are available. In the medium term, economic investment is critical for the region. Even without conflict, people with no jobs and no hope will understandably be compelled to travel north in search of a better life. The EU should look again at its neighbourhood policy, rewrite the Barcelona process, and give some real commitment. More importantly, the time has come to seriously consider a new Marshall Fund for the Middle East and North Africa.
According to a recent report by UNHCR, nearly 60 million people are fleeing conflict worldwide. This is a global crisis that requires global action. Last time we experienced such a huge number of refugees, following the Second World War, the Marshall Plan enabled the rebuilding of western economies and gave stability to individuals and countries devastated by war. If we do not do something similar now, there will be enormous implications for the region, the EU, and the latter’s member states and citizens.
The challenges are massive but the resilience of refugees – exhausted, often hungry, with no proper roof over their head and soon to be suffering from the cold, and desperately concerned about the future – must be a catalyst for action. A catalyst to end the conflict in Syria, provide adequate humanitarian assistance in the region and refuge in wealthy countries like our own. A catalyst also to make the necessary economic investment that will ensure a sustainable future for the Middle East and North Africa.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is a Labour Peer and a Vice-President of the Party of European Socialists. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 3rd November 2015