Bishop of Southwark speaks on Syrian refugees, the aid challenge and refugee camp conditions

On 29th October 2015 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Truscott, to “ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent assault by the Syrian armed forces on Aleppo, what is their strategy for tackling the refugee crisis in Syria.”

The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Rev Christopher Chessun, spoke in the debate.

BishSouthwarktaxcreditsThe Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I have the honour to be a patron of the charity Embrace the Middle East and visited Syria in May of last year for the enthronement of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Aphrem II, at Maarat Saidnaya, just outside Damascus.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for giving your Lordships the opportunity to discuss this pressing matter. With over half its population displaced, Syria is now a land of the dispossessed, and we are looking at a topography of dust, rubble and dried blood. This is the land where we read in Acts that the designation Christian was first used but where all minorities are now especially vulnerable in the particular context of the destabilisation of the state. We are witnessing a humanitarian disaster in slow motion, with repercussions which are impacting on many nations including our own.

Some in your Lordships’ House can speak with more expertise than me on diplomatic process, military options and geopolitics. Noble Lords will know of the Bishops’ letter to the Prime Minister, which called for a more generous response on the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict who will come to this country during the life of this Parliament. Today, however, I will concentrate on two areas only. One is the condition of the refugee camps in the countries bordering Syria and the second is the role that development agencies and churches are playing in the region and within Syria itself.

I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s Government for their financial commitment, which in bilateral terms is second only to that of the United States, which is a far larger economy. Indeed, UK government aid to Syria is significantly ahead of our European partners, although of course the refusal to work with other European Governments with regard to the migrants now in Europe significantly reduces their authority in encouraging others to help with aid in the region.

I do not say that Her Majesty’s Government cannot do more, but it has done a great deal through DfID to help to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people in Syria and of refugees in the region, although it needs to be noted that the UK’s investment overseas in aid will decrease given the Government’s decision to use the aid budget to meet the costs of the 20,000 Syrian refugees to be brought to this country. Nevertheless, there is a pressing diplomatic need for the Government to pursue: it is for our European and international partners to invest more heavily in aid to the region in a way they have not done before. Why? The answer is simply that life in the refugee camps is not sustainable on the current levels of funding. No amount of resettlement will mitigate the continued failure of the international community to address the refugee crisis at source. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has calculated that for what was needed in the way of humanitarian aid, in three successive years the amount raised fell—from 71% in 2013 to 57% in 2014 and to a mere 37% by October this year.

What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children about this conflict? They will talk of cowering in flimsy houses while watching the regime’s barrel bombs fall, of watching beheadings and crucifixions of family members at the hands of ISIS, of payment of the extortionate jizya tax as humiliated minorities, of the deadening existence in refugee camps and of hazardous journeys to foreign lands. All will have stories that reflect the trauma of this avoidable tragedy. A recent study by the University of Saint Joseph shows that in Lebanon 24% of Syrian refugees are getting married before they are 18 and are becoming more vulnerable as a result.

Secondly, parishes and churches in this country are continuing to support a range of charities and mission agencies at work in the region, including Christian Aid’s Syria emergency appeal. The Jesuit Refugee Service may well be the largest Christian organisation working in and around Syria, serving, by its own estimates, nearly half a million people in the region. Our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, is also active in Jordan and Lebanon, supported by the British charity Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association.

I recognise that mass resettlement is neither possible nor desirable. The English bishops share the concern of the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo but also distinguish themselves from him on a number of points.

In conclusion, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, I note that the Home Secretary, speaking at the Conservative Party conference, made a commitment to community sponsorship schemes to bring refugees to the UK. It would be good to know from the noble Baroness in what way this is being taken forward.

I trust that Her Majesty’s Government will persist in their generosity in this crisis. The United Nations’ humanitarian summit in 2016 may prove such an opportunity, not least in seeking to restore some sense of international order in dealings with refugees.

I would therefore also be glad to know from the Minister what steps are being taken to use that summit early next year to regalvanise the international community’s commitment to refugee protection and support. Lastly, what steps are being taken to reverse the declining mobilisation of funding for the UN humanitarian effort?


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