Belfast Telegraph

Refugee crisis a chance for us to do good and make friends

By Liam Clarke

Seeing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees being welcomed off the train in Germany was as much of a reality check as the pathetic sight of Ayman Kurdi's young body washed up on the beach at Bodrum.

Germany will do well out of this; it cements its position as the leader of Europe and will build up friendly contacts that will last for generations. Britain, by contrast, is generous in its aid to the Middle Eastern camps and is intervening militarily, but it is losing the PR battle by offering to take only 20,000 people over five years, while Germany is gearing up to take 800,000.

The sight of Theresa May, the Home Secretary, inspecting defences against 2,000 unfortunates at Calais, as if it was the D-Day landings, and David Cameron's reference to "swarms", as if it was an infestation of stinging insects to be put down, rather than a tide of suffering humanity, didn't improve the image, either.

We were glad when America and Britain were willing to take in our "huddled masses" during the famine and at times of stress. Many of them have come back, made a good contribution to their adopted countries and provided us with contacts when we go abroad looking for investment or advice.

The fact is that the people who are fleeing Syria are not like the starving peasantry who fled our shores during the famine. Many are educated people. They have to be to afford the people-traffickers.

The Germans see it as an opportunity to help themselves as they help others. "Every euro we spend on training migrants is a euro to avoid a shortage of skilled labour," German state governments declared last week.

Otherwise, they say, they would have to spend more on benefits, as the labour shortage hurts industry and jobs.

We are in a similar position - an aging population with not enough people paying tax to support them. Immigration can help redress the balance.

When Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime built up a large middle class, much of it was Christian or Muslim, but didn't want to live in an Islamic state. That is why they are leaving - they dread a future under Isis.

Millions are in refugee camps in the Middle East under terrible conditions. They started leaving, travelling to Europe in large numbers, once it became clear they wouldn't get home to Syria any time soon.

"Nearly all refugees want to go home. They don't sit in refugee camps calculating where they can get the best benefits," said Alexander Betts, Professor of Oxford University's School of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

He added that most Syrians were "well educated" and "most data shows the economic impact is generally positive", though he warns that many will go home if the situation in Syria improves.

What could we do here? We could think of opening up a major centre, say in one of our disused Army barracks, or forces' housing complexes, like Ballykelly or Shackleton barracks. Possibly redundant care homes could be pressed into service.

There could be money from central Government to help, David Cameron has promised funding to English councils to help with resettlement.

The sort of place I am thinking of should not be a permanent home. People need to integrate with the community and not live in ghettos, but they may need to be housed together until they get some training and orientation. Some could be resettled in other parts of the UK, or Ireland, later.

One thing is for sure: we should be looking at the Syrian crisis as an opportunity - not a threat.

It is a chance to help others (seldom a bad thing), improve our image and build links to a sophisticated, oil-producing country which will end its civil war some day.

Belfast Telegraph


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