by Wes Streeting, Labour MP, Ilford North
In July 1938, an international conference was convened at the urging of United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to respond to the increasing plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi persecution on the European continent.
Representatives from 32 countries gathered in Evian, France, for eight days, but the conference proved a failure when Britain and the USA refused to accept substantially more refugees and other countries followed their lead.
A mere two months later, Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, rendering 120,000 Jews stateless. In November that same year, Kristallnacht witnessed the destruction of more than a thousand synagogues and the arbitrary arrest and massacre of Jews across the growing German empire. War in Europe followed – and with it, the Final Solution and the senseless, systematic slaughter of Jews, gypsies, gay people and other targets of the Nazi persecution.
It is impossible to predict how many lives might have been saved had the delegates in Evian chosen to act. Today, our country and our partners in Europe face a similar choice in relation to Syrian refugees fleeing the brutality of the Assad regime and the growing horror of ISIS expansion.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, has been calling on the British government to accept more Syrian refugees since December 2013. The prime minister continues to reject calls for the UK to sign up to the UN resettlement programme for Syrian refugees.
David Cameron’s announcement this week that the government will take more refugees is a welcome step in the right direction. But it is shameful that it took the disturbing image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey, to prompt some action following a wave of public outcry. Even so, the prime minister has been lacklustre – a begrudging and isolated response when a vast, coordinated international relief and resettlement programme is required.
It is true that the British people have a proud tradition of offering help to those seeking sanctuary. In contrast to the failure of Britain’s political leaders in 1938 are countless examples of people opening their homes and their hearts to Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransport.
I have been contacted by people in my own constituency asking how they can help, offering to gather supplies to deliver to those in the camps of Calais and even offering up a spare room in their own homes to help a Syrian family.
But our history is also littered with too many examples of our failure to act: Rwanda, Darfur and Sri Lanka to name just a few.
The war raging across Iraq and Syria has brought a humanitarian crisis and the threat of terrorism to our own doorstep.
In an increasingly globalised world, increasingly loud voices on the right and left of British politics have adopted a stance that says: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’.
If the Syrian refugee crisis teaches us anything, it’s that Britain cannot ignore events on the other side of the world in the hope they will go away.
To tackle the refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep, Britain should agree to play a meaningful and proportionate role in taking refugees from Syria and southern European countries, where most refugees have arrived. Our government needs to coordinate efforts on a European-wide basis and should support Angela Merkel’s call for every EU nation to share the burden by convening an urgent meeting of EU leaders to agree action on refugee resettlement and effective action on the EU’s border.
Local authorities, such as mine in the London Borough of Redbridge, are willing to play their part, but they need support from central government. The prime minister needs to coordinate the response to the refugee crisis across government – recognising some of the pressures that will follow in areas such as transport, business, tourism and local government.
The volume of letters and emails I’ve received from the people I represent in Ilford North has restored some of my faith in humanity, reflecting a growing spirit across the country that we can, and should, do more.
When Parliament reconvened on Monday, dozens of MPs from all parties joined together for an emotional vigil in Westminster Hall to pray for refugees fleeing persecution.
But victims of the unimaginable violence in Syria need more than our prayers. They need action. Let this not be yet another conflict where nations with the power and responsibility to act looked the other way.