Last week, I was in Geneva at a WCC/UN high level conference where representatives from the major churches in Europe were joined by the head of UNICEF and the German Interior Minister amongst many others to see what collaborative approaches can be taken to address issues arising from the refugee crisis. As Co-Chair of the Faiths Forum for London, I spoke on interfaith issues and social cohesion and made suggestions on how we in Britain can do more to help.
What struck me most were the stark figures which made it clear that this is a crisis unlike any other in European history:
- in 2015, Germany took in 1 million refugees;
- 40,000 new teachers are urgently needed in Germany because of the number of child refugees;
- Lebanon's population has increased by 25% due to refugees entering the country;
- almost 3,800 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2015 en route to Europe;
- about 1 in 3 refugees is under the age of 18.
Time and again, we heard how Europe was struggling with the arrivals. Public services are stretched. Reception conditions are awful in some countries, with migrants wanting to claim asylum in more hospitable nations such as Sweden or Germany. Social integration is also proving a challenge in some regions which have until recently been homogeneous in their culture and ethnic make-up.
European legislation came in for heavy criticism. Under the Dublin Regulations, a person must claim asylum in the first EU country they enter. That has put immense pressure on border states such as Greece and Italy, and many at the conference considered the Regulations to be in need of drastic reform. One suggestion was that refugees should be split between all of the EU member states according to the availability of resources and capacity.
Another concern raised was the impact of climate change and how the concept of refugees may need to be extended to include people who can no longer live or work in a country due to environmental reasons. Drought, famine, flooding and other natural disasters are all taking their tolls on countries and people are fleeing abroad to areas with a much more stable climate.
Speakers were united in their belief that we must recognise refugees as individuals, and this was reflected in the statement issued at the end of the conference. It's easy to dismiss a group of people when seen as a mass, but much harder to do so when those people have their own stories to tell. This narrative from refugees is vital if we are to understand what their fears and worries are, and why they have risked their lives to travel thousands of miles to a foreign land for sanctuary.
Britain also has its role to play, and the Government should consider changing its policy towards those already in Europe. Allowing 3,000 unaccompanied children into the UK as refugees would be a step in the right direction, but it is derisory compared to the numbers taken in by other EU states. Britain should take its fair share of refugees and actively be part of the solution. Foreign aid simply isn't enough, and air strikes in Syria have so far failed to bring any semblance of political stability to the region.
Whilst we wait for the Government to change its approach, British charities and public bodies can help towns and cities on the continent with promoting and enabling social integration. We can share our good practices with those areas experiencing social diversity for the first time, as well as highlight where we have encountered our own problems and difficulties. Our NGOs and community groups are well placed to guide those in Europe on how to achieve better social cohesion based on our own experiences, both good and bad.
This crisis needs a cohesive solution which is far reaching and which involves the cooperation of the EU, the UN and all European nations. It requires political resolution in the countries where people are coming from, possible changes to EU legislation regarding refugees, and greater cross-border help and advice on how to integrate newcomers into host countries. Collaboration is key to the solution, and if we fail to work together on the current refugee crisis, we could find ourselves dealing with much greater humanitarian issues and societal challenges throughout Europe in the near future.