Three years ago I was sitting in a tent with a Syrian family in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. While their relatives had not managed to escape the escalating violence in Syria alive, this family had. They were preparing to spend a few weeks or maybe months there. Those months have now turned into years. I don't know if they are still there in that tent or if they have tried to make the journey to Europe or elsewhere. Conflict has now forced four million to flee abroad and about eight million are displaced inside Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died. As a result of this and conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries nearly 700,000 people have arrived in Europe this year to seek safety for themselves and their families.
This week in Serbia I met hundreds of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who have spent weeks escaping conflict to get to Europe. Among them are young girls with frostbite on their feet as they have no shoes to protect them from sub-zero temperatures. There are parents who have lost their children to disease along the journey. Many have vivid memories of barrel bombs falling on houses near them. Those I have met this week have clothing that is nowhere near enough to protect them from a winter in Europe, resulting in many being ill. Yet all of them slept outside last night.
They hoped they would be safe once they reached Europe, but so far their hopes are unmet.
The picture of young Aylan dead on a beach in Turkey shocked a dithering Europe towards some action a few months ago. Yet now I am afraid that the next horrific photograph in our papers will be a Syrian family frozen to death somewhere in central Europe. What do we as Europe do then? Do we really need to wait for that before we take decisive action to provide sufficient food and shelter to people who have spent weeks fleeing from conflict?
What needs to happen now are three things.
First, we need to provide sufficiently for the urgent needs of families who have fled violence, both in the Middle East and in Europe. This means for example more shelter from the winter cold and more food. We need full funding for the ongoing work in and around Syria and also in Europe, currently funded at less than 50%. The crisis inside Syria is growing, as are the needs in neighbouring countries. As much attention as the refugee crisis in Europe is getting, we should remember that this is only a fraction (less than 10%) of the number that has fled to Europe and that the overwhelming majority (around 90%) are still in the Middle East. We might have a crisis in Europe, but Turkey, Lebanon, Tanzania and other countries have been handling numbers significantly larger for several years. Europe does not lack resources, it lacks the will to act.
At the same time we need to remember the lessons humanitarian agencies like World Vision have learnt from places such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Tanzania - that host communities need support too. We cannot expect countries to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees without consequences and a need for support. This is true also for those countries in Europe who are hosting the majority of the refugees here. There must be a sustainable European approach or we may be storing up challenges for the future. There is a desperate need for political leadership and courage on this issue.
Second, we need to renew our efforts towards ending conflicts, with the prime example today being Syria. The refugee crisis is a symptom of the failure to end that conflict, and also those in Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries of conflict. Syria needs a peace process, one that can build a credible and sustainable peaceful future. While this may seem distant, efforts to move towards it are needed now.
Third. We need to think carefully about what kind of society Europe is becoming, and what direction we want to move in. Solving the conflict in Syria is a complex task but deciding to shelter children in Europe from the cold and the snow should not be complex. It should require nothing more than rising above complacency towards basic humanity and compassion.
Yet Europe still seems to be at risk of getting so lost in political manoeuvring and our search for own comfort that we are about to watch thousands of people face the harsh winter of Europe unprotected.
We have to ask ourselves if that is the Europe we want to live in. Is it ok that children who have fled to Europe to escape conflict face frostbite in our fields? We can choose to look the other way, but we cannot say we did not know nor that we did not have the chance to make a difference. For those fleeing conflict this is a struggle for survival in a cold winter, for the rest of us it is a struggle over what values we stand for in Europe.
Put a different way, do we want our newspapers to carry pictures of dead refugees in Europe in the lead-up to Christmas because we could not find it in ourselves to provide them with shelter?
We will find the answer to that as we prepare for the Christmas-shopping season.