THE BLOG
01/02/2016 10:31 GMT | Updated 01/02/2017 05:12 GMT

At the London Conference on Syria, European Leaders Must Not Pass the Buck on Need to Protect Refugees

Above all, amidst discussions on the Syrian crisis David Cameron must not lose sight of Britain's own proud tradition of protecting refugees. Indeed it was British lawyers who helped draft the Refugee Convention - which has saved millions of lives. Now is the time for us to live up to it.

This week, world leaders will descend on London to attend an aid pledging conference on Syria led by our Prime Minister.

David Cameron is keen to generate momentum around addressing the Syrian crisis and to see other countries matching the UK's generous aid contribution to the region. With headlines emerging every day of the horror those trapped in Syria are facing and the increasing desperation those who have crossed Syria's border are experiencing, such global leadership is urgently needed.

But the Prime Minister may struggle to make the headway he'd like while overlooking the elephant in the room his Government has so fastidiously tried to ignore: the refugees who are continuing to desperately arrive in Europe.

There's no doubt that in lieu of what's really required - an end to the conflict in Syria which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions - more aid to the region is sorely needed. But so too is an acknowledgement that aid can't be used as a tool for Europe - one of the richest places in the world - to halt the desperate flow of refugees who arrived on its shores last year in record numbers.

Turkey, the nation already hosting the greatest number of refugees in the world, has recently indicated that it cannot be expected to become an open air prison for the refugees Europe would rather not protect.

Global leaders, including David Cameron, should instead acknowledge that they must show true leadership by placing the protection of displaced people at the top of their agendas both at home and abroad.

The European nations around the table this week must reflect on their own responsibility to protect refugees and abject failure to do so. 2015 was the year of the 'European refugee crisis' - but this was really a crisis of leadership and solidarity, not numbers. Europe is a rich continent of 500 million people. Of course we're capable of absorbing a million refugees: Lebanon is sheltering more than that single-handedly.

Yet European leaders continue to pass the buck, racing to make their countries the least hospitable to the men, women and children they're obliged to protect while the EU simultaneously strengths its borders and forces refugees to take ever more deadly risks to access the protection they're legally entitled to.

Those who survive the journey are then subjected to a march of misery across Europe in search of safety, often in a desperate attempt to reunite with their family members. Many then find themselves subject to the Dublin regulation; a European agreement that as the Refugee Council has long argued has never been fit for purpose, and which sees asylum seekers shuttled around the continent like unwanted luggage, and at great expense, as states in northern Europe try to shirk their responsibility towards protecting refugees.

Meanwhile the beneficial elements of the Dublin regulation - which should see asylum seekers in different European countries reunited so they can be together while their claims are processed - go largely ignored by states.

The European Commission will reportedly unveil a new way for Europe to share responsibility protecting refugees in March. We don't yet know what that will look like, but we do know that it can't be forced on countries like Britain, who aren't bound by such legislation.

David Cameron's conference on Syria comes weeks before this new system is due and provides a golden opportunity for him to show true statesmanship and lead the way on refugee protection. In doing so, he must acknowledge this isn't just a job for other countries in far away places. This is a job Britain can help with.

Refugees must be provided with safe, orderly passage to Europe and Britain. Britain must stand shoulder to shoulder with our European neighbours and volunteer to share responsibility for protecting them once they arrive. Britain must make extra efforts to ensure that families who have been divided by war are reunited.

But above all, amidst discussions on the Syrian crisis David Cameron must not lose sight of Britain's own proud tradition of protecting refugees. Indeed it was British lawyers who helped draft the Refugee Convention - which has saved millions of lives. Now is the time for us to live up to it.