‘When people can’t eat, they are not being educated and they don’t have access to work, that is when we have problems’ - Suffolk MP visits Greek island to see refugee crisis at first hand
As world leaders met in Westminster to discuss the Syrian crisis, political editor Annabelle Dickson spoke to Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill who has just returned from the Greek island of Lesbos - a gateway for many of the refugees of the conflict.
The Bury St Edmunds MP was one of a trio of politicians who travelled to the Greek island of Lesbos last weekend to see at first hand the shore where desperate mothers and their children arrive after death-defying crossings in search of a better life.
Behind the tranquil facade, she saw the “overwhelming” number of people in camps. Just last year the small island of up to 100,000 people processed half a million people who had landed. The food queue in one camp was 8,000-strong.
But, like her government, she does not believe the solution is systems of quotas of refugees for each country. While emphasising she was not an expert, she is clear that a collective approach to stopping the illegal smuggling trade and a better system for finding out who is arriving is needed.
“We mustn’t forget some of these are refugees and some are economic migrants. Until we have a system we won’t be able to sort them.”
It is a local agency – Pikpa – which deals with the arrivals. They sit on the shore communicating via messaging service What’s App when a boat arrives.
On the Saturday Ms Churchill was there, 1,700 people came ashore and 33 people lost their lives in the crossing. “We only saw one boatload of people being assisted. We saw hundreds of people carrying sleeping bags, being given clothes. Save the Children has a family centre where children can draw.”
She is clear the British government is doing a “brilliant job” in the region where the refugees are coming from, with the amount of aid being given only surpassed by America.
And she believes the conference in London yesterday looking at a long-term solution for the refugees in the UK is showing leadership. “It is important that others step up and follow our lead. This is a broad-based global response that we need to this crisis.”
But she is adamant that the aid needs to continue to flow to the region. “When people can’t eat, they are not being educated and they don’t have access to work, that is when we have problems. In order to change that environment for them, helping transform things close to Syria is, in my view, the right strategy.
“Many of the mothers [she met] wanted work and education and a degree of stability. The approach that we are taking and that I hope others will follow is to enable those countries nearer to Syria to be facilitated is the right one in my view.
“There are 2.2million refugees in Turkey, 1.5m in Jordan and many others dispersed across the region. What are you meant to do? Unless we start to build a coherent strategy close to where they want to return, people will want to travel and we will have to deal with the consequences.
“I want to see better assistance at the points where people are coming to and trying to do away with those pull factors for both the trafficking trade and for migrants.”
So did the two-day visit change her view?
“It is very different seeing something in the flesh than reading about it in the paper. I came back with the view the Government is doing the right thing. Targeting aid nearer the point of conflict.
“However I am very much aware that we have a crisis on our doorsteps and that just by not talking about it is not going to go away.
“I did not speak to one person who said their destination point was the UK. That may not have been a representative sample, but the majority say Germany, with a large number saying Sweden.
“A policy of total acceptance is acting as a pull factor, The concern is what happens at the point you say ‘no more’. I don’t know the answer to that. It is a serious question we have got to think about.”
“I felt sympathy for the Greeks because of the enormity of the problem that has largely landed because of geographical location.
“I felt disgust at the trade – boats and lifejackets. They are sold for 30 euros and are filled with material that, when they get wet, get heavy. The boats are not seaworthy. To most of us that just seems wrong. We need to look at way to challenge that trade.”