Seven years into the war in Syria many of the people forced to become refugees have created new lives for themselves in other countries. I have seen some of the worst consequences of the refugee crisis — in places like the Calais Jungle and Greece — but it has also revealed examples of ingenuity and humanity.
Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is one such example. This vast camp, home to almost 80,000 refugees, was built from the desert to become Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Today it hosts hospitals, health centres, football pitches, over 30 schools and 3,000 shops and businesses. All of this has been possible, in part, because of British aid and the work of humanitarian agencies.
Refugee camps are not places that people want to come to, but I was impressed with the efficiency of the basic services being provided in Zaatari. Aid provided by the Department for International Development is providing much-needed healthcare facilities in the camp. Across the border in Syria, the same aid is repairing clean water systems in bombed-out cities providing a lifeline for millions of civilians.
A recycling project I visited in Zaatari would have made some councils here in the UK blush. Waste is collected throughout the camp and brought to the facility, where it is sorted into different streams before being sold on. The proceeds go directly to the refugees running the project, helping to maintain the facility and giving them a salary to live off.
A workshop set up by Oxfam was filled with women at sewing machines fashioning tote bags out of canvas from old tents. The bags are sold in Europe and the profits invested back into the enterprise. This is intelligent aid and as far from a culture of handouts as one could get.
Zaatari has provided a safe place for people to build a new life in safety and has prevented thousands of Syrians from making dangerous journeys to the West. But there are some cases where families have not been able to make a simple transition to somewhere like Zaatari.
Families are splintered in the chaos of war and in their desperate bids to reach a place of safety. Where families have been torn apart, we should do what we can to ensure that they can live together again in safety.
Under family reunion laws in the UK, adult refugees can only sponsor their partner or young children to join them. There is no concept of family beyond the nuclear unit of two parents and their children: grandparents, elder siblings, uncles, aunts, are not considered family.
This absurd situation means that a child who arrives alone in the UK cannot sponsor their own parents or siblings to live with them. Equally, parents can only reunite with those of their children who are below the age of 18. For those who want to live with their families against all the odds — and who doesn’t — making a dangerous journey to Europe at the hands of smugglers may be the only option.
I have campaigned for an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that would ensure that a version of the Dublin system remains in UK law after we leave the EU. The Dublin system currently allows children who have reached Europe to reunite with a relative in the UK safely, but this small mercy will not be preserved in the current Bill.
We also need to look at reforming family reunion laws to embrace a wider definition of family. It is completely within our government’s power to expand these criteria and it could be done in a matter of days.
When Britain leaves the EU next March, I believe we have an opportunity to define a new and truly global Britain. Our foreign policy and diplomacy will be central to this, but so will the aid we give to less developed parts of the world and the humanity we show to people fleeing violence and war.
British aid has helped to create a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of people in Jordan and is providing a lifeline to those who remain in Syria. It is a worthy expression of our intentions as a global Britain beyond Brexit.