Imagine, if you will, that the unremitting horror of Syria is actually happening right here and now in the north of England.
So, consider this: around 500,000 Syrians have lost their lives because of the civil war. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of Liverpool being wiped out. The lucky ones, by comparison, are those families who managed to flee abroad. The UN puts their number at 5.6 million, which is like every last man, woman and child in Yorkshire having to pack their bags and get as far away as possible.
Among those still living the nightmare, though, are 6.5 million persons who have become “displaced” within Syria itself. In other words, they were forced to leave their homes and take refuge wherever they could inside their own country. Give or take a few hundred thousand, that’s the same number of people who live in the whole of North West England.
To complete these shocking parallels between Syria and our own country, the city of Douma that was attacked with chemical bombs on 7 April, with 70 deaths and 500 casualties blamed on chlorine gas and sarin nerve agent, is a similar size to Stockport.
I put these comparisons together because, personally, I’ve been struggling to get my head round the full scale of the Syria bloodbath that began as a civil war in 2010 and now has the capacity to bring the US and Russia eyeball to eyeball with unimaginable consequences. And after the best part of a decade watching TV news reports of atrocity after atrocity, I sense that most of us have become anaesthetised to the human misery that is a daily fact of life and death in Syria.
It was only when I spent a morning with a family of Syrian refugees who have found a peaceful, secure life in Yorkshire that their country’s unrelenting ordeal fully came home to me. They have told their story a hundred times since arriving here, but the disturbing affect on them is still plain to see. Living just outside Damascus they watched the streets around their home gradually fill with heavily armed men who wore no uniforms so it was impossible to tell one warring side from the other. When the husband’s workplace was car-bombed because the company did business with the UK, they realised they had to get out with their three small children. They haven’t looked back.
But the UK has been miserly in accepting refugees from Syria, because the tail that wags the government dog is the right-wing, immigrant-phobic Tory Brexiteers whose slogan is “take control of our borders”. As a result, despite the massive amount of suffering in Syria, so far we have taken in just 11,000 refugees through two resettlement schemes. A further 8,000 Syrians have been granted asylum, including the family I met in Yorkshire.
These figures are scandalous, a colossal stain on our national character. Syria is an uninhabitable wasteland, the worst human catastrophe most of us have known, yet we have accepted just the bare minimum the UN requires of us. As I have, ask yourself this: what would you do if there was war out on our streets? And imagine escaping only to find that the doors to safety were locked. n