Time flies in the world of politics, and with it, the speed with which attitudes change can be breath-taking.
Only two years ago, the House of Commons was recalled from its summer recess to debate the crisis in Syria. The British Government wanted to use its military forces to intervene in the power struggle in that country because of the number of people who were being displaced. Faced with growing public reluctance to see British forces engaged once more in the Middle East, parliament said no.
The British Government however, did not wash its hands of the situation. In the face of strong political opposition, the United Kingdom has led the way in providing support to the displaced people on the ground in and around Syria. In total, £1 Billion of UK taxpayers money has been targeted in the region; half in Syria itself, the rest in the countries around its borders, including £239 Million in Lebanon and £183 Million in Jordan.
This total level of support going into the region from the UK is nearly equal to that provided by all the other members of the European Union, including Germany, put together. On a national basis, our contribution is second only to that of the United States of America.
In Syria, our key objectives have been to meet the needs of the most vulnerable groups including in hard-to-reach areas, and to build resilience at individual, community and institutional level, enabling people to cope in the short term and provide the foundation for a future political transition.
There has also been a concerted effort to strengthen the moderate opposition’s capacity to provide governance and basic services and thereby provide an alternative to extremist groups such as ISIL and to the Assad regime. Britain has also played a role in efforts to improve the effectiveness of the overall international response to the crisis.
In Lebanon, where the number of displaced people is having the greatest domestic impact, it has been our role to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese and to ensure that, over time, we strengthen the resilience of refugees in a sustainable way.
Vital in this work are efforts to expand the education system to reach the huge numbers of Syrian refugee children whilst maintaining the quality of education for Lebanese children.
Resources donated by the British Government are also delivering support to the most vulnerable and conflict-prone municipalities in that nation in order to provide and improve basic service delivery and infrastructure while improving opportunities for jobs and better livelihoods for both Lebanese and Syrians.
Meanwhile in Jordan, efforts are targeted to provide humanitarian assistance and services in refugee camps and host communities, supporting the delivery of basic services in municipalities with the most refugees and improving the quality of education for all early grade primary school children in Jordan and help to integrate Syrian refugees into the education system.
We will also work to build longer term stability by supporting Jordan’s programme of political and economic reform as part of the cross-Government Arab Partnership. We are also providing support for Palestinian refugees in Jordan.
As one of the few countries in the world to hold to its commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product on international aid, Britain has become a world leader in providing support to those who need it, quickly and without prejudice. Worthy of note however, that as recently as April of this year, this figure was heavily criticised by some of the Governments political opponents as being overly generous; a claim flatly rejected by David Cameron.
The fickle nature of public opinion, and some elements of the press, can be seen even more clearly when we contrast their reaction last week to the news that, in the last full year for which we have figures, nearly 700,000 people from abroad were allowed to settle in the UK. Though this figure was greeted with outrage, this week politicians have been competing with each other with their promises to throw the doors open.
Nevertheless, the United Kingdom will now begin the task of finding homes for tens of thousands of people from the same areas around the war-zone where our resources have been targeted up till now. It is entirely consistent that we should continue to provide for these groups rather than become involved in housing some of those who wish to seek asylum in Germany.
As ever, we know not where this process will take us in the future but it is my firm belief that David Cameron is doing the right thing. If there are others who feel that this is an appropriate moment to ignore all of the above and score a few cheap party-political points, then it is up to us to judge them for what they are.