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The International Community Must Come Together to Agree a Peace Plan for Syria, and Help Refugees Return to Where Their Hearts Lie

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by Hilary Benn MP and Stephen Twigg MP following their visit to Jordan, courtesy of Oxfam, to look at the refugee crisis there as a result of the Syrian civil war.

[First published by The Huffington Post, 27 October 2015, available here.]

"We travelled for several days, sleeping out, until the Jordanian army picked us up in a truck and brought us here." Such was the matter of fact account of what must have been a traumatic journey for this mother and her four children - the youngest a toddler - as they fled from Syria to Jordan to escape the fighting and the barrel bombs. "Even now", she added, "when the children hear a plane overhead they become frightened again."

We were sitting on the floor of her small metal hut which will be the family's home once again this winter. Outside was a layer of sandy mud - the heavens had just opened - and last winter her eldest son had to climb onto the roof to brush the snow off to stop the ceiling from bowing. Electricity only comes on at 8pm for about seven hours and the family relies on the World Food Programme and the UNHCR to survive. Two of the children go to school but the eldest now stays at home to help his Mum. It is all a far cry from the life they had before in Syria with her husband, whom she has neither seen nor heard from since they fled.

The family just want to be able to go home. It is the waiting and the sense of life slipping away while there is no future to look forward to that is, perhaps, the hardest thing of all. Like any Mum she wants the best for her children.
refugee

Hers is one story among 11million; the seven million Syrians who have fled their homes to seek shelter elsewhere in the country, and the four million who have left Syria altogether. There are 80,000 people now living in the Zaatari camp we were visiting. A vast sprawling settlement less than half an hour from the Syrian border, it is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. Recently it closed to newcomers because it is full, but only a minority of refugees from Syria stay in the camps. The vast majority are to be found living in the towns and cities of Jordan alongside the host community. Jordan's population has increased by 10% since the crisis began - the equivalent of over six million people arriving in the UK to seek shelter - and this has put huge pressure on services and funding.

To its great credit the Jordanian Government has welcomed the refugees and together with the UN and NGOs they are doing an extraordinary job to help people who have endured so much. Britain is the second largest donor of aid to support Syrian refugees in the region and providing this much-needed help shows just how important the generosity of the British people is.

All the families we met appreciate the welcome they have received in Jordan and the help they get, but the one recurring theme was their wish to be able to return home. Those who have been in the camp for more than three years are losing heart and hope as the conflict continues. Their food ration has fluctuated, work is hard to come by and they see no future for their children.

In the second metal hut we visited, a crowd of about fifteen assembled and they were very willing to talk about the political cause of the crisis. We asked one man what he hoped for in Syria. His reply could not have been clearer. "What we want is a Government we can vote for that does not bomb us, arrest us or make people disappear in prison." Their views on ISIL/Daesh were stark. "They are a cancer", said one old women.

All of the people we met are living in a different country because the world has not yet been able to bring this civil war to an end. They did not talk about UN Security Council Resolutions or envoys but what they are looking for more than anything else is for the international community to come together to agree a peace plan for Syria. That would, after all, be the best kind of aid that we could ultimately give them.

It is the world's responsibility now to make this happen so that the anxious Mum we met and her four children can pick up their things and go home to where their hearts lie.

Hilary Benn MP is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and Stephen Twigg MP is Chair of the International Development Select Committee. They visited the Zaatari camp courtesy of Oxfam.

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