Chas Booth: We cannot turn our backs on refugees

A woman sits with her child inside a tent at the refugee camp of Schisto, Athens.  Picture: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
A woman sits with her child inside a tent at the refugee camp of Schisto, Athens. Picture: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
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EDINBURGH must do everything in its power to give a warm welcome to refugees, argues Chas Booth.

WHEN I worked for a Scottish aid charity in post-conflict Bosnia in the late 1990s, the physical scars of war were easy to see. Shattered buildings, pockmarks on nearly every wall caused by stray bullets and the armoured vehicles of the international stabilisation force rumbling up the street were everyday sights.

What was less obvious, but what soon became clear when I spent time with the survivors, were the psychological scars of war. Bosnians are an incredibly hospitable people, and I was often invited into homes for coffee and cake, or sometimes slivovitz (plum brandy) and dimljeno meso (smoked beef). And just as often, my host would burst into tears at the memory of a loved one who had disappeared. The pain of loss, and the pain of not knowing what had happened to their family, became all too visible.

So when I listen to the debate about how the UK should respond to Europe’s refugee crisis today, I often think back to my short time in Bosnia. It is wars elsewhere in the world that are causing so many to flee their homes now, but the pain and suffering they are fleeing is no doubt similar.

And while the efforts of the UK and others to end the conflicts which are displacing so many people need to be redoubled, it is also essential that we care for those who are fleeing these conflicts. We surely have a moral duty to offer sanctuary to those who are trying to escape war, conflict and persecution.

That duty to offer sanctuary certainly falls to the UK government, who, in my view, should be doing far more. But the duty falls to local authorities as well. I’m glad that Edinburgh has already taken some refugee families as part of the current Home Office programme, and is likely to take more. I also hope that Edinburgh can expand this programme, and perhaps also offer refuge to some of the many unaccompanied asylum seeker children who are fleeing conflict.

I have recently returned from a conference in Munich with other city councillors from around Europe, sharing their experiences of welcoming refugees. I heard first-hand from countries on the front line, such as Greece, as well as others from countries as diverse as Spain, Sweden and Germany on the challenges and opportunities in welcoming refugees.

And I look forward to conversations with colleagues in Edinburgh to see how we can learn the lessons from our neighbours across the continent, and offer a safe home and a chance to rebuild their lives to many more people.

But while the conference underlined for me the importance of treating those fleeing persecution with compassion, it also reminded me of the importance of working in solidarity across this great continent of ours. We surely have a duty to work together with our fellow Europeans to solve the refugee crisis, not turn our backs on those most in need. And we must surely not desert our neighbours who are on the front line.

That is why I’ll certainly be voting for a Europe of compassion and solidarity on June 23, when I vote to remain in the European Union.

Chas Booth is Green councillor for Leith