Martin Parsons is an author, writer and teacher who has a PhD in Islam and Christian Muslim relations
When it comes to international aid it is actions not words that count – and one of the problems is that the great British taxpayers often don’t see much of where their hard earned cash goes. However, the government currently has a fantastic opportunity to do just that in a way that ordinary people will see is money well spent. there is an opportunity at very little cost to do something immensely practical for thousands of refugees fleeing Islamic State, who, as winter approaches face a humanitarian catastrophe.
As the British army is packing up its bags in Afghanistan it is selling off the tent city that soldiers have lived in. These are not ordinary tents – they are insulated against the bitterly cold weather that grips Afghanistan every winter. They are ideal for the thousands of Christian and Yezidi refugees fleeing Islamic State in northern Iraq who are living without shelter in the Nineveh plain. In the next few weeks as winter sets in their plight will be desperate, as without shelter many will literally die of exposure.
A British based Christian charity, Barnabas Fund that supports victims of persecution across the world, has raised the US$450,000 needed to buy them from the MoD. However, there is no way that the 30 shipping containers they are stored in can be transported by road to northern Iraq before winter sets in. If they are forced to go by road they will not arrive until at least January. Nor is it realistic to charter a plane to fly them there. Insurance rates for air travel in war zones mean that it would cost US$1.25 million, nearly three times the amount that the tents are being sold for, money that the Barnabas Fund simply does not have. Baroness Cox has therefore written to the Prime Minister to ask if one of the RAF transport planes that are regularly flying in and out of Kandahar airport could deliver them – they are after all being sold by the MoD! That would be a very straight forward task for the RAF, but it requires ministerial approval.
On Thursday evening the BBC broadcast the story stating that to secure the purchase of the tent city the Barnabas Fund had until this weekend to organise and pay for transport. However, the Barnabas Fund has just confirmed to me that they have been granted a potential extension of up to two weeks by the agency selling the tents on the MoD’s behalf – provided that no higher bid is received in the meantime.
If the government were to accede to this request then it would not only be doing something of real practical value, it would also be seen to be doing something very practical.
There are currently 20,000 refugees in and around Erbil who fled Mosul and the Ninevah Plains as a result of the advance of Islamic State. All available accommodation is full. Kurdish schools are full of refugees and the start of the school term has been delayed. However, refugees are now being asked to leave the schools to allow lessons to take place. So, in addition to the 20,000 already homeless, many more will become homeless in the coming weeks.
As a former aid worker in Afghanistan I know that winter is the worst time, even when the temperature isn’t below freezing it is bitterly cold, wet and muddy. However, when the snow sets in no one without shelter has any hope of surviving. Without shelter there is a potential humanitarian catastrophe in sight as thousands of men, women and children are literally homeless and at risk of dying of exposure, especially with the rapid approach of winter snows and rain in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq.
This is an opportunity for the government to do something at very little cost, simply by diverting an RAF flight. It is also an opportunity that with a humanitarian catastrophe looming it simply cannot afford to ignore.
It is when the government help these sort of aid projects, where the media have already broadcast the terrible suffering that people are facing, that the public really support our giving to overseas aid. It is also fundamentally a Conservative principle that overseas aid is not something that we should just leave to the government. We want to encourage people to give to overseas aid themselves and where necessary help them by priming the pump to enable that aid to get where it is most needed. This is an ideal opportunity for the government to send out just that message loud and clear, but it must act quickly – winter is rapidly approaching.