The current refugee crisis requires decisive and co-ordinated action across Europe writes Neil Mathers.
The tragic image of the lifeless body of three-year old Alan Kurdi being carried from the sea by a rescue worker shocked us all. The story of this young boy and his family touched a chord with millions of people across the world and challenged us to act.
But the truth is this story has been playing out for months – 6.5 million children are fleeing bombs, bullets and torture in war zones like Syria. Many have died in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea and thousands of have arrived in Europe without a parent or family member to care for them.
We must remember that many of these children have suffered unrelenting violence and abuse in a country torn apart by conflict. Children have witnessed friends and family mutilated by shrapnel and shot and killed by snipers in the streets where they live. Their homes and cities have been destroyed.
The conflict in Syria is over four years old and in this time millions have sought refuge in UN camps in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The sheer number of refugees is placing an overwhelming strain on the region, and the camps are struggling to cope.
There is not enough funding to provide food for everyone, and both adults and children have no choice but to leave in search of work – children who should be in school are toiling in fields to earn enough to survive. It is no wonder then that many families are choosing to leave the area and attempt the perilous journey to Europe in the hope of a better life for their children.
We are witnessing the biggest mass movement of people since the Second World War, and when children are fleeing bombs, bullets and persecution, they risk losing parents and family members along the way.
Our priority is to keep families together. Save the Children is providing essential life saving support to families in the Syrian region and working to secure the rights of children along the main routes to Europe.
In Greece and Italy, we are helping to protect children and where possible reunite them with family members. Our teams are also helping with distribution of food and hygiene items, and providing shelter.
We are also responding to the needs of children on the move through the Balkans, Hungary, Austria and Germany.
In England, where over 700 vulnerable children have arrived in Kent, we are working with the authorities to make sure children get the care and protection they need.
There is no one solution to this emergency. The scale of the crisis demands decisive and coordinated action by EU leaders. We have to step up the regional response and increase aid for refugees in Syria, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries.
It is vital that we maintain search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean Sea, and improve safe and legal routes into Europe, especially for children who face particularly severe risks and to stop people traffickers.
We need to significantly strengthen reception and processing of refugees, particularly in Greece and Italy, but they cannot carry the burden of this cost alone. There needs to be a common and unified approach to resettling refugees, including relocation of vulnerable groups such as children.
The UK and Scottish governments must offer a safe home to the most vulnerable children – those who have arrived in Europe without family members. We are calling for the acceptance of at least 3,000 in to Scotland. We cannot avert our gaze from what is happening on our doorstep – we need to show the world that Scotland welcomes refugees.
People across Scotland have responded with kindness and compassion, reaching out a hand of friendship to those in desperate need. We have a proud track record of providing safety to children in crisis. We have done it before, and we must do it again.
Neil Mathers is Head of Scotland with Save the Children UK
This feature was first published in Children in Scotland magazine, Issue 168 (October 2015)