Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war have been discouraged from “risking their lives” to travel to Europe by British aid totalling £1bn, which has helped fund refugee camps in the region, David Cameron has said.
Amid tight security, the British prime minister travelled by Chinook helicopter from Beirut airport to a UNHCR camp in the Bekaa valley, less than a mile from the Syrian border, to call for the EU to focus its attention on helping refugees in the region.
Cameron underlined Britain’s belief that aid should be focused on the region by announcing he has appointed the Conservative MP Richard Harrington as a home office minister with sole responsibility for Syrian refugees.
As Cameron visited Lebanon, the home secretary, Theresa May, prepared to tellEU interior ministers at a meeting in Brussels that the EU should not set quotas for refugees.
The prime minister said in Lebanon that £1bn in British aid provided to the region since 2012 has helped to ensure that just 3% of Syria’s 11 million refugees have sought asylum in Europe.
Speaking during a visit to the Bekaa valley camp, where he was invited into a tent where a mother lives with her 10 children, Cameron said: “Around 3% of the 11 million Syrians forced from their homes have sought asylum in Europe. Without British aid, hundreds of thousands more could be risking their lives seeking to get to Europe. So these funds are part of our comprehensive approach to tackle migration from the region.
“Our goal remains to support the development of a secure, stable and peacefulSyria. Without our investment in international development the numbers of people seeking to embark on a perilous journey to Europe would be far greater.”
The prime minister added that other EU countries should follow the example of Britain, which is the second largest bilateral aid donor to the region after the US.
He said at the camp: “I wanted to come here to see for myself and to hear for myself stories of refugees and what they need. Britain is already the second largest donor to refugee camps … [and is] really helping in a way that many other countries aren’t, with serious amounts of money. We will go on doing that including increasing the amount of money we are giving to educate Syrian children here in Lebanon and elsewhere. I think that’s absolutely vital.”
Cameron is paying a one-day visit to refugee camps in Lebanon – known as informal tented settlements – a week after he announced that Britain is to accept an extra 20,000 refugees from camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries. The prime minister made the announcement in the wake of widespread public shock following the publication of pictures Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, whose body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach after his family failed to reach Greece.
The prime minister’s call for EU countries to discourage refugees from travelling to Europe by providing more generous help for the camps in the region was given added potency after Germany, which had said that all Syrian refugees were welcome, reintroduced border controls with Austria on Sunday. The move was announced after Germany’s regions said they could no longer cope with the large number of refugees.
The home secretary will tell EU interior ministers in Brussels on Monday that Britain is opposed to a European commission plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees around the EU. Britain is under no obligation to take part in the scheme because it has opt-outs under the Lisbon treaty from justice and home affairs.
The prime minister reinforced his message by highlighting how British aid has helped to build up the refugee camps. During a visit to Madrid earlier this month, Cameron announced that an extra £100m in UK aid would be spent in the region.
Cameron said: “As the second largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, our aid effort is supporting thousands of people to rebuild their lives, providing protection, counselling and schooling, alongside the provision of basic food and water. Investment in health, education, jobs and stability is the most effective way to help people overseas and it is clearly in Britain’s interests.
“For thousands of refugees this money means a meal for their families, the security of a home with basic sanitation and clean water. For children it means an education so we don’t lose a generation to the Syrian conflict.”
Lebanon, which has population of 4 million, is hosting 1.1 million Syrian refugees in internal tented settlements. These contrast with formal refugee camps, which host 450,000 Palestinian refugees.
At the Bekaa valley camp, 500 people, including many children, are crowded into 90 tents, which are laid out in ranks behind a breeze-block wall. The prime minister later travelled back to Beirut to visit a school where Syrian refugee children are being educated alongside Lebanese children.