Earlier this summer we saw that shocking photograph of Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach. This small and precious child had his whole life before him when his desperate family – victims of a civil war that is raging through Syria – stepped into a boat. They had fled from Kobane – a city where the BBC tells us “every building, home, shop and street is ruined.”
Nearly half the population of Syria are today no longer living where they were when the civil war broke out. Nearly 200,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country and most of them are now in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
That is why this is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our age. And while it is the neighbouring countries that have borne the brunt of this tide of humanity on the move, here too in Europe we find refugees from Syria seeking shelter in our communities.
16 years ago our city welcomed another group of refugees fleeing war. They came from Kosovo and found shelter and a warm welcome in Beeston after the horrors they had endured.
As a city, and as a country, we have a long and proud tradition of providing safe haven to people fleeing for their lives; from Nazi Germany, Vietnam, other war torn countries and now Syria.
We should also be proud of the fact that Britain is second only to the United States in the generosity of its humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. But that makes it all the more shocking that the Prime Minister originally felt that our nation had already done enough when he said we would not take any more refugees in. It was public opinion that changed his mind, something I welcome.
There are those who say that it’s not our problem and that the country is too full. Certainly, the Government must provide local councils with enough funding to meet the costs, but I think the response from most people would be this.
If we had seen our home bombed and our friends and family killed. If we had been forced to flee the place where we were born and brought up, leaving behind everything that is familiar and gives us our sense of who we are.
If we had to travel to another country and live in a camp for years with no job, no school for our children and no hope. If all these thing happened to us, what we would we hope for from our fellow human beings?
I think we would hope for a helping hand. And that is why when we see people in distress our natural human instinct is to reach out and do what we can.
Yes, we must strain every sinew as a world to bring this terrible conflict to an end so that those who have fled can go home and rebuild their country.
But for now, I hope we will give our new neighbours from Syria a warm welcome in the best traditions of our city.