World

What if the Syria crisis were happening in the UK?

Children in Syria Image copyright Reuters

Understanding the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria can be difficult. So imagine this: what if Syria were the UK?

Say you are one of the 2.5m people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester. And then you leave, all of you, exit the UK as if life depends on it.

You're followed by Tyne and Wear. Hard on their heels comes Merseyside, the entire population, after that Glasgow, and then about half the population of greater London.

If you are Syria at the moment, that's a scaled equivalent of the number of refugees reported by the UN to have fled the country.

Where do you go? Many Syrians go to Lebanon, a country so small that immigration has swollen its population by getting on for 40%. This 40% growth is about 105 years-worth of the latest net migration to the UK. So you'd be welcome, of course.

And those are just Syrian refugees to other countries. There are millions more displaced within Syria itself.

For a UK equivalent of these, add to our earlier total: the rest of greater London, Birmingham, Belfast, every person in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, all Norfolk, Suffolk, plus the entire remaining population of Scotland, the entire population of Wales, and then throw in Sheffield, Bristol, Brighton, Swindon, Plymouth, Coventry, Leicester, Leeds.

The UK equivalent of Syria's refugees and displaced would be about 30 million people, on the move.

In short, imagine many of our great cities, whole counties, whole nations, shook out, and smashed.

Economic impact

Then there's the economy. The UK saw unemployment rise by about three percentage points during the recent recession. The effect of the Syrian civil war has been a rise of about 43 percentage points.

So think of an unemployment rate rising so fast it would be comparable to the effect on jobs in the UK of about 14 great recessions in four years.

Next, go to school, to every school in the land, and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be, about 5 million of them, to correspond with the roughly 50% in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.

Think of all this leaving more than half the Syrian people in what the UN calls extreme poverty, living on a dollar twenty-five a day, or less. For an impression of how life could be reduced like that to the edge of subsistence, you don't need arithmetic: it's you, on the toss of a coin.

You can listen to Michael broadcasting this essay on BBC Radio 4 PM here.