The real crisis for refugees isn’t in Calais. It’s Westminster’s failure to act
27 Oct 2016Unless they stop passing off refugees as somebody else’s problem, this government will go down as the one that watched while thousands suffered writes Diane Abbott MP
The global refugee crisis is not abating. But Britain does not have a refugee crisis at all, despite what you may read in the newspapers.The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) says we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. Globally, nearly 34,000 people a day are being displaced from their homes. There are more than 65 million refugees in total.
In Britain, we have let in just a few hundred in total and even this has caused a furore. The government failed to address the inhuman conditions in Calais, claiming that it was primarily a French problem The political atmosphere is increasingly toxic. Until recently, there was barely a voice arguing that Britain should not do more; instead, the debate was about what or how much should be done.
It was in that spirit that the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act was passed, which should mean that we admit 3,000 child refugees. Now we hear Priti Patel arguing that she might underspend the international aid budget, and Tory backbenchers demanding dental examinations in case we might inadvertently admit a desperate 19-year-old.
In Calais there were hundreds of unaccompanied children who had a legal right to residence in Britain. But the British government persistently failed to act, despite its legal obligations.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency to project the refugee crisis as if it is always someone else’s problem. In failing to address the inhuman conditions in Calais, the government excuses itself, claiming that it is primarily a French problem.This is a recurring theme of the official response to this emergency. In the recent debate on the crisis in Syria, and in particular Aleppo, there were calls for Jordan to do more to rescue 70,000 Syrians on their joint border. The Jordanian authorities may well be obliged to do more as the Syrian conflict drags on. But they are already doing far more than we in Britain are. UNHCR estimates there are more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and over 140,000 of those are in camps. This is in a relatively poor country with a population of less than 10 million. The British population is six times larger, and before the latest small additions we admitted just 431 Syrian asylum seekers in the most recent quarter.
This, too, is the approach to enormous numbers of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. British efforts are directed at deterring people, even at the cost of drowning when they are fleeing war, famine, or terrorist groups who specialise in mass rape, abductions or beheadings. If they do avoid death or drowning, we regard it as Italy’s or Greece’s problem. Other European countries take the approach that they are rescuing refugees; others, such as Germany and Sweden, actually want to offer them refuge.
There is an alternative. Britain could take far more refugees than it has done to date. It could first prioritise all those who have a legal right to be here. It could use the Royal Navy to rescue people, even while it clamped down on the people smugglers. It could end the scandalous conditions at any new Calais camp by accepting refugees and establishing a safe and sanitary processing centre. This should be a moral imperative. As it happens, it would also be a benefit to all of us. Sweden’s economy is booming in part because of a growth in both refugees and migrants.
Britain could also collaborate with all those internationally who are trying to establish safe and legal routes for refugees from conflict zones.
We should act now to prevent further conflicts and to tackle climate change, two of the major causes of modern mass displacement of people. Otherwise this generation of British politicians will be remembered as one that knew what was happening and did nothing to help.
* From The Guardian.