Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Until Syria is rebuilt, what choice is left?

The ultimate goal, as Europe deals with the migration crisis that is suddenly sweeping the continent, must be to restore peace in Syria and help make it a country to which people feel safe enough to return.

Tragically, this country, which was so recently functional, civilised and well developed – albeit one ruled by an hereditary dictator – has disintegrated. Both ISIL and President Bashar Al-Assad are unleashing unspeakable terrors upon the people, four million of whom have fled the country and a further 10million are displaced within its borders.

And, as these refugees flee, into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond, they join other refugees fleeing other places of conflict in Libya, Eritrea and South Sudan, as well as economic migrants; a massive movement of people mostly desperate for, as Stella Creasy said in the emergency debate yesterday, ‘the chance to stay alive’.

This is the situation that David Cameron and Europe face. While Angela Merkel and others have started welcoming refugees for humanitarian and other more prosaic reasons, it’s hard not to conclude that the prime minister’s response has been directed by a contradictory mess of politics.

It can only be a good thing that Cameron’s government wants to take in 20,000 vulnerable people who have fled to refugee camps from Syria by 2020, but at 4,000 a year this is a pitifully small number, especially compared with Germany which is contemplating 800,000 migrants this year and a further 500,000 in subsequent years. Germany welcomed 18,000 refugees last weekend alone.

There seems little doubt that the prime minister and his government were caught flat-footed by the outpouring of anger and grief triggered by the decision of several newspapers – including my own – to publish the photograph of the dead Aylan Kurdi on their front pages; yet, hopes that the 20,000 pledge would be enough to see off his critics already seem misplaced. And Cameron’s stance does nothing to deal with the situation facing Europe now.

In many ways, the prime minister is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to be seen to be doing anything which might smack of co-operation with our European partners in case it provides any ammunition for those in his own party who want to leave the European Union - many of whom are also prominent campaigners against high immigration. On the other, Mr Cameron will be only too well aware that his EU partners are urging Britain to do more to alleviate the refugee disaster within Europe’s borders and he must fear that his determination to exclude this country from any shared willingness to offer a safe harbour to refugees threatens the progress of any future EU negotiations.

But, as the circumstances change, our response must change. Cameron is right when he says a solution cannot simply be achieved by taking in more refugees. And he is clearly aware that any solution has to be multi-faceted. 

The prime minister may feel sore about his failure in the last parliament to command support for attacking Assad after he used chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria. But, without parliamentary approval, we now learn that action has been taken in Syria anyway, with a fatal drone strike on British terrorists there. International co-operation is essential and enlarged military action of one sort or another – against both Assad and ISIL – now seems increasingly inevitable.

But simultaneously, Cameron might be better to try and rise above the messy political complexities, take a lead in parliament, and respond to the imperative need for human kindness closer to home now.

Those who argue against allowing more refugees into the country, have a favourite question to which they often return, 'well, how many should we take?’ It is an impossible question to answer. The British government has done much to support refugees in the Middle East, spending more there than any other European country. But the crisis has developed and moved. Ignoring the situation in Europe is not part of a solution.

Britain cannot keep on claiming to be an honourable place of refuge on account of the Huguenots who flocked here in the 16th and 17th centuries . It cannot even do that on account of the Kenyan Asians who arrived here from the late 1960s. As Robert Peston has noted, Germany’s motivation to taking so many migrants is not wholly humanitarian; their population is ageing and falling, a boost in younger workers is just what Germany needs.

Similarly, we need to take heart from the very significant benefits this country has accrued from our own, historic refugee influxes and recognise that being properly generous, now, could bring its own reward in the future. But ultimately, the demand to act, to work with our European counterparts to tackle this wretched situation on our doorstep, is a simple one; the humanitarian need is here and now.

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