Today the government said that it would take in up to 500 refugees from Syria. This has been portrayed as a major humanitarian gesture. While I applaud the government for finally agreeing to help a small portion of the most vulnerable fleeing from an escalating conflict, this decision must be put in its proper perspective. Doing so reveals the problematic nature of the debate over Syrian refugees – and Syria more generally – and the government’s commitments or lack thereof to true humanitarian protection.
First, let us look at the scale of the crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, 9.3 million Syrians are in need of assistance. This is 43% of the population of Syria. 6.5 million people are displaced within Syria. Another 2.3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Lebanon has 868,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan hosts 566,000 Syrians, and Turkey 566,000. Others are bottled up in cities like Homs where the government has prevented aid from being provided. This makes Syria one of the largest humanitarian crises the world has seen.
Second, the UN has requested that Western countries take in as many as 30,000 refugees in total. The UK has refused to formally sign up to this initiative. Rather, it has said that it will pursue a parallel initiative. This 30,000 is 1.3% of Syrian refugees, and .03% of all displaced Syrians. The 500 potential refugees the government has said it will accept is equivalent to .02% of Syrian refugees or .006% of Syrian displaced. It also pales in comparison to the commitment made by Germany to take in 10,000. The UK’s commitment is equivalent to .0008% of the UK population, while for Germany it is .01% of its population. Let me repeat that number: .0008%! And it is .06% of the number of Syrian refugees Lebanon is hosting. Why did it take so long for the government to accept such a miniscule number of people?
Third, even the commitment to accept these 500 has been made under duress. The government points to the £600 million it has provided in humanitarian assistance. This is a lot of money. However, one might note that this is .02% of UK GDP. Put in this perspective, it is a rather small amount of amount relative to the wealth of the UK. The UN needs much more from the UK and other countries to feed and clothe and just keep alive millions of people.
However, this is about a lot more than money. The government notes that it is providing a lot of money relative to other countries. This is true. It also argues that because it is providing all this money it is exempt from other measures, including taking in refugees. It is paying money to keep refugees bottled up in the region. This is a cynical ploy to keep the effects of a conflict which it and other Western governments have ineptly handled from reaching our shores. Instead, other countries, and especially those in the region, are expected to deal with the crushing mass of humanity fleeing mass atrocities. This is not a new phenomenon. For years Western governments have preferred to throw money at humanitarian crises and allow others to deal with the actual physical aftermath of these crises – i.e. people.
The current debate over a few refugees is tied into much broader debates about immigration. Immigrants are made scapegoats for our economic woes. So we keep out Bulgarians and Romanians and, indeed, those fleeing mass atrocities to protect ourselves, while those who destroyed the global economy as a result of their greed (or ‘bad decisions’ according to the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland) give themselves obscene bonuses – instead of being put in jail for crimes against the global economy. Yes, we must be wary of all those hardworking Eastern Europeans who are going to take our jobs and drain our coffers. And since we are scared of them, we will also put all other categories of immigrants (except, of course, those who will bring large amounts of money into the country), including refugees, together under our anti-immigrant banner.
And it has taken Nigel Farage – Nigel Farage!!! – to delink refugees from other immigrants. Although in full UKIP mode he seems to have backtracked and indicated that the UK should just take Christians. This tells us exactly what vision he has for who counts as human and who should be given protection. But are the rest of our politicians much better? All the major parties are guilty of demonising immigrants generally and refugees in particular. But the Conservatives deserve special mention. In 2005 the Tories suggested that they would pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention and impose a cap on refugees (even though the UK takes a miniscule amount to begin with). This helps us understand the reluctance to sign up to the UN’s plan and go it alone. (I would make a parallel here with American exceptionalism, but a least the US takes in proportionally vastly more refugees per capita than the UK, so I might be unfair to the US…). Put this reluctance together along with the anti-EU rhetoric spewing from the Tories and the calls to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights and we see a much different vision than the benign, humanitarian vision put forth by David Cameron. The 500 refugees is not a significant humanitarian gesture. Rather, it is the absolute minimum he could get away with in the face of moral outrage.
Further, the conditions for admitting the refugees do not fill one’s heart with a humanitarian glow. Apparently we will only accept the ‘most vulnerable’ – by which is meant, apparently, women and children. It is easier to sell starving children or women who have been raped to your domestic population. They are not as dangerous as men who, coming from that part of the world, are under obvious suspicion for being terrorists. In addition, the government wants to make it clear that they will not be here for very long. They will be given temporary visas for perhaps three years. And then, once the three years are up, if the government so decides it will ship them off back to Syria. This is not resettlement. This is a minimalist version of the temporary protection of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, which provided few rights for those in fear for their lives. And given the penchant for engaging in dawn raids and bundling people into planes and sending them back to places where they may be in harm’s way, would the 500 feel particularly safe here? Most refugees don’t want to leave their homes and want to go back home when they can. And the vast majority stay in the immediate region of their home countries and once a conflict is truly over are able to go back. But for those few who have been forced to leave their homes and resettle in another part of the world, it is doubly cruel to say to them – you can come here for a few years, but once you have set down roots, made friends, found a job (hopefully they will be allowed to work, but given UK immigration policy, one can imagine all sorts of restrictions on what the 500 will actually be allowed to do), put your children in school, and generally made a new life, we will force you to be uprooted yet again. This is cruel and inhumane, and is certainly not resettlement in any real sense of the word. Rather, it is a minimalist strategy to claim moral kudos in a situation where the UK – and indeed all Western countries – have failed to adequately address a human rights and humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.
No Mr. Clegg, this not evidence that the UK is ‘one of the most open-hearted countries in the world’ and it is not a true reflection of ‘a moral responsibility to help.’ Rather, it is evidence of a hard-heartedness based on the politics of fear and xenophobia. Would adding .0008% to the permanent population of the UK irreparably harm the UK (or even .01%)? I don’t think so.