It is a measure of how toxic the immigration debate has become in Britain that the Government seems determined to turn down a UN request for us to take in a share of 10,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria.
No doubt spooked by the prospect of adverse headlines about another foreign “influx” at a time when debate rages over how many Romanians and Bulgarians may arrive in 2014, Britain is not joining the US, France and Germany in accepting a proportion of those Syrians who are displaced.
It is understandable that ministers feel embarrassed by the Government’s failure to live up to its pledge to get immigration down to tens of thousands a year. There is also no doubt that the popularity of calls to curb immigration weighs on their minds, especially as an election approaches. But the Government should think again, and not just because it is Christmas.
It doesn’t take an excess of charitable feeling to recognise that Syria is an exceptional case. A devastating civil war over the past three years has torn apart this large and populous country, leaving millions of people with no option but to run for their lives. An unusually harsh winter is exacerbating their plight. Starvation looms on a catastrophic scale.
Instead of running scared over the prospect of a few thousand unanticipated newcomers, the Government should freely admit that letting in some Syrian refugees will skew its targets on immigration, while appealing to most Britons’ instinctive generosity to understand why our doors should be open to them.
As only 0.1 per cent of Syrians fleeing the conflict have come to Britain so far, we are hardly being asked to assume an unfair share of the burden. It is worth recalling that even if the UN wanted us to take in all 10,000 – which is not the case – this would still be only a fraction of the 2.4 million Syrians who are already refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
The shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, says we have a duty to be more open-hearted. She is right. We should adopt a more generous and welcoming attitude to these people.