Not so long ago, Britain stood tall in terms of refugee resettlement. In the early 1970s, this country offered safe haven to 40,000 Ugandan Asians and 22,500 Vietnamese forced out of their country by, respectively, the purges of Idi Amin and the wrath of Uncle Sam. Between 1992 and 1995, space was made for a further 20,000 former citizens of Yugoslavia when the Balkan wars split that nation apart.
As politicians knock to and fro on the subject of “British values”, it is no fond myth to cite a readiness to open our borders to ordinary men and women in the hour of their greatest need. This particular branch of national history, however, is unlikely to get top billing in any Tory-led campaign: new figures reveal that, since the Government’s resettlement programme was launched in January, a mere 24 Syrians have arrived in this country through it. Not enough to fill a bus.
It took a concerted campaign – led by this newspaper, among others – to convince the Coalition to commit to any resettlement in the first place. The UN’s request that Britain join other rich nations in an international programme to rehouse 10,000 Syrian refugees had fallen on deaf ears. Following appeals from Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs – as well as rebels within the Tory party and, indeed Nigel Farage – the Coalition belatedly announced it would establish its own resettlement programme, running alongside the UN’s, with up to 500 refugees permitted entry.
Sluggishness in committing to action has, it appears, transferred to the action itself. The Home Office now claims that the “hundreds” figure announced by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, will only be met over three years. At the current rate of progress, Britain will scrape over the 200 mark by the end of 2016.
Practical hold-ups offer some explanation. Choosing which of Syria’s 2.7 million refugees are most in need is no easy task. Moreover, local councils hit by heavy cuts since 2010 have hardly rushed to offer support. Sheffield, Manchester and Hull have refused to take a single Syrian between them. Others point out that, in contrast to the well co-ordinated and well-funded Balkan crisis response, in this case government funding only covers one of the five years demanded by its relocation scheme.
If admitting Syrians to this country worries a Conservative Party whose electoral chances are under threat from anti-immigration Ukip, and which has so far roundly failed to achieve its own net migration total, David Cameron’s Government has not stinted in its commitment to foreign aid. Only the US has offered more than the UK’s £600m. But the staggering number of Syrians fleeing their homeland – now up to 100,000 a month – demands a firmer and faster response within this country.
Lebanon – home to more than a million refugees – is considering measures that would make its borders less porous. Meanwhile, Syria’s problems wash up in increasing number – quite literally – on the shores of southern Europe. Italy has already rescued 50,000 seaborne migrants this year (a large proportion of them Syrian), which, with the summer “boating season” just getting under way, already exceeds the total in 2013.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees pleaded on Friday for northern EU nations to share the humanitarian burden with Greece and Italy. That same day, Germany agreed to take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees – doubling its original offer.
Where Britain once led, now it lags. The level of resettlement so far offered by this country shames a proud tradition. Ukip and other anti-immigration parties present themselves to voters as a route back to national greatness. In reality, greatness lies in our willingness to meet our moral obligations.