Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

We have a duty to refugees - humanity must be at the heart of politics

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The Independent Online

This isn’t a migrant crisis, it is a human crisis which must not become a crisis of our humanity.

People are fleeing circumstances that will be unimaginable to many people – a brutal civil war raging in Syria in which tens of thousands have been killed and that has displaced millions of people.

Many more are fleeing from despicable and systematic human rights abuses in parts of Africa and the Middle East, like Darfur, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

Earlier this week the Prime Minister said, “I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees”. Taking in refugees now is the only humane response to this human crisis. It isn’t “an answer”, but neither is watching thousands of desperate humans drowning and standing by while EU border countries like Greece and Hungary struggle to cope.

The number of people displaced by conflict globally is unprecedented. In time we need to reflect on why that is, and soberly consider what lessons it has for UK foreign policy, our aid programmes, for UK arms exports and our diplomatic engagement. We must also take meaningful action to tackle climate change and the urgent implications this will have on refugee flows if left unaddressed.

But for now, the UK could and should be taking in many more refugees. We must coordinate UK intervention with our European partners and agree upon a proportionate and compassionate response to bring an end to the desperate suffering.

This is why we need leadership. The politicians who pander to prejudice by warning of being “swamped” or of the coming “swarm” offer no solutions. Real leadership starts from seeing humans, understanding the problems they face and working internationally to meet those challenges. We live in an imperfect world, one which we won’t make perfect, but we try to make it better. Pulling up the drawbridge and condemning the outside world isn’t leadership, it is cowardice.


David Cameron should be engaging with the European Union and the United Nations to agree a programme in which all nations come together to take their fair share of refugees.

Let us start with the facts. Last year, the UK took only 25,000 asylum seekers, while Germany took more than ten times that figure. So far this year the UK has taken the second lowest intake of asylum seekers in the EU, as a percentage of a country’s population (0.003%). If as expected Germany takes in 800,000 refugees this year – that will be 1% of its population.

Contrast our Prime minister with the German leader, Angela Merkel. Earlier this week she stated, “We have many examples where we showed we can respond. Remember the bank rescues”, before committing her government to a programme “in the billions” to help local and regional authorities provide food and shelter to the refugees.

Our government must immediately start working with councils and devolved administrations, civil society organisations and charities to meet our responsibilities to co-ordinate and plan a suitable response. I don’t believe there is any shortage of humanity among the British people, but I fear our leaders lack the courage and vision to put that humanity into practical action. The response of many of our European neighbours currently shames us all.

Two years ago, Labour MPs and many rebel Conservatives voted to block David Cameron’s proposals for bombing government forces in Syria. The costs of that would have run to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds. It would have created more, not fewer, refugees.

The people of Syria deserve to see the back of Assad’s tyrannical regime, and the scourge of Isis must be defeated. This is a complex civil war, and there are no simplistic answers, but the rush to bombing will only create more refugees, more deaths, and will damage more of Syria’s infrastructure.

In October, it seems we will be asked to bomb Syria, this time with Isis forces as the target. If we want to start a process to end the conflict then we need to engage with all neighbouring countries from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to Iran, to get a regional agreement that stops the flow of arms, the purchase of oil, and that works towards ensuring aid can reach the millions internally displaced.

The harrowing images we have all seen in recent days will have moved us all. Let us take this opportunity to put our common humanity at the heart of everything we do in our politics.


How you can make a difference in the Independent's campaign to welcome refugees:

● Show your friends you support the UK taking in its fair share of refugees by signing a petition urging the Government to take action at change.org/refugeeswelcome

● Join our social media campaign – #refugeeswelcome – to prove that those in real need of a safe haven will receive a compassionate welcome from many of us here

● Share this link so your friends know to do the same