Refugee crisis: Suddenly everyone agrees 'something must be done.' But what?

The British government has a creditable record helping refugees in countries bordering Syria. If only that were enough...

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The Independent Online

We lack moral imagination. It took a photograph of a dead child – in his smart red top, bright blue shorts and new lace-up shoes – to open our eyes to the reality of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. The statistics had not done it. Nor had the news that 700 boat people had died in a single accident in the Mediterranean. Nor, even, had the reports that 71 migrants had suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry. But the image of one three-year-old lying lifeless on a beach has turned a political tide.

Suddenly everyone agrees that “something must be done”. But there is little agreement on what that something might be. Different groups parade solutions to fit their different prejudices. How are we to pick a path through this moral maze?

The public focus is on how many migrants are entering Europe, what should be done with them and where they should be resettled. But if this is the pressing issue it is only a small part of the problem. There are two bigger difficulties.

The first is what can be done about the forces which are driving these people to flee their homes? Until recently the cameras of the British media have focused mainly on Calais, from where several thousand Eritrean, Sudanese and Nigerian migrants have been attempting to enter the UK illegally. But the biggest group of migrants flocking to Europe is, like the dead child Aylan al-Kurdi, from Syria. The second biggest is from Afghanistan. The harsh truth is that British policy in both Syria and Afghanistan, as in Iraq and Libya, played a part in creating the crisis and is now characterised by impotent paralysis. At this level the UK has been part of the problem and not part of the solution.

The second issue concerns how to assist those fleeing war in ways which keep them near enough to their homes to be able to return when the fighting is over. The British Government has a far more honourable record on that: it is spending as much as the rest of the European Union put together to help the four million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Thanks to the Government honouring its pledge to allocate 7p of every £10 of national income on aid, Britain is leading the way in providing food, shelter, medicines and education in those camps.

Even myopic opponents of aid such as the Daily Mail accept this is money well spent, and better than allowing large numbers of foreigners into the UK. But other governments are not doing their bit. The United Nations’ appeal for funds has reached only a third of what is needed. Food rations for Syrian refugees have been cut in half in Lebanon. Other governments must donate more.

And yet the image of Aylan, face-down on a Turkish beach, has switched the focus from the four million in those camps to the comparatively smaller number of people already on the move. Suddenly, David Cameron was  wrong-footed. Germany is anticipating taking 800,000 refugees by the end of 2015. Sweden took 81,000 last year. Even Iceland has announced it will take 10,000. It is clearly unfair for Britain to take none.

Yet this is not just about numbers – it’s also about money. The inflow of migrants has laid bare the unfairness of the Dublin Regulations which insist refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country in which they land. Frontline countries (Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Malta) are bearing disproportionate burdens. A better system to share costs must be found – for those countries, and to support the camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt for the millions of Syrians of whom there are no poignant photographs. All this points to the need for a more comprehensive EU-wide system.

Fixing a quota that allocates so many refugees to each EU country – which is what Germany, France and Austria want – may be a short-term answer. But refugees may not want to go to, or stay put in, poorer EU countries. How are they to be compelled? There is a need, too, to address the deep-rooted fears in Hungary (which has had 156,000 migrants so far this year), Slovakia, Bulgaria and Poland that large numbers of Muslim incomers are what the Hungarian prime minister has called a threat to “the very existence of Christian Europe”.

Addressing such ingrained attitudes requires, like so much else in this exodus, a far longer-term perspective. Part of that must be an insistence from Europe’s Christian leaders that such insularity is hard to square with the vision of love and inclusion set out in the Gospels. 

All the great faiths suggest a different paradigm – one which gives priority to the widow, the orphan and the alien. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has underscored this by refusing to make a distinction between “genuine refugees” and economic migrants. What should govern our response, he says, is the immediacy of the need of the stranger knocking at our door. His predecessor, Jonathan Sacks, was more explicit, calling on Britain to admit at least 10,000 refugees in a conspicuous echo of the Kindertransport which rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany.

We should not be afraid of such numbers. The cold fact is that more than 500 million people live in the EU. The 350,000 migrants who have entered Europe so far this year represent less than a 10th of 1 per cent of the total population. Our continent has the means to absorb such a tiny percentage with relative ease.

But first we need to exercise our moral imagination and develop a coherent, continent-wide approach.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester

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