A photograph of a single refugee, a toddler in a red t-shirt, a lone and lifeless body washed up ashore, face down in the sand. This is what it took for the citizens of Europe to see the refugees for what they are, not as groups of migrants, scroungers and opportunists, but as human beings facing unimaginable horrors. But even the righteous indignation that has followed, galvanising citizens and governments across Europe into opening up their borders, their homes and their hearts, is not enough for this government and they remain as cold and ruthless as the waters that have claimed the lives of thousands of refugees’. Refusing to participate in an EU-wide quota system, David Cameron has instead thrown in a token gesture of accepting just 20,000 over the next 5 years, offering asylum only to those who have yet to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
Forgetting for a second the sheer arrogance Cameron displays when refusing to collaborate with the rest of Europe—despite frontline countries such as Greece and Italy being close to breaking point as more and more refugees land on their shores—or that Germany alone accepted 10,000 in a single weekend; when we pick apart Cameron’s announcement we see the catch 22’s familiar in all Tory policies. The first and most damning being that those who have already made the deadly journey—like the drowned toddler and his family, whose stories have moved us all to our very core, and whose plights’ spurred the shift in Europe’s stance in the first place— will be denied the right to seek asylum in our country. And even if we were to accept this as a necessary sacrifice for implementing a more suitable policy, how exactly are those that ‘qualify’ for refugee status supposed to know they’re eligible? Will they need to formally apply and how are they meant to do this? Will there be some assessment? Will their journey to the UK be subsidised? The rules may well turn out to be punishing and stringent, just like all forms of Tory ‘generosity’ (if DWP’s work capability assessments are anything to go by). The more we think about it, the more we begin to see just how empty this gesture is. It almost seems like the government will work to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to occupy those 20,000 placeholders.
In the emergency debate called by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, after her heartfelt and wide-reaching speech echoed unanimously by all members in the opposition benches, the home secretary Theresa May offered nothing of relevance. She made a few comments littered with some trivial condolences and left it to her sparse army of backbenchers to argue on her behalf. Their points were as unremarkably conservative as you’d expect; assumptions that ISIS agents were hiding among the refugees; suggestions that the young men in Calais do not deserve asylum and they should be fighting in Syria; being unable to appreciate that people aren’t uprooting their lives and making perilous journeys halfway across the world to get some £35 a week. The Tories claimed they didn’t want people to be encouraged to make a dangerous journey to come to the UK, but in reality it’s apparent that they don’t want them coming here full stop. But their most pernicious excuse for their refusal to offer refugees asylum was the lack of distinction between the refugee crisis and the need to deal with ISIS.
This is what it took for the citizens of Europe to see the refugees for what they are, not as groups of migrants, scroungers and opportunists, but as human beings facing unimaginable horrors.
Opposition benches had to rein the debate back to the refugees, rather than talk about the issue of instability in the region itself, but the Tories kept pushing their agenda. Their argument was that accepting refugees is not the answer, finding a peaceful solution in the region is. Even the most hardened anti-war activists agree that ISIS is an opportunistic, misogynistic and blood thirsty organisation. It would be wrong for western nations to turn their backs on this brutality. But we would be more inclined to agree with a full blown military intervention, without backing from the UN, if we hadn’t learned the lessons from the Iraq war (and indeed the many foreign interventions that we’ve participated in before it). Rarely does this bring a peaceful solution. And, as Cooper swiftly retorted in the debate, this would only act to destabilise the region further and exacerbate the refugee crisis. Not to mention that we don’t really even know who we’d be fighting. David Cameron says the bombings would be conducted against both ISIS and Assad, but that would essentially meaning fighting Russia and Iran too—the latter with whom we’ve only just resumed diplomatic relations. It is clear that going in guns blazing without any idea of what we’re doing, who we’re fighting and what we’re trying to achieve, will do nothing to solve the problems in the region.
‘If only we helped them’ we say when the ghosts of dead refugees haunt us.
At least one aspect of Britain’s involvement in the crisis is commendable; we provide the largest amount of aid to the region out of all of Western Europe. But this sentiment is bittersweet because of the hypocrisy it represents. David Cameron is prepared to show all the generosity in the world, spending hundreds of millions in foreign aid and now he’ll spend much more on a military campaign, but he is prepared to do so just so long as the problem stays far far away from us.
‘If only we helped them’ we say when the ghosts of dead refugees haunt us. But the second we come face to face with our moral obligation, it turns out we can’t bring ourselves to care. We can find the space for them in our country but can’t find the space in our hearts and we will let the children drown every single time.