We are morally and legally obliged to, and our international standing depends on itby Claire Spencer / September 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
The sign of an open society, assured of its own values, can be seen in the compassion it shows to others in dire circumstances and need. The UK’s self-confidence in this respect was suffering even before the referendum campaign on membership of the European Union. Last week, record numbers of migrants and refugees were rescued from unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean, seemingly undeterred by attempts to prevent their crossing. After more than two years of such arrivals, no enduring solution has been found to manage the destiny of this mixed group of South East Asians, Africans and Middle Easterners.
In September 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron officially undertook to resettle up to 20,000 Syrians from Middle Eastern refugee camps in the UK. He made a further commitment in May 2016 to take children stranded unaccompanied elsewhere in Europe, notably at the Jungle camp in Calais. The first undertaking had the force of a moral obligation, as well as the aim of dissuading refugees from the perilous sea-voyages that have claimed so many lives over Syria’s five year conflict. It was also intended to send a clear message to both the refugees and to the British public that the UK would not encourage human trafficking to these shores.
Last week, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve reaffirmed the commitment to border security, especially at Calais. Meanwhile, progress on the target of 20,000 Syrian refugees—4,000 a year until 2020—has been slow, bogged down in the lengthy process of identifying and transferring individuals to the UK. Despite a number of local authorities claiming to be ready, the lack of council funding, capacity and housing has seen only 2,800 arrivals so far. Funds are not lacking on the prevention side, however: the British government has already spent €100m on tightening the defences of Calais.
The second commitment, to take in unaccompanied refugee children—who are eligible if currently in France, Italy or Greece and registered as asylum-seekers before 20th March 2016—does not only have moral force, but is backed by the law. The 2016 Immigration Act included an amendment introduced by Alfred Dubs in parliamentary debates on the bill. As a beneficiary of the Kindertransport policy of the late 1930s, which saw nearly 10,000 Jewish children brought to Britain, he effectively shamed his parliamentary colleagues into adopting the “Dubs amendment” on child refugees.
This amendment binds the government to identifying eligible children, though not the specific target of 3,000 that Dubs sought. In 2013, nearly 90,000 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the EU; since the crisis began, as many as 10,000 children have disappeared to unknown fates. In the UK, of a revised and unofficial target of up to 2,000 children, only around 20 with existing family and other links in this country have so far arrived. But the process of granting visas remains slow, even for the 387 children in the Jungle identified as eligible by the campaigning group Citizens UK.
In times of austerity and threats to security, moral obligations slide down the list of priorities, especially given the complex task of coordinating actions across central and local government departments. However, a number of practical solutions being elaborated by childcare and trauma specialists outside official channels also need to be considered. It also matters, especially in respect of assisting besieged civilians in Syria, that the UK’s humanitarian policy is taken seriously, and is seen to be done so, by British officials at home and abroad.
The new government might start by disentangling the public’s rejection of higher immigration from the UK’s international and domestic legal obligations to refugees. The evidence, polls and otherwise, shows that the cause of public concern has been and remains the EU’s “freedom of movement” clause. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage famously declared in December 2013 that the UK needed to show more compassion towards Syrian refugees; the target of his and other Brexiteers’ antipathy is the unconstrained ability of EU citizens to live, work and claim benefits in the UK.
More also needs to be done to separate the management of non-EU migrants from the reception received by refugees. In assessing the new restrictions imposed on asylum-seekers, the UK’s Refugee Council deemed the 2016 Act to be “a largely regressive and uncompassionate piece of legislation” whose only “glimmer of hope” was the Dubs amendment and improved detention rights for pregnant women. In public debate, the language used about illegal immigrants often fails to make an exception for refugees, who are governed by different legal and bureaucratic provisions. Above all, in the context of Brexit, these distinctions must be articulated in the UK’s foreign policy as it prepares for a post-EU role. If the UK loses its moral force at home, holding others to account for their actions abroad will invite ridicule, and come at a much higher cost to our interests than giving asylum to 22,000 endangered individuals.