David Cameron recently revealed that the UK would accept 3,000 Syrian refugee children. This announcement goes against previous assertions that such a move would only encourage others to make the dangerous journey. But why has it taken so long to finally accept refugees into Britain? And will it really make a difference to the crisis?
Last year more than 1 million migrants crossed into Europe, a figure that grows each day. Every week the crisis worsens as more families attempt to escape so-called IS, and conflict between Assad’s regime and Syrian rebels. We have all seen the pictures of sprawling refugee camps, read about Libyan migrant boats capsizing in the Mediterranean, and listened to accounts of men clinging to the wheels of trucks, desperate to cross the Channel into Britain. We gasp, shaking our heads at the injustice, and criticise the government’s failure to intervene. However, as the crisis deepens anti-migrant rhetoric seems to grow, and we fail to unite in supporting the refugees’ fight for freedom.
Lack of action has partly been due to pressure on governments to restrict the number of refugees entering Europe. Parties like UKIP claim that refugees will be a drain on public resources, or even bring threats of terrorism. Anti-immigration attitudes are the same in other Western European countries. In Sweden the right-wing party, Sweden Democrats, have enjoyed a 4.6% rise at the polls following the country’s asylum policy allowing 190,000 migrants into the country. Meanwhile Austria’s centre-left Chancellor resigned this month after the opposing anti-immigrant Freedom Party achieved its best results ever in recent elections. While concern over the impact of large numbers of migrants needs to be addressed, this must not become a channel for xenophobia.
Turning discourse into action
These sentiments are voiced by charities and political groups across the globe. The UN has warned simply turning the migrants away is not a viable option, stressing the need for an alternative to the ballooning refugee camps like those outside Calais and Dunkirk. This echoes former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband’s call last week for the closure of refugee camps. Indeed, resettling 3,000 Syrian refugee children barely scratches the surface. It is just a fraction of the 20 million displaced. According to UN High Commissioner, Filippo Ghandi a mere 1% has been resettled in another nation. In spite of calls for change from across the world, discourse is yet to be translated into coordinated action.
For real change there needs to be a transformation in public attitude. It is not that we ignore the crisis, we tolerate it. The stream of news reporting from Mediterranean coastlines has become background noise. We let out a sigh and return to sipping lattes and perusing Vogue’s fashion pages. It was not really until last September when heart-wrenching photographs were shown of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a beach near Bodrum (Turkey) that we all paused to listen. Demand for immediate government action followed with the Canadian government calling for change in immigration policy and the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore) trending worldwide. The shocking photo brought the realities of the crisis into our living rooms and every mother asked herself, “what if this was my child?”
What we can do
For many of us is too close for comfort, threatening to make waves in our urbane existence. Too often our concern for refugees’ welfare halts at the point we perceive an infringement on our own prosperity. We claim to grieve for the 4.1 million Syrians who have fled Assad’s regime or Libyans escaping the aftermath of Gadhafi’s administration; yet recoil in horror at the suggestion they might alight on the shores of Dover.
Indeed many forms of charity are approached with a similar attitude. We toss coins into Oxfam collection baskets, dutifully text donations to Comic Relief; applauding our own benevolence. As Edward Said noted in his concept of ‘Orientalism’, we perceive a schism between ‘us’ (the west) and ‘them’ (the east). Despite increasing global social and economic integration we endeavour to preserve this segregation. Political leaders, business moguls and philanthropists all call for a united world… only as long it is metaphorical and we do not have to inhabit the same street. Everybody is eager to help until it means giving up a piece of their own freedom.
So while the decision to accept refugee children should be applauded as a stride forward, it is going to take more than this to fix the crisis. Change begins with us.