While on the face of it sounds as if the coalition is doing its international and humanitarian duty in offering a safe haven for Syrian refugees, the proposal to accept just a few hundred refugees - and on a temporary basis - smacks of gesture politics.
The government has announced that it will offer hundreds of Syrian refugees the right to temporarily settle in the UK.
In making the announcement, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg boasted of Britain’s “long and proud tradition of providing refuge at times of crisis”, adding that (some) torture victims, women and the elderly would now be offered sanctuary in Britain.
Three cheers for the coalition then, right?
Well no, actually.
While on the face of it sounds like coalition is doing its international and humanitarian duty in offering a safe haven for Syrian refugees, the proposal to accept just a few hundred refugees – and on a temporary basis – smacks of gesture politics.
Let’s look at the scale of the problem, firstly.
Over two million people have fled Syria as a consequence of the country’s civil war. According to the Economist, 988 Syrians applied for asylum in Britain in 2012 and 625 were granted it, up from just 30 in 2010.
If it matters, Britain’s pledge to accept a few hundred refugees also looks rather less impressive when we look at the numbers other countries have taken in. Germany has so far accepted 18,000 refugees, and many countries in the Middle East have taken far more: 838,000 in Lebanon; 567,000 in Jordan and 129,000 in Egypt.
Equally telling is that, despite making such fanfare over its acceptance of a few hundred refugees, the government has refused to sign up to the UN’s official resettlement scheme, which enforces quotas on countries to take their share of refugees.
The only real reason for the government not to sign up to the scheme is, in fact, a desire not to take its fair share of refugees.
The UN has asked that Europe make 30,000 visas available to Syrians stuck in refugee camps. 500 (the number of refugees Labour is arguing for and, presumably, the number the coalition is now willing to accept) is nowhere near what one would expect Britain’s quota to be.
The government has previously justified Britain’s unwillingness to offer shelter to Syrian refugees by referring critics to the humanitarian aid Britain is providing – admittedly significant at £600m.
Yet taking in only a few hundred refugees, while justifying it on the basis that “we give lots of aid”, is reminiscent of the irritable commuter who hands money to the homeless man on the tube in order that he disappear. Most Syrian refugees need money and aid; but not as much as they need a place to live.
Public opinion is obviously playing its part in this sorry saga. A YouGov poll last week found that a significant majority of Britons are opposed to admitting just a few hundred Syrian asylum seekers to the UK (a rejoinder to those who believed widespread opposition to military intervention in Syria in the summer had nothing to do with the ‘Little Englander’ mentality).
Letting in Syrian refugees is unpopular, but as Britons we are attached to the myth of our “long and proud tradition of providing refuge at times of crisis”.
What we want, therefore, is a gesture; and in the government’s announcement that it will let in up to 500 Syrian refugees, that’s all we’ve got.
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