Labour should be arguing for more than 500 Syrian refugees

If Nigel Farage is able to make the case for Syrian asylum seekers, Ed Miliband should be able to.

Now is not the easiest of times to be making the case for more migration to the UK. People who see immigration as a problem outweigh those who see it as opportunity by 64 to 29 per cent.

This has resulted in predictable enmity toward the end of visa restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians, despite there being considerable evidence prior to the January 1 changes that there would be no new influx of economic migrants (and thus far there hasn’t been).

The perception of immigration as a toxic issue almost certainly explains the unwillingness of politicians to make the case for Syrian asylum seekers. Since the vote against military action back in August, the issue of Syria seems to have fallen off the agenda for many of our politicians and political commentators – regardless of whether they supported or opposed the use of force against Bashar al Assad.

The government of David Cameron, which took a principled stand in August against “the gassing of children” by Assad’s forces, has been happy to sit on its hands when those same Syrian children have sought refuge from the murderous government he was so eager to (rightly) condemn in the summer.

Over two million people have now 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. However this is far short of the 18,000 taken in by Germany; and of course far fewer than the number taken by many countries in the Middle East (838,000 by Lebanon; 567,000 by Jordan; 129,000 by Egypt).

Amnesty International hasn’t minced its words, describing it as “absolutely shameful” that Britain has not provided refuge for more Syrian asylum seekers.

The extent of the government’s callousness toward Syrians is such that even UKIP leader Nigel Farage has urged David Cameron to do more (although he was forced to eat his words after a backlash from the Little Englanders of his party).

Unfortunately, though, the Tory party is right about one thing: the Labour response has been ‘tokenistic’ at best. The UN has asked that Europe make 30,000 visas available to Syrians stuck in refugee camps. Yet Labour has been pressing the government to accept a mere 500 refugees – a fraction of those displaced by the conflict.

Presumably this reluctance to help Syrians is based on fear of a public backlash against immigrants in general – including asylum seekers – and the effect this could have on Labour’s electoral chances in 2015.

Considering the recent flurry of Labour apologies for the ‘mistake’ of opening the country to migrants from Eastern Europe in 2004, it’s clear Labour is worried stiff lest it be seen (shock horror) as the party of immigration – much like it is trying to shed its image as the party of welfare.

As a country, though, do we really have to sink this low to appease the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the tabloids? Does the Labour Party, the home of internationalism, not have a role to play in ensuring that we don’t turn our backs on the dispossessed – a greater role than simply helping 500 of them – regardless of what the Daily Mail thinks?

If Nigel Farage is able to make the case for Syrian asylum seekers then Ed Miliband should be able to. Some things are just more important than being popular. Paradoxically, an unpopular but principled move is also very often interpreted as a sign of leadership. And who can say that Ed Miliband doesn’t need to demonstrate a bit more of that?

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