Germany has accepted 30,000 Syrian asylum seekers, while the UK has taken just 187
Theresa May’s appeal for other European countries to join with Britain and France in tackling the Calais migrant crisis was breathtakingly disingenuous. Of course she was right when she said in the Sunday Telegraph that the crisis ‘is a priority at both a European and international level’.
But when the European Commission responded to the Greek and Italian pleas for help with the far greater challenges that they face, the British government was quick to torpedo plans for a pan-European approach.
We do need a co-ordinated European response, both for the countries involved and for the migrants who are at the centre of this human tragedy. But it needs to offer real solutions, not soundbites for the Daily Mail. Labour should expose the hypocrisy of a government that calls for European solutions, while refusing to be part of them. And we should challenge those who have pandered to the tabloid pastime of blaming the French, pointing out that it is the people of Calais and their police who are in the front line.
In working towards realistic solutions we have to take on the myths that have dominated too much of the public and political discourse. Let’s start with the idea, reinforced by images of desperation from the Channel Tunnel, that Britain is a magnet for all those migrants entering the EU. In 2014 Germany received 202,645 asylum applicants, while the UK’s 31,745 was roughly the same as Austria – a country with a population an eighth of ours.
And it’s not just an EU issue. Switzerland, a non-EU country, considers more than three times the number of asylum applications per head of population than the UK.
While the Tories slip into their comfort zone of blaming overgenerous benefits for asylum seekers as the attraction which brings people here, we should point out the facts. There are at least half a dozen European countries providing more generous support than the weekly £36.95 offered in the UK. And, as all the interviews conducted with those gathering around Calais have demonstrated, it is not benefits but the opportunity of work that draws migrants to Britain.
On this issue, Labour is best placed to offer solutions. Instead of cutting benefits to asylum seekers, we should be arguing for effective enforcement of labour law – something that will both tackle the exploitation of irregular migrant workers and benefit the many British workers whose employers find avoidance of the National Minimum Wage and other abuses too easy in under-regulated labour market.
So what should a wider solution look like? A starting point would be to suspend the ‘Dublin Accord’ – the agreement between EU member states under which migrants must claim asylum in the country where they are first registered. Only then can we begin to develop pan-European processing centres in key areas – from Calais to Lampedusa – in which all the countries of Europe should take a shared responsibility.
That shared responsibility will have to extend to the equitable distribution of successful asylum applicants among EU countries – opposition to which led to the collapse of the European Commission proposals in June and the understandable anger of the Italian government.
Labour led the way in pressing the Coalition government to accept refugees from the appalling conflict in Syria, but contrast the pathetically low admission of 187 refugees to the UK with Germany’s offer of 30,000 places.
Of course, Syrians are not the only ones arriving in Europe, but they are the largest group, constituting more than a third of those who come by sea. But of the 3 million who have fled Assad’s war, most refugees have gone to Syria’s neighbouring countries. In Lebanon one-in-four of the population is a Syrian refugee, imposing huge pressures on the country. This highlights the bigger problem – of an unprecedented global crisis in which the poorest countries are bearing the burden of almost 60 million displaced people.
It will not be easy to make the case for accepting more refugees. Just as the Daily Mail opposed providing a home for Jewish families fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, they and others will make the case against those seeking refuge today. Without taking on that argument, affirming our commitment to the legal rights of those fleeing war and persecution, there can be no coherent response to the crisis in Calais.
Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central, and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on MigrationLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.