Let's not further diminish our standing in Europe
Sometimes it just takes one photo to turn the tide of public opinion. One picture of a young girl, running for her life from a napalm attack, helped solidify opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. The now iconic photo of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, became a global symbol of defiance against oppression.
Now it is the heart-wrenching photo of Aylan Kurdi, the tiny Syrian boy found washed up dead on a Turkish beach, which has roused the public’s emotions and shone a stark light on the UK and Europe’s failure to respond adequately to the refugee crisis unfolding on our borders.
In the face of pressure from the public, media and some of his backbenchers, David Cameron has at last relented and accepted that the UK should take in a higher number of refugees from Syria. Yet he still refuses to contemplate a broader, European response to this crisis.
Plans are being drawn up to take a limited number of refugees directly from camps on Syria’s borders, but much to the dismay of our EU partners, Cameron continues to rule out taking part in an EU response to the thousands of desperate refugees arriving on Europe’s shores. This may be politically expedient, but it is strategically short-sighted. Only by working together at the EU level can we address the biggest refugee crisis since WW2.
Yesterday I visited Calais to see the humanitarian situation of migrants and would-be asylum-seekers there first-hand. I met Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Sudanese men and children. Many had undergone appalling journeys to get to the camp and were now living in horrendous conditions, all in the hope of one day reaching the UK.
Contrary to public perception, their motives had nothing to do with the British benefits system. Asylum seekers receive around 80 euros a week in France, almost twice what they would get in the UK. The vast majority wanted to reach Britain either because they spoke good English, they had relatives here already or they thought it would be easier to find a job.
What was abundantly clear was that building yet more walls and fences will not deter these desperate people, who have already overcome huge obstacles during their long, perilous journeys. We need a real long-term solution, not more tough-sounding rhetoric and political posturing.
Firstly that means ending the current perverse situation in which some EU countries are doing vastly more than others to respond to this crisis. By the end of this year Germany expects to take in up to 800,000 refugees, compared to just a few hundred in neighbouring Poland. And in 2014 Sweden processed twice as many asylum requests than the UK, or 17 times more per person.
Meanwhile countries such as Italy, Greece and Hungary are struggling to cope with the vast flow of migrants entering into Europe, with many being left for months in overcrowded and unsanitary detention centres. The EU’s broken asylum system is on the verge of collapse.
Next week the European Commission will come forward with a plan that would redistribute up to 160,000 refugees more equally around the EU. This would be the first step in creating an EU-wide system that offers safe and legal routes into Europe, processes asylum requests more efficiently and ensures that all EU countries play their part in offering sanctuary to genuine refugees.
Until such a system is in place, thousands will continue to perish making the perilous journey into Europe and thousands more will continue to be left in limbo in places like Calais, Ventimiglia and Budapest.
I am urging the Conservative government to be part of this European solution and not part of the problem. Let’s take in our fair share of Europe’s refugees, while stepping up joint efforts to tackle the root causes in countries like Syria and Eritrea.
Britain has a long and proud tradition of looking after the vulnerable and those fleeing conflict and persecution. Let’s stay true to that tradition of compassion, decency and tolerance, and not further diminish our standing in Europe and the world.
Catherine Bearder is a Liberal Democrat MEP
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