Theresa May’s central message on refugees is that the UK shouldn’t take responsibility

Her speech to the UN can only make the crisis worse


Our Prime Minister yesterday addressed world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York, and her central message is a bold attempt to permit her to take less responsibility.

The world is in the grip of a global refugee crisis; and it is growing. A key reason for this escalation is too many countries – often the richest – refusing to share responsibility. As one country declares ‘not in my backyard’, so others adopt a similar stance.

The result? A world with more walls, more refugees and more smugglers profiting from their desperate plight.

A crisis long in the making

This crisis has been brewing for many years. Even before the Syrian war exploded after 2011, the world’s richest countries looked the other way as far poorer, and often less stable, countries played host to ever more people forced from their homes by conflict and persecution.

Over ten years, the developing nations share of the world’s refugees grew from 70 per cent to 86 per cent, as decades-old conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia received little attention. Countries like Pakistan, Ethiopia and Kenya were left hosting hundreds of thousands of people forced to leave their homes.

Meanwhile, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria hosted the great majority of the world’s largest refugee population – Palestinians.

Richer countries gave money. But always far below the minimum identified by the UN as necessary to respond to immediate needs. Nor have they responded effectively to repeated UN calls to resettle people in dire situations in those countries neighbouring conflict zones.

The UK is barely affected

This was always going to be unsustainable. And so it has proved.

Over the last three years, the number of people forced from their homes has grown quickly. Around five million Syrians have been forced across borders – most since 2012. South Sudan’s descent into violent turmoil has driven more than a million people from that country. Several new conflicts elsewhere have added to the number of people seeking sanctuary.

Europeans have seen relatively few of these displaced people. The great majority forced across borders have moved to countries in the Middle East and Africa – countries that were already hosting far more refugees than Europe.

But many governments and political commentators across Europe have wilfully stirred fear and spread a false impression that this continent is disproportionately affected.

What is our role in all this?

Europe is building new barriers. Having prioritised a fortress mentality designed to keep people out for years, the response of many countries at this time has been more frantic – but essentially more of the same.

In several ways the UK is at the forefront of this panicked and disastrously ineffective response.

In 2010, less people sought asylum in the UK than at any time since the 1980s – that is people forced to make their own way to the UK before they can seek safety here; many of them desperate to join family already living here.

Yet, our government has continued to emphasise its determination to reduce the number of people fleeing persecution who reach our shores – even as the UK has tumbled down the table of European countries receiving and hosting refugees.

This has not, and will never, reduce the need for people to flee. It has, however, encouraged other governments to raise their walls and reduce their commitment to providing asylum too.

What is needed and what are we getting?

Addressing the root causes of conflict and refugee migration requires long-term work. Countries like the UK need to stop arming, supporting and propping up brutal regimes.

In the meantime, everyone needs to play a full part in providing refugees with safety and an opportunity to rebuild their lives. That cannot come if the richest and most stable countries in the world continue to do everything they can to keep refugees out.

The impacts of this disastrous strategy are there for all to see at the Syria-Jordan border, in the responses of Kenya and Pakistan seeking to force refugees they’ve hosted for years back to countries where their lives are in danger, and in the appalling hatred being peddled by the Hungarian government.

These responses share the same central message offered by our Prime Minister in New York today – ‘not in my back yard, someone else must take responsibility’.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters were addressed by a seven-year-old asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, who would have suffocated with fourteen others in Leicester locked in the back of a truck but for a mobile provided to him by a volunteer at Calais. The day before, another child – also from Afghanistan – died trying to make the same journey because he was so desperate to reach his family in the UK.

These tragedies will continue. And Theresa May’s speech can only lead to an increase in their number and frequency. She urgently needs to change tack.

The UK should be taking and sharing more responsibility. That is the leadership we all need at this time of crisis.

Steve Symonds is Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director at Amnesty. This post originally appeared on his blog.

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