Leader: Britain’s moral obligation to Syrian refugees

By opening its borders to the Syrians, the UK can honour its liberal tradition of offering shelter to those in need and encourage other western states to do the same.

Syria is enduring a humanitarian crisis from which the world longs to turn away. In the three years since the uprising against the Assad government began, more than 130,000 people have been killed, a third of them civilians, while 2.3 million have fled the country and become refugees. The UN expects another two million to leave, or attempt to leave, this year.

The burden placed on Syria’s neighbours, many of them with deeply entrenched ethnic and sectarian tensions of their own, has been remarkable. In Lebanon, refugees from Syria now account for nearly a quarter of the population (one million out of 4.4 million) and have cost the economy £4.5bn, pushing as many as 170,000 people into poverty and inflaming sectarian conflict. Jordan (567,000), Turkey (540,000) and Iraq (207,000) have similarly accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrians, leaving these countries, as David Miliband has said, “beyond what in the west would be considered the breaking point”.

It was this that prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, to call for western countries to accept 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees (just 1.3 per cent of the total) by the end of this year, including those with medical needs or disabilities, torture survivors, women at risk and the elderly. To date, as Daniel Trilling writes in his report from refugee camps in Bulgaria and Turkey on page 32, European countries have largely “remained closed”. Since the crisis began, just 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries, including the United States. Meanwhile, hundreds have died trying to enter by sea from North Africa. Although Germany has now pledged to accept 10,000 refugees, the remaining 27 EU countries have offered to take just 2,340. Eighteen states, including the United Kingdom, have taken none.

Since the vote by parliament against military intervention last summer, Britain’s political parties have mostly ignored the war in Syria, as attention has focused on the crisis in domestic living standards. It took the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, to stir the conscience of MPs when he called for Britain to “honour the spirit of the 1951 declaration on refugee status” and “help some of those people in Syria fleeing in fear of their lives”. Ukip members and supporters were outraged by their leader’s intervention and he has since said, in a grim appeal to sectarianism, that his demand applied only to Christians. Yet his original point stands: why should the UK, as the sixth-largest economy in the world, bear none of the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis?

To this, ministers point to the £500m of aid that Britain has provided, its largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. But as Mr Guterres has said: “It is not only financial, econo­mic and technical support to these [neighbouring] states which is needed. It also includes receiving, through resettlement, humanitarian admission, family reunification or similar mechanisms, refugees who are today in the neighbouring countries but who can find a solution outside the region.”

The suspicion prompted by the government’s inertia is that David Cameron is unwilling to act for fear of putting his pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” even further out of reach. However, this commitment, which Mr Cameron has conceded is unlikely to be met in this parliament, should not be allowed to override Britain’s humanitarian responsibilities.

Nor should ministers assume that voters will make no distinction between those fleeing persecution and war and those seeking work. Polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown that more than 60 per cent of the public believes that we must “always protect genuine asylum-seekers who need a place of safety in Britain”. By opening its borders to the Syrians, the UK can honour its liberal tradition of offering shelter to those in need, including the Huguenots, the Jews and the Ugandan Asians, and encourage other western states to do the same.

In the days following the vote by parliament against military action, Mr Cameron urged MPs to talk to “those in the refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere – to see how they feel about how badly the rest of the world is currently letting them down”. So long as Britain and other EU states continue to turn away those seeking refuge, they will ensure that this remains the case.

9 January 2014: Syrian refugees sit in a room shared by five people at the main refugee centre in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.