Refugees from Syria huddle under a makeshift tent in Turkey. Photo: Getty Images
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The world is gripped by the biggest refugee crisis in its history. Britain must act

Britain has retreated from the world - and left the most vulnerable to fend for themselves.

Today marks World Refugee Day. This week, the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) revealed that the number of refugees rose to 60 million at the end of 2014. One per cent of our entire planet have been ‘forcibly displaced’ from their homes and communities.

The tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea is the result of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis blighting parts of North Africa and the Middle East. But the refugee crisis we face is escalating at an alarming rate, with new axes of exclusion emerging across the globe. Each new tragic incident – the seizure of Yarmouk, the recent shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, and the desperate plight of the Rohingya – more horrific than the last. And each must spur political action.

The Prime Minister’s recent U-turn - acknowledging his mistake to pare back search and rescue operations - is welcome. But news that the future operation of HMS Bulwark – providing a vital lifeline to migrants stranded at sea - is under threat, is of deep concern. It is symbolic of the UK’s continued reluctance to engage.  

It is right that we have a debate on immigration, and about the state of affairs within our own borders. But we must also spark a broader discussion – one that examines the causes and responses by the world community with regard to mass migration. And this discussion must have clear principles.

Just as Tony Blair set out in his Chicago speech what should underpin liberal interventionism in the face of what he felt was the global challenge of his time, so we must begin to establish the values that should guide our response to a refugee crisis fuelled by climate change, political unrest and conflict. We must also acknowledge that, in some situations, these two debates are interlinked and that previous interventions - undertaken in our name - have undeniably fed the current turmoil. 

Today, on World Refugee Day, I want to challenge us to set out what these principles should be.

For me, it starts with global cooperation. With regard to the Syrian conflict, Britain should rejoin the United Nations official refugee programme for the most vulnerable refugees – recognising that many of these migrants will not even make it to a boat or get here on a plane; they will die in a camp.

Strict quotas such as those set out in the European Commission’s proposed ‘Agenda on Migration’ – due to be debated this week - are unworkable. But the lack of solidarity shown by this government is immoral. In such situations, ours should be generous response, but not a constrained one.

As Yvette Cooper has said, we should decouple asylum from migration targets. It skews the debate and frames an issue of decency in the context of political expedience. Refugees should be removed from net migration target.

News that the Department for International Development (DfID) has been excluded from a number of cross-Whitehall committees – including the National Security Council and the Immigration Taskforce – is emblematic of DfID’s further isolation and fading influence. Our aim should be an integrated development, defence, foreign and home policy that recognises the global challenges we face are interconnected.

Perhaps most importantly, we need an honest debate. The contention, propelled by the Prime Minister, that these immigrants are ‘economic migrants’, rather than desperate victims of human catastrophe is inaccurate and alarming. The British people, understandably concerned about levels of migration, are more anxious about human decency when confronted by the true facts.

We were once a nation that was proud to offer a place of sanctuary for people fleeing horrific rights abuses worldwide. But this government’s deliberate retreat from the world stage has put our reputation at risk.

The UK must stand up for the world’s least wanted people – but we must do so in a manner that is based on sound principles, and that requires consensus. It’s a debate whose urgency cannot be underestimated.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war