Far later than it should have done, the coalition has announced that it will accept some refugees from Syria (as the NS urged it to do in a recent leader) ahead of today’s Labour-tabled debate on the subject. Nick Clegg said last night:
I am pleased to be able to announce that the UK will be providing refuge to some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. The coalition government wants to play our part in helping to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria.
The £600m we have provided makes us the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in the world. But as the conflict continues to force millions of Syrians from their homes, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can.
We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world and I believe we have a moral responsibility to help.
He added: “Britain has a long and proud tradition of provided refuge at times of crisis. This coalition government will ensure it lives on.”
Indeed; so what took ministers so long? The most likely explanation appears to be the Tories’ dogmatic target (which is not officially coalition policy) to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year by the end of this parliament. The Independent reports that David Cameron “overruled objections” from Theresa May, who is determined to do everything possible to meet the pledge, in order to allow the door to be opened to refugees. “He realised that, although we are the good guys and the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria in the world, we were in danger of looking like the villains,” one source is quoted as saying.
But while, as Ming Campbell said on the Today programme this morning, we shouldn’t make “the best the enemy of the good”, it is clear that the net migration target is still preventing ministers from going as far as they should (Germany has accepted 10,000). One reasonable solution proposed by May’s shadow Yvette Cooper is for the Tories to exclude refugees from the target. She said last night:
[M]inisters need to confirm that these will be additional places and will not be at the expense of help for other refugees. Finally it would be helpful for the Home Secretary to explain why ministers resisted for so long and to look urgently at removing refugees from the government’s net migration target. Immigration policy is very different from Britain’s long tradition of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution and the two things should not be confused.
The dreadful conflict in Syria has caused a humanitarian crisis. As well as helping all those we can in the region, it is right that we also do our bit to provide the most desperate refugees with a place of safety.
Cooper also rightly urged ministers to reconsider their decision not to participate in the UN programme.
The Government still needs to explain how the programme will work and whether they are signing up to the UNHCR programme or trying to run a parallel programme of their own. Given the considerable flexibility in the UN programme for countries to set their own priorities, numbers and security checks, the benefits of not running parallel bureaucracy and the value of being able to encourage other countries to follow suit, the Government would be best to sign up with the UN.
Ministers proudly point to the £600m of aid that Britain has provided, making it the second largest bilateral donor of aid in the world. But as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António 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.”
But when one hears Tory MPs such as Brooks Newmark, who indulged in shameless scaremongering on Today this morning by claiming that the UK has been asked to take “30,000 refugees” (the total number the UN has asked western countries to accept) and who moaned that Britain always does “the heavy lifting” (in fact, it is developing countries that accept the most refugees), it becomes clear why Cameron’s hands are tied.