The quality of our public discourse on asylum is lamentable. The Conservative government, preoccupied with its absurd immigration caps and targets (all missed), has shown little leadership on the issue. In an excellent speech on 1 September, Yvette Cooper correctly denounced the “political cowardice” of ministers for failing to respond adequately and compassionately to the plight of asylum-seekers fleeing turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. She contrasted the government’s inaction with Britain’s proud traditions of welcoming incomers and the most desperate refugees.
Yet those who agree with Ms Cooper should also accept that admitting large numbers of asylum-seekers – she suggested that Britain should take in 10,000 people fleeing the Middle East – would pose considerable challenges to public services, housing and social cohesion. It is not enough to accept more asylum-seekers. There must be a plan for their integration into wider society, by helping them to learn English, find work and pay taxes. Above all, what is required is not a panicked, short-term response to the immediate crisis but an EU-wide solution for the long term.
The British government, however, does not seem interested in helping to find one, which was why Ms Cooper’s call for a country of 65 million to admit 10,000 asylum-seekers seemed so bold. For all its difficulties, Britain is richer than most other countries in the EU. It can afford to do far more than its intransigent approach to admitting asylum-seekers suggests. Between 2010 and 2014, 15 EU countries admitted more asylum-seekers per head of population than the UK.
In 2014, the UK granted asylum to just 14,000 people, compared to the 47,500 taken by Germany. This year, as many as 800,000 are expected to apply to Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the refugee crisis “will concern us far more than Greece and the stability of the euro”, and German regional leaders have agitated for greater federal funding and faster processing of asylum claims. Such an approach is absent from much of the rest of the continent: many European nations seem to have resolved that the best way to deter asylum-seekers is to treat them deplorably. The Dutch government has announced plans to cut off the supply of food and shelter for those who fail to qualify as refugees.
Nor has the EU distinguished itself. A proposal made in May for member states to admit 40,000 asylum-seekers between them has collapsed. The EU has also failed to engage other nations in a larger multilateral response to alleviating the crisis: the wealthy Gulf states, which keep their borders firmly closed to the desperate of Syria ought to be shamed into action. As many as 2,500 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year; across the EU, the number of applications for asylum reached the record figure of 626,000 in 2014 and it will be even higher in 2015.
David Cameron can legitimately say that he is operating in a climate of great hostility to migrants and asylum-seekers – just read the tabloid headlines. Yet leadership is about informing public opinion, not merely following it. The Prime Minister has a rare opportunity to shape a more enlightened and compassionate public discourse.
This article appears in the 02 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses