The Syria refugee crisis has shone a spotlight on the EU and Britain’s relationship with the EU as David Cameron trots round countries on his mysterious “renegotiation”. The mystery surrounding his renegotiation is politically useful as it it obscures the content and will hide the areas where the renegotiation has been unsuccessful. It allows the Prime Minister to return bearing a fig leaf of change, of compromise. Whatever the outcome, it will not be enough for the siren voices of the hard right in the Tory party who will clamour to leave, whatever the deal.
That is why those of us in the Labour Yes campaign have insisted we are right to stay in the EU, as open, outward looking social democrats who believe we achieve more through common endeavor than we can achieve on our own. The EU, like all politics, is a cumbersome, bureaucratic, imperfect system. But it is the longest and most successful peace process the world has ever see. It has transformed historic enemies into neighbours and trading partners. It has acted as a beacon of hope to those labouring under the yoke of Communism. It has cleaned up our air and our rivers, protected consumers and driven foreign direct investment, innovation and prosperity.
Moving in parallel with David Cameron’s renegotiation, the EU’s monumental Syria refugee crisis has gradually been growing. In this, the UK is a laggard not a leader when it comes to helping coordinate the response.
The refugee crisis is not just a political crisis it is a moral crisis and a crisis of leadership.
Last year, the UK government showed a spectacular lack of compassion. Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said rescue operations in the Mediterranean acted as a “pull factor” for illegal migration. Rescuing drowning children is not a pull factor it is the right thing to do, as the government later realised.
The EU response has lacked competence and it has lacked compassion and coordination. Europe has spent months focussed on Greek economic and political crisis, and ignored the growing humanitarian crisis on its island shores. The EU has been distracted by conflict in Ukraine and growing anxiety about Russia’s ambitions.
Now the EU is playing catchup.
The citizens of Europe have been ahead of the governments of Europe. The photo of Aylan al-Kurdi’s lifeless body on the beach at Bodrum spoke to people’s hearts in a way that politicians of all parties had failed. The “refugees welcome” hashtag mobilised public opinion. Offers of help and assistance have come pouring in.
Our continent of 500 million people realised that it can welcome and shelter 500 thousand refugees.
Lebanon, a country of 3 million people which I visited in September simply cannot
Cameron’s strategy, of using the generosity of the overseas aid budget as an excuse for the UK’s failure to offer safe, legal routes for refugees, is simply unsustainable. Tiny Ireland and Denmark share our opt-out of EU home affairs decisions. But they have shamed us with their generosity in stepping forward to offer to take refugees as part of the EU quota system. Is such an act of goodwill beyond the UK’s capacity? EU leaders have long memories and I have no doubt that his isolationism will ultimately hinder Cameron’s renegotiation plans.
Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel has led the way in changing the terms of the debate. As a former resident of East Germany she has experienced huge changes in her own life, not least in 1990 when West Germany welcomed her and 16 million other East Germans after the people tore down the Berlin Wall. Europe has the experience, the wealth and the capacity to act.
We lack the political will.
We are entering the fifth year of the Syrian war. It is a war without law and a war without end.
The desperation of refugees is growing. They are people like us:- doctors, lawyers, engineers, people who drove cars, owned businesses and lived in apartments. They have the same hopes and expectations as us. But they are stuck in camps and informal settlements where their food rations have been cut from $30 a month to $13 a month. The UN appeals for humanitarian relief have only had one third of the funding they need.
This chronic failure has to stop.
There are six million displaced people in Syria. There are four million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There will be one million refugees in Europe by the end of this year. Half of them are children.
So our political language needs to change. We reject the dehumanising language of tsunami (Bill Cash) of flows and tides (BBC passim). Language shapes reality. The reality is men and women and children have had to leave a country where their president has dropped napalm on schools, gassed people as they slept, and dropped cluster bombs on markets. They have left because of Assad’s actions and the West’s political inertia.
But our language must change from the language of refugees as a burden, to seeing refugees as valuable in and of themselves because of our common humanity. They have valuable skills to offer the countries that host them. Any successful strategy for refugees must look not just at what we can do for them but what they can do for us. They have a contribution to make and one aim of the resettlement programme must be the goal of economic independence.
I have written elsewhere of my shame at our party’s, and the Tory government’s failure to back airstrikes against the Assad regime. On a recent visit to Lebanon with Birmingham-based charity Islamic Relief, I met men, women and children in Lebanon who fled Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons in Syria and Isis’ terror in Syria and Iraq. In autumn last year, Lebanon was receiving 10,000 Syrian refugees a day. Lebanon took more Syrian refugees in 2 days than Britain will take in 5 years.
Iman, a 65 year old grandmother from Aleppo told me how she was imprisoned by Assad’s regime for more than two weeks . She had returned from Lebanon to Syria after her son was killed to rescue her 5 grandchildren. She now lives with them in a shack made of breeze blocks, cardboard and plastic sheeting on rocky land generously donated by a Lebanese man.
Hadia’s husband, a Red Cross volunteer, was killed by a bomb. Four of her children are still trapped in Homs. The UN had offered to take her and her younger children to Germany. She refused to go because her mum could not go with her.
At a Baptist church north of Beirut, I saw Islamic and Christian charities working together to help Christians in need . I met Imad who lost an eye when terrorists blew up the café where he worked, in Baghdad. And Yousif told me how he fled Mosul nine months ago with his four children when Islamic state took over his city. One man said he was grateful for the food aid, but told me “education is more important than food”.
I promised these refugees I would share their stories to help people in Britain understand why they fled their homes.
Iman, Hadi Imad and Yousif are refugees with rights guaranteed under international conventions. They not economic migrants. They did not leave through choice. They left because they had no choice. They deserve decency, dignity and compassion.
David Cameron’s promise to take 20,000 refugees is a welcome U-turn. But it must now be matched with swift action. And hard cash for local communities in the UK, who have been moved by the refugee crisis. We have a duty to offer a decent welcome to them. The British people have shown they are ready to open their hearts to Syrian refugees. But David Cameron’s refusal to play its part in the European resettlement programme will have damaged his renegotiation strategy.