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  1. Politics
3 August 2016

The refugee crisis is a moral test – Britain is failing

A new report shows 80 per cent of councils failing to accept a single Syrian

By Alison McGovern

Four years ago, as London prepared to host the Olympic games, the eyes of the world were on Britain. Around the globe people watched with wonder and envy at this brilliant country, its culture, its inventiveness and its openness. Britain, in summer 2012 felt like a model for what a dynamic and confident modern country could and should be. The eyes of the world have been on Britain again this summer and they have seen something very different. An ugly referendum debate leading to a fractious few months of uncertainty and doubt. The serene confidence of 2012 replaced by introspection and suspicion.
When Remainers, early in the summer, worried aloud about how a vote to leave would be perceived around the world, we were given reassurances. No, we were told, Brexit does not mean turning our backs on our allies. No we will not have a closed economy. We will not be hostile to foreigners. We will leave Europe and face the world, engaging with our allies, fully involved in global trade, international development and the institutions of the world. Well, it doesn’t feel like that at the moment. Not only has there been a shameful rise in hate crime since the referendum, but Britain seems to be stuck talking about ourselves, ignoring the international crises on our doorstep.
Take refugees as a test. How quickly the humanitarian crisis in the middle east and Europe has faded from our minds. This week the home affairs select committee have revealed that there is little chance of the UK meeting the government’s target of taking 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees by 2020. This target, hard-won but still too low, was set after the Government’s cowardly refusal to cooperate with our European allies in the wider resettlement programme. Nearly a year later, only 1,602 refugees have been given shelter on our shores, with 80 per cent of councils failing to accept a single Syrian.
This is a double test for the government. The first is moral. The Syrian refugee crisis may have slipped off the front pages, but it is still the most profound humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. Every country, especially affluent western democracies, have a moral duty to meet this challenge. Look at the misery and suffering of those fleeing for their lives from a country that has become a living hell. Look at the children forced to sleep in tents for months on our very doorstep, without their parents, without proper food or shelter. Look at this and say that 1,602 is acceptable. Or that we can’t help the 157 unaccompanied children with family in the UK who are stuck in Calais while we turn our backs. If we do nothing, if we look at the ruin that was Homs and talk only about “pull factors”, then we fail that moral test.
Not only do we fail it, we fail it publically, at a time where the world is watching Britain and wondering who we are and what we stand for. This is the second test for the government. How our country acts in the coming months and years matters. Our choices, about trade, migration, tolerance and cooperation will colour us, for good or ill, for decades. In this context, the appointment of Boris Johnson as our chief diplomat was an embarrassment, but the abolition of critical post of minister for Syrian refugees was a disgrace
Theresa May needs to get a grip of this situation. Put a minister back in charge, commit to bringing those 157 children over by the end of the summer, work with councils to make sure we get back on track for 20,000 by 2020 at least. The wretched of the earth do not have time for British introspection. Their need is now. It is time to prove to them and to the world that we are a brave and decent country and that our hearts and homes are not closed to those who call out for our help.

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