If we want to help Syrian refugees, Britain will have to get over our asylum taboo

We can and must do more for refugees - but things will have to change. 

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Many, as they listened to the Christmas story of a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge for the night, will have reflected over the holiday period on the millions of poor families fleeing the current conflict in the Middle East.

In Britain, of course, such reflections will not have been triggered by first-hand experience: the number of Syrian refugees in the UK is vanishingly small. Of the three million living in the camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, only one thousand Syrians have been relocated to Britain.  Just before Christmas the number of refugees that arrived in Europe this year passed the million mark. None have been offered shelter here. Thirteen thousand refugees arrived at Munich train station in one day in September, and the population of some villages in Germany has doubled as refugees have been accommodated in gyms and church halls. By contrast, the refugee crisis has had little impact on Britons’ lives apart from traffic tailbacks in Kent as migrants broke into the Channel Tunnel and distressing media images of a drowned toddler.

Throughout 2015 the government argued that Britain is pulling its weight by taking a handful of the most vulnerable refugees and providing generous overseas aid. It is certainly true that the UK is providing significant development assistance to the region, sending over £1 billion, far more than any other EU country. That money is doubtlessly saving lives and alleviating suffering. But it is not resolving the conflict and it is not stemming the flow of refugees coming to Europe.

One reason British politicians are reluctant to accept more refugees here is because asylum policy has become a long-standing political taboo. Since the crisis in the early 2000s, when tens of thousands massed at the Sangatte camp in France and a huge backlog sapped public confidence in the immigration system, asylum has been something of a third rail in British immigration policy. No government, especially one that vaunts its toughness on immigration as much as this one, wants to see asylum figures explode on its watch. Hence the reason that refugees are still included in the net migration target, lumped together crudely with American bankers and Chinese students. And unlike other EU countries, Britain has not yet seen a significant surge in far-right support. Politicians are understandably loath to provoke a backlash that could inflame far-right sentiment.

But while expedient, this approach is wrong. Firstly because Britain can take more refugees. Hundreds of local councils, church groups, charities and individuals have offered to take in those fleeing the Syrian conflict. Many have said they are keen to sponsor refugees privately, as is possible in Canada. The government has yet to take them up on this offer, preferring instead to operate a government-run scheme with the UNHCR. Initial reports of refugees arriving in Scotland suggest local services and communities are responding well, and parliamentary debates reveal politicians from all parties and regions welcoming those who have arrived so far. Britain has not taken more refugees than the people will tolerate. 

Secondly, political taboos can be overcome. The current refugee crisis has forced Germany to suspend the Dublin convention, which stipulates that asylum must be sought in the first EU country in which a refugee arrives. After the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Bloc countries, the convention had massively reduced the number of refugees Germany, surrounded by land borders with ‘safe’ EU countries, had had to accept. As such it had become a totem of German immigration policy. But faced with the prospect of refugees dying on the German border, Angela Merkel ditched it. Equally, the country has had to scale back its significant bureaucracy, another talisman of national identity. German bureaucrats are gingerly discovering that systems can work without vast bureaucracy and record-keeping.

Moreover, dispensing with taboos can bring unintended benefits. The arrival of tens of thousands of refugees led to a flowering of Willkommenskultur, as ordinary Germans turned out to welcome arriving migrants and provide them with food, clothes and blankets. Many Germans noted a potent and heartening symmetry: where millions were deported by railway to their death in the last century, in this one Germans now turned out at train stations to welcome those fleeing persecution. Asylum is a taboo issue in UK immigration that needs sensitive handling. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be handled at all.

Finally, with its long history of immigration and integration, Britain has a role to play in setting the parameters of acceptable rhetoric in Europe. With little history of immigration, especially from Muslim countries, some governments in the old Eastern bloc are channelling, rather than confronting, xenophobic attitudes. Britain has clout in this part of the world, having been the strongest champion of the EU’s eastern expansion. Europe needs champions of tolerance, a role to which Britain is well-suited. It cannot do that from the sidelines of the refugee crisis.

Overseas aid, however generous, will not stop the flows of refugees coming to Europe in 2016. While the government is right to heed the lessons of history in accepting asylum seekers, it should not be hamstrung by them. Public appetite will allow for more refugees to be resettled here. The German experience shows political taboos can be managed. We could transform, even save, the life of every further refugee that we let into Britain. To do that, we will need to get over our taboo on asylum.

Chris Murray is an IPPR Research Fellow on Migration and Integration. He tweets at @ChrisMurray2010