The moment UKIP’s Nigel Farage called for Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, it became an inevitability, not because he waved his magic fairy wand but because he drew attention to the inconvenient truth that, unlike many other countries, Britain is simply not doing its bit to provide a safe haven to people caught up in what the United Nations has called ‘one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history’. Here we are just a few weeks later and, sure as eggs is eggs, David Cameron has announced that he is now “open minded” on Syrian refugees. Even the most desultory Westminster watcher will spot this for what it is: thinly-veiled code for “I’m trying to find a way to back down on this as gracefully as possible because I know this is a battle I am not going to win”.
It was always going to be a lost battle because the scale of the humanitarian crisis; the basic sense of humanity with which Britons are generally blessed; and our country’s proud history of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and the dispossessed, dictate that we must play our part. Dare we risk history concluding we didn’t?
I wasn’t the only one to see this coming. When Farage’s call to let in refugees caught the government napping during the post-Christmas lull, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said he expected the government would be forced to change its mind. “Clearly we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country – still an open-hearted, compassionate country – to do the right thing,” he told the BBC. “There’s real suffering and we need to do our bit along with the rest of the international community.”
Lebanon is currently playing host to over 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to UN data, and the tally in Turkey is approaching 600,000. Jordan may have as many as 600,000 too. In total, 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and well over 2 million have escaped to neighbouring countries. Millions more have fled their homes within Syria itself.
It is not that Britain is doing nothing or that Cameron’s administration is being wantonly inhumane. The government points out it has pledged £500 million – not far off that contributed by all other EU states combined – to the Syria crisis. But is it just me, or is there something rather unseemly about just throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away? Doesn’t it somehow give us an excuse not to confront the reality of the problem head on? Certainly it wouldn’t seem to tally with the government’s “Big Society” ideal of fixing problems through practical volunteering rather than cash hand-outs.
Besides, if we’re willing to throw half a billion pounds in cash at the problem, why wouldn’t we also take in the few hundred of the most vulnerable refugees the UN is asking us to help directly? Could it be that the decision not to accept refugees has been driven by political expediency, or more precisely fear of UKIP, rather than by common-sense, pragmatism and compassion?
How deliciously ironic that in trying not to give ammunition to UKIP by letting in Syrian immigrants, the government may have played directly into its hands. If it weren’t for the fact that people are dying, it would seem like a hilariously contrived episode of Yes, Minister. You can picture the scene. Seasoned Foreign Office mandarins point out to their political masters that letting in a few hundred refugees would cost us almost nothing, make us look good abroad and save lives but are overruled by their nervy, opinion-poll-fixated spads. Farage presumably followed his gut, which told him it was indefensible not to let in refugees from a humanitarian crisis that has turfed millions of people out of their homes. By contrast, our mainstream political parties seem to have been blinded by fear of UKIP and opinion polls telling them they need to crack down on immigration.
Mr Farage has, deliberately or not, pulled off a masterful double bluff that has left the government floundering. “Now who looks like the nasty party?” he will no doubt ask repeatedly in the coming months. When the full government u-turn comes, as it inevitably will, it is going to be a particularly delicious victory for UKIP. It is also going to be pretty good news for those few hundred refugees.
Some, including Conservative MP Andrew Brigden, have accused those who support the UN request of “political tokenism”. Somewhat depressingly they question what the point is of saving a few hundred people when millions are at risk. Presumably these naysayers have no truck with the Talmud’s wise counsel, made famous by the film Schindler’s List, that ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. Imagine if we all shirked our individual responsibility to save a single life? That would be a whole lot of lives lost.
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