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Refugees' plight exposes the moral degeneration of modern politics

David Cameron's hard-line refusal to take more refugees from the Middle East is dismaying, especially after the distressing image of a lifeless Syrian child, refused asylum by Canada and washed up on a Turkish tourist beach captured global attention. Thousands of people are calling for Britain to do more.

The prime minister's insistence that "we cannot afford to take in any more migrants" is as heartless as it is shaming. He tried to justify his position thus: "Europe's migration crises will not be solved by Britain taking more and more refugees. Instead the UK must try to bring peace and stability to war-torn Syria."

His remarks are born out of cold political calculations but what good is politics if it does not serve people through basic humanitarianism and simple charity? Moreover, his statements are as irrational as they are self-serving. The absence of a preferable solution does not mean that there is no immediate moral obligation to do something. In reality, Mr Cameron's stance is a miserable excuse for failing to do what is necessary now; who in their right mind would absolve themselves of the moral obligation to rescue a drowning person until they have resolved what caused them to be drowning in the first place? That can be done after the rescue, surely. Cameron seems to be more concerned about being tough on immigration in the eyes of the British electorate instead of fulfilling basic obligations to our fellow human beings.

Despite regular conflation by politicians and the right-wing media, immigration has nothing to do with the plight of Syrian refugees. It's disingenuous for politicians, including the British prime minister, to be scaremongering using warnings about "swarms" of people trying to get into this country.

The plight of Syrian refugees is far and away the largest such crisis since the Second World War. Over half of the country's 22 million people have been displaced in one form or another: 8 million people are "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) and a further 4.8 million are seeking refuge abroad. According to the UNHCR, just under half of these, 1.9 million, are registered in Turkey and a further 2.1 million are registered in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Only 348,540; less than 6 per cent, have migrated to the shores of Europe.

In country after country, this wave of refugees has put infrastructure and government policy under scrutiny and many have been found wanting in trying to meet the humanitarian challenges as the crisis unfolds. More shamefully, many have done very little to ease the suffering, despite playing a role in creating the crisis in the first place.

Europe in particular has been criticised for failing to give asylum to a relatively small number of refugees compared to countries like Turkey, which has the most registered refugees from Syria, or Lebanon, which has the highest proportion of Syrian refugees in terms of the overall population. The 1.1 million Syrians make up 25 per cent of the people in the small eastern Mediterranean state.

The response from "official" Europe has been far more hostile, revealing the continent's political priorities and attitude towards immigration. Slovakia, for example, has decided only to accept Syrian Christian refugees, but not Muslims. While Germany has promised to give asylum to as many as 800,000 Syrian refugees — the German people are even using large banners in football stadiums to welcome refugees — Britain's official response is shameful; the figure of 10,000 people as a maximum has been quoted by some politicians. Britain is, by the way, exempt from EU immigration laws.

That's not all. David Cameron looks to be far more concerned about renegotiating a better deal for Britain to remain in Europe by capitalising on the plight of Syrian refugees. Europe, meanwhile, is mired in a row over how to best deal with the crisis and share the burden equally under a new quota system that is more fair and commensurate with a country's population and economic strength.

The friction created by the Syrian refugee crisis presents challenging questions regarding the refugee protection system as a whole; is it fit for purpose and is it fair? The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has created a system for providing protection to people at risk of persecution in their own countries. The main problem, exposed clearly by the Syrian crisis, is that obligations come into effect after asylum seekers have entered a signatory country and the responsibility for them falls squarely on that country. This leaves countries like Britain on the north-west fringe of Europe able to escape from the moral obligation to help as asylum seekers invariably entering the EU through countries around the Mediterranean.

A further problem exposed by the latest crisis is that the convention confers no right of assistance on refugees unless and until they reach a signatory country; it imposes no obligation on countries not to persecute or expel their citizens; and it imposes no requirement for burden-sharing between states. It also fails to takes into account the political, financial and social impact of large numbers of asylum seekers on host countries, leaving countries like Lebanon and Turkey in the current situation to be saddled disproportionately with refugees without a right to international assistance or compensation for the pressure placed on the country and its institutions.

Europe's failure to give asylum to the refugees is of course only half the story. The Muslim countries deserve equal condemnation by the international community. Muslims around the world are mindful that states which call themselves "Islamic" in one way or another often fail to uphold even the most basic Islamic principles of support for the poor and aid for the dispossessed. The lack of any refugee initiatives by, for example, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, is also shameful; they could do much more to ease the pressure on the refugees and host countries.

With only 8 per cent of the world's Arab population but over 50 per cent of all Arab GNP, one rightly expects a great deal more from the likes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. Amnesty International called for at least 5 per cent of Syrian refugees to be resettled from the five current host countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt by later this year, and a further 5 per cent by the end of 2016; this amounts to 380,000 refugees. However, despite the conflict raging on their doorstep, the wealthy Gulf countries stand alongside a few other high income nations — Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, for example — that have not offered to take a single refugee.

Their indifference is striking for a number of reasons but above all for its departure from the rights of asylum enshrined in Islam's sacred texts. The Qur'an is replete with accounts of prophets seeking refuge and shelter from persecution. Indeed, one of the abiding features of Prophet Muhammad's life (peace be upon him) is his flight from persecution in Makkah and being given refuge by the people of Madinah. The Hijra (migration) has deep religious connotations. Poorer members of the nascent Muslim community in Makkah who had no strong allies to protect them also sought refuge with the Christian king of neighbouring Abyssinia, in another example of how religious freedom, migration and asylum is interwoven into Islamic history.

Islamic tradition aside, it is deeply rooted within Arab culture to protect human beings and preserving their dignity. Notions such as "istijara" (plea for protection), "ijara" (granting protection), "iwaa" (sheltering) and others are variations on the concept of "protection" at the heart of the mandate conferred on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Islamic principles," writes Professor Ahmed Abou-El-Wafa, in his comparative analysis of international refugee law and asylum under Islamic law, sponsored by the UN Refugee Agency, "further consolidated the humanitarian principles of brotherhood, equality and tolerance among human beings. Relieving suffering and assisting, sheltering, and granting safety to the needy, even enemies, are an integral part of Islamic Shari'a, which preceded by many centuries current international human rights treaties and norms, including the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, which are designed to preserve the refugee's life and ensure his or her well-being."

This digression serves to show yet again how many of the "Islamic" regimes have little to do with Islam and very little to do with advancing the wishes of the people they govern, who will not have been unmoved by the sight of children's bodies washed-up on Mediterranean beaches. Given the chance, I am sure that most would wish to play some part in helping their fellow human beings and neighbours from Syria.

The plight of Syrian refugees has moved us all. It scars the international political landscape and tests the virtues of a nation's politics. It is disgraceful that only a handful of countries are bearing most of the burden while far more affluent nations are shirking their moral, if not their legal, obligations towards the rest of humanity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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