Having finally seemed to succumb to political pressure both at home and abroad, earlier this week David Cameron announced that the UK would “live up to its moral responsibility” to Syrian refugees by agreeing to take in 20,000 of the most vulnerable. So far, so good, even if the figures themselves are pathetically small in light of the 4.1 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled their homes as a result of the ongoing conflict, and compared to the 348,540 Syrian asylum applications in Europe over the past four years, 47 per cent of whom have been welcomed by just two countries, Germany and Sweden. Despite the paltriness of Cameron’s pledge, one might argue that at least Britain has got its act together and decided to do something.
But there is a catch. These 20,000 refugees (who will be gradually incorporated over the next five years) are all to come from the refugee camps on Syria’s borders. In other words, as thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people continue to risk their lives and barter their savings in a desperate attempt to reach the perceived sanctuary of Europe, Britain’s response is simply to turn its back on the humanitarian crisis developing on its doorstep and instead cherry-pick a few handfuls of refugees to be brought over directly from the Middle East; a sort of refugee order service.
If this weren’t bizarre enough, Cameron also announced that the money to house, feed and clothe the new arrivals would come directly from the UK’s foreign aid budget. Thus, funds previously earmarked to be spent on easing humanitarian crises abroad will now be channelled directly into government coffers under the guise of “the national interest”. Such policy would be surreal under normal circumstances, but in the context of severe funding shortages and deepening crises among humanitarian agencies and host governments it is nothing short of ludicrous.
To summarise, then, David Cameron’s self-touted “moral” response to the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe is to steadfastly ignore all those refugees who have already made their way to European soil, often facing dehumanising treatment and dire conditions in the process (we can only assume that the “moral responsibility” to help these people lies with other European countries), and to fly over a select group of UN-approved refugees directly from the camps surrounding Syria, the money for which will come from the budget previously allocated to helping the remaining 4.08 million Syrian refugees and others like them. This is the sort of twisted logic we would expect from a Lewis Carrol novel, not the British government. It’s the policy equivalent of Humpty Dumpty’s infamous quote from Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
But even this isn’t the whole story. Quite apart from the fact that the impact of a population increase of a mere 20,000 individuals over the next five years will be less than negligible (to put this figure in context, consider the fact that it represents less than three per cent of the UK’s average annual birth rate of 700,000), it is unclear how exactly taking in refugees from camps around Syria will have any effect on the rate of migration to Europe. More often than not, those refugees who have managed to make it as far as Italy or Greece are middle class or relatively affluent Syrians, many of them highly skilled and who could contribute significantly to the UK’s increasingly depleted public services and staff shortages.
To put it differently, those Syrians willing to take significant risks to come to Europe are more willing to want to integrate and contribute to British society than those refugees who either don’t have the resources or the desire to make that journey. Even a cursory glance at the history of foreign migration to the UK proves that nine out of ten immigrants bring both economic and social benefits to the country. Thus, as Simon Jenkins wrote recently in the Guardian, the current British policy on refugees “makes no sense economically, diplomatically or numerically.”
Rather than take a sensible and measured approach to the unfolding crisis, it seems David Cameron thinks he can get away with scraping by on the bare minimum humanitarian response, using the opportunity to redirect foreign aid funds into domestic coffers in an attempt to paper over the biting effects of austerity measures and budget cuts while simultaneously conjuring the spectre of immigration in a bid to bolster his populist credentials. If the British public are really as foolish and impressionable as he thinks we are, we will let him get away with it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.