Refugee crisis: Time for the UK government to stop ignoring reality

On Sunday, Justice Secretary Michael Gove said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show:

“We cannot shut ourselves off from what happens globally.”

But this is precisely what the government has been doing over the global refugee crisis. At yesterday’s emergency meeting of European home affairs ministers, our government continued to do so.

UK delegate Theresa May again refused to participate in measures to share responsibility for the refugees arrived and arriving in Europe – specifically to Greece, Hungary and Italy. This divisive position was adopted by others, and in the face of that the EU put off making a final decision, and so (urgently needed) coordinated action is still not being taken by European states to address the crisis.

Ministers in denial

The government has over several months been in denial about the crisis, which has been growing in the Mediterranean over the last two years.

Last year, UK ministers argued Italy should withdraw its search and rescue mission. They said doing this would save lives by removing an incentive for people to attempt dangerous sea journeys trying to reach Europe.

Their argument was tragically wrong. What they failed to understand or acknowledge is that in 2013 and even more so in 2014, the spread of conflict and brutality – particularly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa – was forcing many more men, women and children to flee for their lives. And the refugee camps in these regions were already swollen far beyond capacity – indeed they had been so for years and even decades.

When the Italians did withdraw search and rescue in November 2014, the reasons forcing people to flee did not change. On the contrary, these conflicts were getting worse. People continued to make the perilous sea crossings – in even larger numbers. Many, many more people died in the absence of search and rescue before it was finally reinstated at the end of April 2015.

But UK ministers still refused to acknowledge the majority of people making these journeys were refugees – fleeing for their lives, not merely for economic betterment.

A modest shift – still too little, too late

Prompted by the shocking image of a little boy’s body washed up on a tourist beach – and 1.4 million individual actions over a few days in the UK calling for action – the Prime Minister announced the UK would resettle, over the next four to five years, up to 20,000 Syrian refugees from the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. There are nearly 4 million Syrian refugees in these countries.

Significantly, for the first time, David Cameron and Theresa May acknowledged that many of the new arrivals in Europe – particularly in Greece, Italy and Hungary – are refugees who have been forced from their homes.

But what of those refugees already arrived and arriving in Europe in large number – including those fleeing bombs, bullets and torture in countries other than Syria, people from Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example? When asked, Theresa May said:

“People have the ability to come to the UK to seek asylum… The UK has always been willing to welcome those who are fleeing conflict and persecution.”

How do people have that ability? The answer is they must turn to people smugglers and make often highly dangerous journeys. Why? Because the UK – like other EU countries – provides no safe and legal routes for these people to get here, in order to make their asylum claim. And to ask for asylum in the UK, people must get here first.

Still in denial

Greece, Italy and Hungary are struggling – and failing – to cope with the number of refugees arriving in Europe. Our government has reiterated that it will not take any share of those men, women and children already arrived in Europe – many of whom need urgent help with shelter, sustenance and medical problems. Many – even within EU borders – are compelled to make dangerous and sometimes fatal journeys locked in lorries or attempting to board trains.

Ministers argue that assisting refugees already in Europe will merely encourage others to follow them and make the journey across the Mediterranean. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s precisely what they said when arguing search and rescue should be ended one year ago – a move which led directly to many more lives being lost, without deterring many more people from attempting the journey.

Someone must take responsibility for the people already arrived in Europe. Refugees cannot be returned to Syria, where the civil war continues to claim countless lives, or Eritrea, where torture is rife.

Nor can they be returned to refugee camps in places like Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, which continue to host many more refugees than Europe is seeing even now.

The uncomfortable truth

The conflicts and brutality fuelling refugee migration, and the scale of that migration, has over the last two years grown to unprecedented levels – we are witnessing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Over this time, leaders in the UK and Europe have failed to acknowledge or address these facts.

To be comprehensive and effective, any response must be in collaboration with other countries – no one country can tackle this alone.

The response must address both root causes and the needs of people caught up in the refugee migration they cause, the long and the short term.

And that response must be fair to all. Refusing to share responsibility with other European countries has already undermined the effectiveness of others’ responses. It is one reason why Eastern European leaders are even now repeating the same denials about refugees that until recently David Cameron and other ministers have made repeatedly. And why those leaders yesterday refused to agree the responsibility-sharing measures which have been put off for few weeks more.

This crisis cannot end soon. The longstanding failure of politicians to acknowledge it and take responsibility has allowed it a momentum that cannot now be quickly ended.

But the longer governments like ours continue to refuse to join collaborative efforts in response to the crisis, the harder it will be to achieve a truly comprehensive and effective international response. The more likely it will be the crisis will continue to grow. The longer it will eventually take to turn this crisis around.

Make sure your MP supports a humane response to the crisis

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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