Well, that’s a sentence I don’t utter very often. As a general rule, I respect Mr. Farage for being one of the few politicians in modern Britain willing to speak his mind, but I rarely agree with those impassioned outbursts that he does so well. On the issue of Syrian refugees, however, some surprising common ground has at last emerged.
Such a rare event, I thought it justified a blog.
Because, like it or not, Nigel is making some considerable sense. UKIP grassroots members have lambasted him for allegedly ‘giving in to the liberal media’ and abandoning his anti-immigration stance by joining the growing voice putting pressure on the government to accept some of the exodus from the terrible Civil War that has torn Syria apart. They argue that it is madness to oppose the influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants which many on the right have predicted (but which doesn’t seem to have materialised just yet) and at the same time open the UK’s arms to thousands of Syrian refugees. On the face of it, this does seem a little hypocritical, but when you think about it it’s actually entirely justified.
Farage and his party oppose economic migration. They are the respectable voice of the significant minority of the British working and lower-middle classes who see immigration as a mechanism by which foreigners come to the country and steal jobs from British workers. But, as the man himself has pointed out, Farage’s latest plea is not at all at odds with his main objective, because the Syrian refugees are emphatically NOT economic immigrants. They are desperate people fleeing for their lives from a brutal conflict which has engulfed their homes. 2.4 million desperate people – and the government stance is that not a single one may pass the UK borders.
Clearly, we cannot take them all – that WOULD be madness. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, the UK does not have the economic infrastructure to accept such a large number of destitute people so quickly. If they were economic migrants, it might be different, but that’s another matter entirely. These people will be starting in this country from nothing, and the level of support they will require to survive and thrive here will be too great to admit such large numbers.
But not to take any? That seems callous in the extreme.
The EU as a whole has spectacularly failed in its moral duty under the 1951 Covention on the Status of Refugees to help the people of Syria survive this war. 28 member states, covering almost 1.7 million square miles of territory, and we have collectively welcomed just 12,340 refugees. This is a pitiful amount by any standard, and yet even Spain’s paltry contribution of 30 places is generous compared to the UK. We are offering nothing. Precisely no places at all. Those UKIPpers who have derided Farage for his humanitarian stance on this issue would probably be the first to revel in the nostalgia of the ‘good old days’ of ‘Great’ Britain. But when the UK has failed to match even Germany’s modest intake of 10,000, how can this country possibly claim to be anything more than a second-rate backwater power falling rapidly behind the front runners in the race for the twenty-first century?
If we want to prove that the UK still has the capacity to affect the world around it, and for the better for a change, then the best thing to do is to agree to take in a portion of the persecuted diaspora of humanity that the cruelty of the Assad regime has caused to be exiled from their homes.
And what of Farage’s suggestion that those we do take be limited to Christian Syrians, a persecuted minority composing about 10% of the population? This is a more difficult topic. We should be instinctively wary of favouring any one religious (or, for that matter, non-religious) group over another in the allocation of asylum places. Certainly, the days when the UK was a Christian-dominated society have long since passed. However, Farage’s argument that Sunni and Shia refugees have a number of far more local countries whose official religions follow those faiths, whereas Christians living in Syria have nowhere nearby to go does have some merit. It is true that the persecution of the Christian minority in many parts of the Middle East means that local asylum is not necessarily an option. In such a case, shouldn’t western nations whose attitude towards faith is more liberal offer them succour?
One solution to the problem would be an international organisation for resettling displaced people, which could then ensure that the refugees are distributed fairly among nations and only relocated to countries where they will not face further persecution. In the meantime, the political dangers and moral difficulties over restricting asylum to Syrian Christians means that the best option is to take the refugees as they come, perhaps giving priority to those not of the Islamic faith but not ruling out Muslim refugees.
One thing is clear though – however we choose to progress, the UK must do more to help the Syrian people, as must those other Western countries whose governments opted not to offer any asylum places at all. If not, we risk sacrificing what little credibility we have on an international stage, particularly in the Middle East itself. The West has already begun two destructive wars in the region, and is responsible in no small part for the instability that now plagues it. We have now a chance to redeem ourselves, if only partially. Fail to take it, and the diplomatic consequences will be dire.
The human cost of failure is simply too awful to contemplate.