Sub Editor of Naked Politics
When news first broke of desperate refugees gathering in Calais, it is not without a pang of guilt that a selfish thought crossed my mind. What if I have to cancel my holiday? My children would miss out on their annual trip to see their grandparents – ironically two of the many British migrants living on the continent. Despite fears of being mobbed on our return, and the potential of my innocent youngsters being exposed to the sight of genuine misery, we decided to brave the trip.
I needn’t have worried. Our return journey was entirely uneventful. No sign of the so-called “swarms” and no delay at border control. In fact, if I had wanted to smuggle anyone into the country, I could easily have done so. Our thirteen-seater mini-bus wasn’t checked, despite only five passports being shown and darkened windows obscuring the view of the remaining seats. Do they not realise that these “illegal immigrants” are hell bent on stealing our jobs and simultaneously scrounging off our overly generous welfare system?!
Safely back in Blighty, I can return to normality without having to be bothered by foreigners’ problems. As long as I don’t buy a newspaper, turn the telly on, access the Internet or speak to anyone, that is! Until recently, that sums up our national response – denial. Fuelled by a fear-mongering media, the growing swell of nationalism has encouraged David Cameron to convey a message of reassurance by focusing on tight border controls.
A sentiment in stark contrast to the admirable German response. Angela Merkel has been bold enough to declare “no limits” to the number of refugees that her country will accept. Her task is markedly different to Cameron’s though. While our priorities become more insular as the population rapidly increases, the opposite trend in Germany presents different challenges. Immigration has definite economic benefits as an undersupply of labour and imbalanced dependency ratio is alleviated by importing working age human capital. German culture is also increasingly liberal, reflecting a desire to reject the extreme nationalism of the past. For these reasons, her immigration policies have the backing of two thirds of the German public, while the rest of the world prefers to look the other way.
That all changed on 3rd September when a photograph of Aylan Kurdi was published. Apparently a dead toddler isn’t what people want to see while they eat their morning cereal. After weeks of reports showing the plight of Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland and drowning as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, the world outside Germany has finally woken up. From denial to outrage in a heartbeat.
This new humanitarian impetus has motivated the PM to play a different tune. Not least to quieten the gleefully opportunistic critics denouncing the heartless Tories with pitch-forks held aloft. On the first day of parliament after the summer recess, the intention to accept an additional 20,000 refugees was announced (albeit cleverly combined with a message of national security as compensation for the protectionists).
Accused of caving to public pressure after being slow to act, George Osbourne was quick to point out that we have no reason to hang our heads in national shame. The financial support and man power that we have provided to date is significantly more than any other European country. In fact, aside from Germany, our £1bn contribution is significantly more than the rest of the EU put together. He reminded us that against the back drop of spending cuts in the UK, his party was heavily criticised for running the most generous foreign aid budget in the world.
Far from being a U-turn, Government policy has always been to support refugees without encouraging them to risk perilous journeys by rewarding them with asylum on arrival. The key distinction here is the difference between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’. Anyone attempting to enter Britain via Calais is already well outside the warzone, and therefore no longer seeking refuge. The call for us to take “our fair share”, is more about helping the other EU states than the refugees themselves. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do more, just that there is a distinction to be made. 11M people have already fled from their homes, but only 3% have actually travelled to the safe-haven of Europe. Germany, Sweden, France…etc. will be compelled to help them. So perhaps the government of this small island is right to support the other 97%.