Rachel Ellis argues for a rational approach to an emotive issue.
One of the most pressing and emotive political challenges of our age is the surging tide of migration from less economically developed and politically stable states towards Europe. Much of this has in recent years resulted from the ongoing Islamist uprisings in Syria.
The common principle governing asylum is that safe nations near the origin of the crisis will offer refuge for those fleeing danger; this is why, in the context of the chaos in Syria, millions have sought refuge in neighbouring Turkey and Jordan.
Of course, with millions displaced, some are not content simply to reach the first place of safety but rather strike out in search of the most appealing new home possible. Unsurprisingly, these people turn towards Northern Europe. Rather than enforcing the common standard of ensuring refugees are accommodated in the nearest safe country on their arrival in great numbers in Greece and Southern Italy, the European Union has called for these people to be accepted by all member states.
In particular, they have been welcomed to cross the continent to Germany. Since the promulgation of this policy by Angela Merkel, pressure groups have called for other Northern European nations, including Britain, to follow suit.
Within the political debate around migration, issues of refuge and asylum have a special place as a result of their emotive weight. The people in question have sometimes suffered terribly, and could be in fear of their lives. So those who may otherwise be sceptical of mass migration are more inclined to be compassionate.
Yet there are two key reasons Britain should not accept refugees. First, those in EU countries are no longer in danger. Secondly, the current European policy places the people it will allegedly help in greater danger.
The idea that people trying to reach Britain from France, Italy or Germany are “refugees” is ludicrous. These are some of the safest, most developed countries in the world, no more lacking in the rule of law or the provision of a high standard of public services than Britain. While those caught in the crossfire in Aleppo or Mosul, or under the barbaric rule of the Islamic State, may have a claim on our sympathy, it seems preposterous to fear for those relying on the mercy of the French Republic.
Rather than the eccentric supposition that Greece or Italy are in any way as dangerous as Syria, the European policy of redistributing these new arrivals rests on the premise that the demographic, security and economic impacts of immigration are common issues for member states. As such, the European Union and certain member states claim, they are obliged to share the resultant burden.
While some Germans, Dutch, French or Danes – and certainly many Hungarians and Slovaks – may not like these recently revealed implications of their EU membership, for Britain, even before the vote to leave the EU, such arguments did not make sense.
Britain has always had a peculiar relationship with the EU. Not a member of the Eurozone, Britain has no need to participate in a proto-fiscal union to support the currency, whether by bailing out irresponsible European banks, by facing down democratically elected governments to impose austerity, or by sharing the cost of a sudden influx of refugees.
Similarly, Britain has never been part of the Schengen area, the majority of EU members who have abolished border controls between each other.
Within the Schengen area, a common effort on migration makes some measure of sense: once a person arrives in one Schengen country, all others are open to them, and therefore all Schengen members will have a vested interest in the external border controls and immigration policies of their partners. By the same token it can be argued that as each Schengen state has a common interest in migration, the sudden surge is a burden which they must share in common.
Not so for Britain. Not only have we stood apart from much of the EU for decades, but we now stand poised to depart from the Union in the near future. A key factor in the surprise win for the Leave campaign was public apprehension that the policy adopted by Germany of accepting over a million unexpected new arrivals would eventually be imposed on the UK.
With our relationship to the states of Southern Europe becoming even more that of separate nations, intertwined, but only partners, there is even less argument for Britain to assist the EU in addressing the issue.
But while we may have no obligation to help the EU, and those from the Middle East who have reached Europe do not need our help, what of those still suffering there?
While it may not be common knowledge, Britain is already doing much to help in the region – and would only do harm by relaxing the integrity of our borders.
Currently, the British government is making great contributions of money, men, and material to the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan to assist in providing medical care and sustenance to those suffering the ravages of war. The British public are among the most generous in the world in contributing to aid efforts, both connected to the Syrian crisis and around the globe.
This type of help is useful; “throwing open the gates” is detrimental. Indeed, Australia has succeeded where Britain has failed; by imposing an embargo on refugees, life-threatening voyages run by organised criminals have all but stopped. This may seem cruel in the short term, but it will save lives in the long run. Should we be consigning women and children to a watery grave simply in order to placate our own consciences? It doesn’t make political or moral sense.
By encouraging fewer people to seek refuge where it is available in Turkey or Jordan, and more to be exploited by people traffickers or risk the tumult of the Mediterranean, a policy of welcoming to Europe those who have no need to go there already increases the suffering of some of the most vulnerable. It is even worse to add not only further false hope, but thousands more miles and the English Channel or North Sea to such desperate and unnecessary journeys.
Rachel Ellis studies Politics at Bristol.
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