Stepping Back – Part 2

Calais Migrant Camp……..The following morning (Thursday 3rd September) I was interviewed on Sky TV. It’s a slightly strange experience being interviewed in a different studio from the one the hosts are in because – though you are expected to keep your eyes on a camera in front of you, the screen and speakers through which you can see and hear what is going on are slightly beyond your left foot.

On the show, I followed Labour leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper (who believes the UK should provide safe places to live to 10,000 Syrians – an idea which is most remarkable for being described repeatedly as ‘radical’ in the UK, at the same time as being only half of what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked all developed states to do, three times less than Germany and Sweden have already achieved, and 80 times less than Germany has this week promised to do).

But to my left (I suppose at approximately seven o’clock) I was also watching the increasingly desperate attempts of Sky News’ reporter in Hungary to discover what the government intended to happen to thousands of refugees who had entered the state.

The Hungarian government, it should be noted, was in June the country’s least popular administration since the fall of European Communism, and facing widespread accusations of corruption.

As increasing numbers of refugees attempted to pass through Hungary (the Syrians arriving at Greece tend to head north through Macedonia and Serbia, then Hungary, before travelling on to Austria and Germany) the government responded not just by building a wall along its border with Serbia – an act which could perhaps be explained away as an unusually paranoid and fearful response to a new phenomenon – but also by plastering billboard advertisements across the state transmitting the message ‘Immigrants: Do Not Steal Hungarian Jobs’.

On Thursday, after four days in which it refused to allow Syrian refugees into Budapest’s main railway station, the government ordered police to let people onto trains.

Those people believed they were travelling to Berlin.

But as the Sky coverage made horrendously clear, the government had planned instead to transport the refugees a few miles outside of Budapest, before forcing the refugees off the train and into hastily-prepared refugee camps.

It was extremely difficult to watch these images and not consider the last time, 76 years ago, a European government encouraged people to board trains with a promise of a better life, only to force them to disembark somewhere else and march them into camps.

I do not believe the Hungarian government intends for the Syrian refugees what the Nazis delivered upon Jewish people, but the inhumanity of the Hungarian ‘response’ was a discomforting reminder of our continent’s darkest moments.

At the same time, the Prime Minister of the only other state to have built a wall to attempt to keep migrants out, the UK’s David Cameron, was considering his own position on the international crisis.

On Wednesday afternoon Mr Cameron had announced that the UK taking Syrian refugees ‘will not solve the international crisis.’ (he was of course correct about that, but this statement seems to be yet another example of the UK PM answering a question that literally no-one has asked. Nobody on Earth has ever pretended that if the UK provides safe places to live for refugees there will no longer be a crisis. That isn’t the point. The point is that we are an extremely rich nation – the fifth richest in the world – there are people who urgently need our help and we can provide that help without difficulty. The point is not to ‘end the crisis’ by helping people – though we must work to end the crisis – it is to help people who need help).

But by Thursday morning, in the wake of the posting and sharing of the images of Aylan on a Turkish beach, and the outrage and concern it inspired internationally (and specifically in the UK – after Calais, the second time this summer that the UK public responded with correct compassion and common sense to shocking and unacceptable suffering experienced by people across the world, and the second time in six weeks that the UK’s government showed it was not only unworthy to represent the people of the UK, it is also incapable of doing so), Mr Cameron announced the UK would accept ‘thousands more’ Syrian refugees.

By Monday (7 September) he announced the actual figure would be 20,000 people, over the course of the next five years.

The announcement is to be welcomed. The government, after spending 20 months refusing point blank to answer the plea of the United Nations for each state in the developed world to grant 20,000 Syrian people safe places to stay (since UNHCR made the request on 1 January 2014, the UK has accepted just 216 Syrian people. In the same period, Germany has accepted more than 30,000; Sweden, more than 25,000. The government’s previous announcement on the matter, earlier this summer, was that it would certainly not provide a safe place to live to any more than 1,000 people in total.) has finally announced a plan to allow 20,000 people to enter the UK by 2020.

Even though it is a pitifully tiny number compared to the 800,000 people Germany has said it will help (Turkey has more than two million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.125m), it is progress – a small step in the right direction, but a step, nonetheless, and one driven by the decency and heart of the population of the UK, stepping in to force its government to act.

Sadly, Mr Cameron could not leave it there.  

Rather than holding his hands up and admitting that he and his government had made the wrong decisions at almost every stage of the major international crisis of his age – to be fair, we all make mistakes – Mr Cameron insisted that the UK had already accepted ‘5,000 Syrian people’.

It may seem a small point, but this statement runs the risk of causing serious confusion over the entire UK response to date.

Although there are 5,000 Syrians in the UK now who have arrived since 2011, Mr Cameron is well aware that these people actually arrived between 2011-2014. That is, they had all arrived before UNHCR requested that developed states should take 20,000 more people each to deal with an urgent and increasing crisis.

That is, Mr Cameron chose to stand up in front of the country and use numbers he knew to be entirely irrelevant to the issue, to make it look as if his government had behaved responsibly, rather than recklessly.

As an indication of the importance of this piece of spin, we should note that if we were to as a starting point 2011 – which we should not, as it ignores the urgent UNHCR appeal of 2014 – Germany has given places to live not to 30,000 Syrian people, but 105,000. Sweden has opened its borders not to 25,000 Syrian people, but to 40,000. The UK has allowed 5,102 people to settle, just 216 of those since 2014.

And Mr Cameron has set a date of 2020 – five years away – by which these 20,000 people will be allowed to enter.

Not only does this amount to just 12 people per day, and is it to be hoped (though there are absolutely no guarantees) that the Syrian Civil War would be finished by 2020, it also completely ignores the point of the UNHCR’s request: that Syrian people, as well as the states of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and the people within them, urgently need help. That is, they need help now, not in five years’ time

Finally, Mr Cameron stated that the UK will only accept Syrian people who are currently based at camps on the state’s borders. There are clear positives to this decision – the camps are not good places for people to live, they are crowded and any attempt to reduce pressure and improve the lives of those trapped there should be welcomed.

Simultaneously, there is a clear desire from the UK government that people should not board unsafe vessels, unfit to make the Mediterranean crossing and leading to thousands of deaths by drowning. On both counts, Mr Cameron and his government deserve recognition and credit.

However. His pledge completely ignores that roughly a third of the people (around 83,000 so far this year) fleeing war and terror and attempting to reach Europe are not from Syria, but sub-Saharan Africa, and are crossing from Libya. Those people – and indeed states such as Italy, where those people land – will receive no assistance whatsoever from the UK.

There are 248,000 people in the EU today who were not here on 1st January. The UK government has chosen, once again, to pretend they do not exist. That pretence led directly to the crisis at Calais, and also – when compared to Germany, Austria and Greece, not to mention Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – shames us as a nation.

A step in the right direction should be welcomed, but we should be critical of our government, to hold it to account when it fails us. As a result, we must not overlook the massive shortfalls in the UK’s proposed response.

Returning for a moment to Mr Cameron’s declaration that ‘the UK taking more refugees will not solve the international crisis’ – and the fact that, understandably, interviewers continually ask commentators including me what the ‘solution’ is, we also turn to the title of this piece.

Because the crisis we face today – the gravest crisis of the modern era – is in some ways similar to a vast painted image. At every place in which one stands, it is possible to believe what we see is complete, but as we step back we realise it was only one small component, connected to others.

For example, from a UK perspective, the situation at Calais might be the first place we come into contact with the ‘crisis’.

The crisis here is that some 3,000 people are living in one- or two-person tents on the edge of the English Channel. The nights are drawing in, and conditions will soon become much wetter, and much colder. We know that these people lack access to basic medicine, that they have no reliable source of clean water, and no guaranteed supply of food.

People in the UK have responded to this crisis in exemplary fashion. But more needs to be done – and can only be done by the governments of France and the UK.

Rather than raising fences and sending in dogs to prevent people clinging to trains and trucks to enter the UK, there are two simple options to solve this crisis: either let the 3,000 (equivalent to 0.00004 per cent of the UK population) into the UK and let them stay as long as they need to, or remember that the UK and France are the fifth and richest states in the world, that each has more money than 128 nations combined, and that if we reduce people’s desperation, they will be less likely to behave in a desperate fashion.

We should spend the extraordinarily small amount of money necessary to build some decent accommodation for people who need it, and allow them to live there while their applications for asylum are processed. That, in one fell swoop, would solve the crisis at Calais.

But when we step back, we realise the crisis is far larger and wider-ranging. Across Europe, there are 248,000 people who are desperately seeking somewhere safe to stay. Simultaneously, since 1st January 2015, more than 2,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to escape war, oppression, terror, torture, food shortages and to be able to access basic medicines for themselves and their families.

On land, chaos has broken out. Hungary has built a wall along its border with Serbia, Macedonian police have opened fire (albeit not using live ammunition) on men, women and children who are totally innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, the Hungarian government has launched billboard campaigns victimising refugees, the leader of its church has ordered no Hungarian churches should be opened as shelters for desperate people, and human beings are being forced off trains and into hastily-erected camps having been lied to about their destination.

I mention these two elements – the drowning of desperate people, and the chaos onland – not only because they are closely related, but also because there is one ‘solution’ to both: the EU must immediately organise a central response, including a quota system to which every EU state must adhere. (it should be noted here that the EU should certainly provide safe places to live for these 248,000 people: the EU is the richest single geo-political bloc in the world, and the 248,000 are equivalent to just 0.0003 per cent of the EU’s 508,000,000 population)

A quota system is opposed by the UK, Hungary (it is dispiriting how often the UK is united with Hungary on the issue of refugees) and Spain, but will immediately remove the responsibility for dealing with desperate people from individual states, who deploy security forces to ‘defend’ borders, and place that responsibility with a centralised body which can respond with due attention and care to the applications it receives.

It is in fact slightly surprising that this has not already taken place. The EU itself is a bloc which has explicitly agreed that it has only one external border, and the European Commission’s ‘Common European Asylum System’ document (available online, and therefore anywhere in the world where the internet is accessible) states:

‘Asylum is a fundamental right; granting it is an international obligation… In the EU, an area of open borders and freedom of movement, countries share the same fundamental values and States need to have a joint approach to guarantee high standards of protection for refugees.’

The second strength of such an approach is as follows: the EU has an opportunity to do what no single state can – organise not only a sensible and fair system of providing safety to desperate people, but also organise a system by which safe places can be provided before people are forced onto boats, and where that is not possible (in Syria and Libya themselves, for example), to provide transport to safe locations within the EU while their applications are processed.

The ‘crisis’ on EU soil, and on the sea it shares with the Middle East and North Africa, can be solved by the EU itself – including the UK. We can therefore regard this not as a crisis, but as an opportunity.

There is still one more step back to consider, however, to look beyond the EU, beyond even Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (where the vast majority of Syrian refugees – roughly 3.8m of the 4m people to have fled – are now living), and beyond the devastation in Syria and Libya.

Because it should by now be apparent that the ‘refugee crisis’ is a symptom, rather than a ‘cause’ in itself.

It is a manifestation of a far deeper, more widespread problem: shared desperation.

People are attempting to enter the EU because they are desperate. It is why they have fled their own homes, and their own countries, often only with the clothes they stand up in, and what they can carry in their arms. It is also why they are willing to place themselves and their families onto vessels they themselves call ‘death boats’: because even a death boat and the unforgiving sea is safer than what they face on land.

Of course, war in Syria and Libya is driving much of this desperation, and forcing people from their homes.

But very few of those people arriving in Italy from Libya are Libyans. And along with Syrians, those arriving in Greece include Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans. The lists of states from which people are running – Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, CAR, DRC… – are a depressing reminder that the ‘crisis’ is not one of desperate people attempting to find somewhere decent to live, but that people are forced to leave their homes at all: that simply due to an accident of birth, hundreds of millions of people face an avoidably early, and probably extremely painful, death.

In a world in which technology connects us all to an extent never before seen, it is hardly surprising that the response of people to this unacceptable and awful state of affairs is to flee to the places where they know they might find safety.

Our crisis – the crisis which will define us throughout the rest of history – is one caused by global economic and social inequality. Poverty and lack of food force people from their homes, and poverty also causes – or contributes to – the wars which are doing the same (as noted elsewhere on this site, and in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a Modern Crisis, the entire Arab Spring was the result of the global economic crash).

This is not a plea for global Communism. But it is a note that once again, we are facing a crisis which may also be viewed as an opportunity.

Because it is true that though people starve to death every day, the human race has never produced too little food for everyone on the planet to eat a decent, balanced diet.

And it is also true that if we can spend £7m on higher fences at Calais to prevent people entering the UK, and we can propose to send £100m to Eritrea to prevent people leaving in the first place, we – the EU, UK, USA, Canada, China, Russia, Australia, the entire global community – can also spend time and money on helping people improve their lives where they are from, and remain in the homes they love if that is what they want.

That is the final step back, and it is the one which reveals not only the crisis of our age, but also the ‘solution’ to it: we have the power as an international community to work with one another, including with the people of states where life remains unnecessarily and unacceptably brutal and short, to develop and initiate the measures which will improve human lives all over the world.

That is the crisis at its root cause, and that is why it, too, can be regarded as the greatest opportunity of our lives.

Rory O’Keeffe’s first book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis is available now, from:


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