Last year the UN Refugee Agency announced that the number of persons forcibly displaced from their homes had surpassed 50 million for the first time since the second world war. Since then the global refugee crisis has only worsened. This summer, thousands of refugees have lost their lives making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean sea. Those who do reach Europe often find themselves living in appalling conditions, separated from family members. For most refugees the number one destination is Germany, a country which has welcomed them with open arms. Last weekend alone around 18,000 refugees arrived at Munich’s central railway station. However, how many refugees can Germany take and what role ought Britain play in this crisis?
Initially, David Cameron argued that rather than taking in more refugees Britain should instead focus on bringing peace and stability to the Middle East (a noble but unrealistic goal). However, following the horrifying images of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found washed up on the shores of Turkey, the Prime Minister changed his approach. He announced that Britain would fulfill its moral obligations and take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. However, whilst these plans are a huge step forward several problems remain.
First, under the proposals the Prime Minister only commits to taking in Syrian refugees. Whilst Syrian refugees no doubt represent the vast majority of the refugees in this crisis, the decision of the UK government to focus exclusively on those fleeing Syria is questionable. As noted by Amnesty International, these proposals do not help ‘the many Eritreans, Afghans and others, forced to flee bullets, bombs, torture and overcrowded refugee camps elsewhere.’ Refugees from other countries are no less deserving of our help.
Secondly, as part of the proposals Britain would only take in those refugees living in camps bordering Syria, not those who have already reached Europe. In this sense those who decide to take the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, and survive, are being penalised for doing so. This proposal offers no solution to the thousands of refugees wandering through Europe in search of safety. The perverse logic behind the plan is that by refusing to take in refugees already in Europe it will deter many more from making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean sea. This is simply not true and risks creating a situation where some refugees are seen as more ‘worthy’ than others.
Finally, perhaps the biggest problem surrounding David Cameron’s proposals is the fact that he is adopting a long term solution to an immediate crisis. Whilst taking in 20,000 refugees is a huge contribution to easing this crisis, doing so over a space of five years is simply not good enough. The lives of these refugees are at risk now, not in five years time. These proposals equate to each constituency in the UK taking in a mere 6 refugees each year. We can and must do better than this.
In conclusion, David Cameron’s proposals to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years is a huge step forward and should be recognised as such. However, the exclusive focus on Syrian refugees living in camps bordering Syria, as well as spreading these proposals over five years, make them a wholly inadequate response to a crisis not seen since the second world war.