Why Does Britain No Longer Care Much About Refugees?
Rather than reflexively blaming the hard-hearted British people for failing to welcome more refugees from Syria, our political elites should acknowledge their part in making a more generous humanitarian response a political impossibility
Dan Hodges has a reflective and rather wistful column in yesterday’s Telegraph, in which he says that people who pride themselves on their progressive values must accept that they have lost the argument, and that Britain will not make a more meaningful contribution in terms of accepting a number of Syrian asylum seekers more in line with many of our European neighbours.
There is no longer an argument to be had about whether or not significant numbers of refugees should be admitted to the UK. The pendulum of empathy — which swung briefly following thepublication of photos of little Alan Kurdi lying motionless on that Turkish beach — has swung back. The clashes at the Hungarian-Serbian border. The Paris attacks. Cologne. They are shaping public opinion now. And it will not be reshaped.
[..] There is no longer any point in expending energy on morally comforting tokenism. The argument about whether to accept 3,000 refugee children from Europe, or whether to accept them from camps within region, is as relevant to the crisis we — or more importantly, they — are facing as debating whether to accept 3,000 refugee children from Mars. According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, there are 4,597,436 registered Syrian refugees. 39 per cent of them are under the age of 11. A further 13 per cent are between the ages of 12 and 17. To continue to use the children of Syria in a proxy argument over our willingness to “do our bit” is not an exercise in compassion but an exercise in grotesque self-indulgence.
There is also no longer any point attempting to delude ourselves the solution to the Syrian refugee crisis can be found in Europe. Yes, we have the resources to provide sanctuary. But we do not have the political will to provide sanctuary. Actually, blaming the politicians on this one is a cop out. We do not have the public will to provide sanctuary.
Hodges is right that there is simply no longer any public will to take in poor, tired, huddled masses trying to escape from civil war and the particularly murderous theocracy of ISIS. And his notion of a “pendulum of empathy” is powerful and accurate way of describing what has happened to public opinion here.
But why is this the case? Why has the pendulum swung so hard away from generosity and toward selfishness? While Dan Hodges’ piece is eminently pragmatic in its acknowledgement of failure and suggestions for a feasible way forward, it fails to ask why we are where we are — why British hearts are so hardened to the idea of welcoming many thousands more refugees.
I would make a couple of suggestions:
1. The line between refugee and economic migrant has become almost impossibly blurred in our globalised age of jet travel and smartphones. People living in benighted parts of the world know better than ever just how good we have it in prosperous countries like Britain, and it is easier than ever before (though still perilous for some) for many to travel here — and ever more tempting compared to the life of hardship and drudgery facing them at home if they stay.
But where do you possibly draw the line between economic migrant and refugee? If being in a country engaged in civil war is sufficient qualification then all 22 million Syrian citizens would be entitled to refuge in Europe, and those of other countries too. But this would be quite unfeasible. Besides the impossibility of emptying a country of its every last non-combatant whenever hostilities break out, it ignores the vital agency that at lease some of these citizens must have in fighting for their own freedoms and liberties.
So if not all citizens, how do you choose among those who have risked their lives to reach safety, often with little or no paperwork or proof that they have a particular fear of persecution or harm to distinguish them from any other.
I simply don’t see a way that any such process can be anything other than arbitrary, endlessly bureaucratic and cruel. Add to this the fact that accepting people blindly on a first-come, first-served basis is untenable and creates serious potential national security issues, and the current paralysis is quite understandable, if no less frustrating.
2. Britain has accepted hundreds of thousands of new arrivals through legal immigration routes, particularly from some of the A10 countries which joined the European Union in 2004. And we did so while any talk about the potential impact that this relatively huge wave of immigration might have on community cohesion, housing or public services was instantly dismissed by scornful elites as xenophobic tub thumping at best, or outright racism at worse.
Prior to the rise of UKIP as a legitimate, non-extreme outlet for these concerns, nobody in the establishment was talking about this issue, and the ground was ceded to the likes of the extremist BNP. There was effectively a conspiracy of silence and intimidation against those who questioned the extent of immigration into Britain, with those in power doing nothing to respond meaningfully to public concerns partly because the political class were fortunate enough to belong to the group which disproportionately benefits from immigration and sees only its positive aspects, while other less fortunate people — often those without university degrees and less economic security — were far more likely to feel the negative consequences.
You don’t have to be an opponent of immigration to abhor the undemocratic way that these transformational changes were foisted on Britain by stealth, and without a thought of engaging with the people to consult their views. Indeed, this blog greatly favours immigration, but believes that the negative consequences are real, and can only be mitigated if the process of deciding immigration policy is open, transparent and democratic. But Britain’s immigration policy is none of these things, and one of the consequences of an aloof, disengaged and elitist policy is always going to be massive popular resentment and opposition to those same policies.
Therefore, if we are looking to cast blame or understand why Britain is behaving so apparently harshly in the face of this current humanitarian disaster, should we not first look to the historic cheerleaders of unlimited immigration — the pro EU fanatics, New Labour architects, those who held national power in the 2000s and the virtue-signalling middle class clerisy who flaunted their enlightened credentials by attacking anybody who expressed doubt about what was happening?
Now people will say that it is unfair to conflate immigration and asylum, as the two are quite separate things. And they would be correct — they are separate, and it is unfair. But both economic migration and taking in asylum seekers involve adding to the population and increasing the burden on services and infrastructure which cannot greatly expand to match demand in the short to medium term. And when you sorely abuse the public’s willingness to accommodate one influx of people, they are naturally far more guarded and hostile when it comes to the next, different influx.
If Britain did not have a completely open door to all regional immigration — unheard of in any major country outside Europe — could we have managed the influx of people wanting to work and settle here in a more planned and measured way, and with a modicum of democratic consent from the people? Arguably, yes.
And if Britain had not seen 1.4 million economic migrants settle here from EU accession countries within just the last fifteen years, would there be more willingness now to accept many more refugees in desperate need? Again, arguably, yes.
At least Dan Hodges and the progressive Left would now have had a much clearer grievance if Britain then still failed to admit a larger number of refugees. They would be able to accuse the government and the country of barely concealed racism, and of acting selfishly when nothing had been asked of them before, and do so with real justification.
But we do not live in that alternate reality. We live in the real world, where Dan Hodges and the europhiles got everything they wanted year after year, with Britain’s borders fully open and anyone who complained swiftly painted as a xenophobic Little Englander and banished from respectable society.
And so in 2016, unfortunately it is the desperate refugees — rather than the virtue-signalling progressive Left — who are now paying the price of this arrogant folly.
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Originally published at semipartisansam.com on January 29, 2016.