A terrible dilemma

The Labour Group is putting forward a motion at the full Council meeting tomorrow (October 14) noting that that the UK has only accepted 216 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme since its launch in January 2014, and 5,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 and calling, inter alia, for Wandsworth pledge to accommodate at least 10 refugee families urgently (if private accommodation is funded by central government), to put in place measures to become the first London ‘Borough of Sanctuary’ and authorise officers to accept refugees from Syria under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and am finding the situation far from clear.

On the one hand of course we should, and would wish to, play our full part in supporting the refugees from the African/Middle Eastern wars.  But at the same time there are several aspects of the issue which are equally worrying.  Perhaps most concerning is the observation that the family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose tragic death so affected so many people, seem to have been living in Turkey for the last three years – not ideal for a Kurdish family, for sure, but not a situation in which their lives or even their quality of life was under direct threat.  A nagging question is why the family should choose this moment to leave a settled and essentially safe haven and take the risks which led to the tragedy.

I cannot help reflecting on the awful thought that the impression that Europe is about to open its borders – fostered by Germany’s disgraceful decision simply to rip up European agreements, unilaterally, on the matter – is contributing to the agony and the misery and encouraging some people to take these terrible risks.  I cannot escape a feeling that children like Alan are dying precisely because Europe is appearing likely to adopt almost a ‘no questions asked’ approach to taking anyone, be they genuine refugee or not, rather than because Europe is refusing to take anyone who has gone through the necessary procedure.  By this I mean being taken either directly from the Syrian refugee camps or from the list of those who have conformed to what was European protocol before the German action, i.e. registration at the point of entry to the EU followed by an orderly process of finding them a sanctuary.  I can only imagine the joy of the illegal traffickers being able to ply their evil trade by holding out a much greater prospect of ‘success’, illusory though that might ultimately be.

I believe, then, that the UK should be absolutely firm in saying that we will take genuine refugees who have played by the rules as set out above, and refuse to take anyone who has tried to bypass the process and has passed through Europe without conforming to the Dublin Regulation.  To do differently would in my view inevitably lead to more deaths at the hands of the people traffickers.  It seems a simple fact that since Australia has made it clear that it would turn back any boat found in its territorial waters nobody has drowned in that part of the world.  As I say I am absolutely not proposing that we close our borders in that way to genuine refugees but if preserving innocent life is one of our aims we cannot afford to ignore evidence of this nature.

As an Independent I have no particular axe to grind politically but I am not sure I agree that the British stance has been particularly bad.  The UK seems to be spending a higher proportion of our national income on international aid than any other developed country: a considerable and growing proportion of this has been spent on supporting potential Syrian refugees within Syria and at the border.  If we take the view that most of those leaving Syria would far rather stay there or return there when it is safe to do so then the eventual solution must involve work of that nature in and around Syria itself.

Of course there are plenty genuine refugees who do need help and we should help them.  But it would in my mind be a cruel mistake to give the impression that Europe was now abandoning rigorous checks on the bona fides of potential incomers.  Brutal as they have been about it, the Hungarians did seem to me to have been trying against huge odds to stick to European protocol and register those coming through their country. Germany, after pressurising the Hungarians to abandon those checks, soon found it had to close its own borders thereby creating the worst of both worlds – people being encouraged to chance their lives in bypassing the protocols followed by even those who have played by the rules being rejected.

In my opinion this is one of those situations in which if we want to fulfil our hearts’ desire to help those in need and not to make things worse, we need to follow our heads’ conclusions and apply commonsense as well.  I shall be arguing for the Council to take that stance when it comes to offering asylum to those whom of course we would all wish to help.