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The migrant crisis and Britain’s not so splendid isolation

Leon Neal, AFP | A British flag flutters above World War II fortifications in Dover, southern England

Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that Britain would fulfill its “moral responsibilities” towards refugees fleeing to Europe, amid mounting anger at London’s refusal to share the burden.


When French filmmaker Jacques Audiard picked up a surprise Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his "Dheepan", a tale of Tamil refugees leaving one war in Sri Lanka to find another in Paris's run-down suburbs, many critics were flabbergasted – not least because of the film's clumsy comparison between France’s flawed integration model and a bizarrely idyllic vision of Britain as a sunny, flowery Eden where all faiths and races live in harmony.

Should he ever watch the movie, Cameron is likely to be absolutely horrified – for a very different reason. After all, his government once contemplated launching a negative ad campaign in Eastern Europe, focusing on rainy weather and lack of jobs, to persuade potential immigrants to stay away from the UK.

Cameron has adopted a tough stance on immigration since his arrival at Number 10 Downing Street in 2010, though his government has repeatedly failed to meet a target of reducing annual net immigration. Controversially, that target includes asylum seekers as well as economic migrants, prompting claims that the government is deliberately conflating two very different categories.

As European countries slowly come to terms with the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since the Balkan meltdown of the 1990s, London has sounded remarkably unconcerned. Britain says it has taken 5,000 Syrian refugees since 2011, including 166 under a new “vulnerable persons” scheme which Cameron has promised to “expand modestly”.

Unsurprisingly, EU leaders say this is not enough.

‘Moral burdens’

Syrian refugees are among the more than 350,000 migrants from the Middle East and Africa who have entered the EU so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). While the numbers are impressive, it is worth remembering that tiny Lebanon has taken more than a million Syrian refugees since the start of the country’s civil war – the equivalent of a quarter of its population.

In Europe, Sweden has so far taken the largest share of refugees in proportion to its population. Germany, which makes a clear distinction between immigrants and asylum seekers, has said it will grant asylum to 800,000 more people this year. In the meantime, Greece and Italy have borne the brunt of the crisis, as the EU’s main ports of entry.

On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was prepared to accept more refugees per capita than its neighbours, but that others must do their part with "quotas and rules that are fair and take into account what is possible in each country". She was backed by French President François Hollande, for whom some European countries had failed to “assume their moral burdens”.

Hollande gave no names, but it was obvious who he had in mind. Several Eastern European countries have stubbornly refused to take more than a token number of asylum seekers – and only Christian Syrians. Together with Britain, they have fiercely resisted plans to impose mandatory refugee quotas across the 28-member bloc.

Having opted out of the EU’s common asylum policy, the UK has no legal obligation to take applicants. But it is also by far the wealthiest among the countries opposed to taking more refugees. As such, it has come under intense scrutiny. Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative on international migration, told the BBC on Wednesday that while some countries were "massively bearing the burden" of the migrant crisis, Britain was among those that "can do more".

Nazi-era rhetoric

Britain’s reluctance to “do more” is reflected in the county’s media coverage of the crisis. While Europe's press has been awash with harrowing tales of the migrants' plight on their perilous journey to the EU, a large and influential segment of the British press has appeared more interested in the ordeal of UK passengers stranded at Eurostar terminals because of desperate migrants trying to cross the Channel.

When discussing the Mediterranean crisis, tabloids have spoken of “swarms” and “tidal waves” of boat people landing before “disgusted” British holidaymakers. One infamous column in the Sun, likening migrants to cockroaches, prompted a rare rebuke by the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who pointed out that such rhetoric was reminiscent of the Nazi and Rwandan genocides.

The British tabloids’ scaremongering has made Germany’s Bild newspaper look progressive and humane in comparison. After years of complaining about migrants getting an “easy ride”, the German tabloid has now largely aligned itself with the government’s new stance on the refugee question. On Wednesday, its headline proudly proclaimed “We are helping”. It also lambasted Cameron, dubbing Britain “the slacker of Europe”.

Merkel leads the way

Cameron and his ruling Conservatives are under pressure from UKIP, an anti-immigration party. But so are most other European leaders, including Merkel, who was booed and jeered at by neo-Nazi protesters last week when she visited an asylum centre in eastern Germany.

Merkel had been criticised for her belated reaction to anti-refugee riots in Saxony. Since then, her response has been forceful, rallying politicians of all stripes behind the defence of one of Europe’s core ideals. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed,” she warned.

Thousands of ordinary Germans have volunteered to help asylum seekers arriving daily, leaving charities and train stations inundated with donations. Even football fans and teams have rushed to express their solidarity, holding up “Welcome” banners for refugees and giving them free match tickets.

‘Head in the sand’

Admittedly, Germany’s generous asylum policy is dictated in part by selfish considerations. The country’s economy has 600,000 unfilled posts and business leaders have made it clear they need the migrants’ workforce. But so have their British counterparts, as well as the UK’s serious press.

“People who cross deserts and stormy seas to get to Europe are unlikely to be slackers when they arrive,” wrote the Economist last week, arguing that an ageing continent would benefit from more migrants and refugees, who are “typically young and eager to work”.

Opposition parties in Britain have stepped up their criticism of Cameron, mostly on humanitarian grounds. Labour leader Harriet Harman accused the prime minister of "lurking with his head in the sand trying to pretend that nobody cares and it's not our problem".

Members of Cameron’s own party have also urged the government to do more. Baroness Warsi, a former party chair, said that more women and children refugees should be accepted. She told the BBC that Britain had a "long and proud" tradition of helping in times of crisis, and should say to the rest of the Europe "that we will, too, share the burden".

Meanwhile, an online petition calling on the UK to accept more refugees garnered more than 200,000 signatures, meaning it is now eligible to be considered for a debate in Parliament.

Libyan fiasco

So far the government has preferred to highlight Britain’s financial support to Middle Eastern countries grappling with far larger numbers of Syrian refugees. "Were Britain not providing that support, there would be yet more hundreds of thousands of people coming out of that part of the world," said Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary.

On Thursday, Cameron said he had been "deeply moved" by images of a 3-year-old Syrian toddler who was found dead on a Turkish beach. He said Britain would fulfill its “moral obligations”, but stopped short of making any new commitments.

The previous day, the British prime minister said "taking more and more" people was not the answer, and the focus should be on bringing "peace and stability" to war-ravaged parts of the world, such as Syria. He did not say how he planned to achieve that, though he was presumably not offering a repeat of the 2011 Libyan intervention by French and British forces.

That mission toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. In doing so, it also precipitated Libya’s implosion and pushed tens of thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean. The IOM says at least 2,600 migrants have died this year attempting the perilous crossing. According to aid groups, the figure would have been much lower if the UK had not stopped funding aid and rescue missions in the Mediterranean in 2014.

Cameron eventually agreed to resume the funding in May of this year amid intense pressure from his EU partners and public outcry over the repeated shipwrecks. He is due in Brussels shortly to plead for a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, ahead of a high-stakes referendum to be held by 2017. If he wants a fair hearing, he may have to back down on refugees as well.

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