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Recognising that not all migrants are refugees is the first step to finding a constructive way forward
If there is one thing that drives me nuts it is when people put on an air of bogus moral superiority. I mean the kind of finger-wagging holier-than-thou sermonising that has in the last few days been directed at Britain, and our handling of the great European immigration crisis. It would seem that the UK has been mean, bad, wrong and, above all, selfish. Sir Bob Geldof has called us a “f–––––– disgrace”.
German newspapers have denounced this country as the “slackers” of Europe, for our failure to accept our share of a Brussels-devised quota of refugees. Yesterday the former European Commission president Romano Prodi popped up to say our reluctance to live up to our “moral obligation” – and accept the quota – would be punished in the forthcoming talks on reforming the EU.
Well, my friends, I don’t want to be rude but I am inclined to tell all these Britain-bashers to bog off. Just about everyone in this country has been harrowed by the images from the beaches of Turkey; everyone feels for those who are fleeing torture and misery in Syria, or whose homes and lives have been wrecked. I read a quite astonishing story of a man who had walked on crutches for hundreds of miles – having been wounded in two separate bombings – to get to Hungary. These people deserve our admiration, our support, our generosity, and we should do everything we reasonably can to welcome refugees. But to all those who say the British response has been too cautious, I want to enter the following points in our defence.
First, the UK is by a long way the number one European donor of humanitarian aid to Syria; and having seen at first hand what Department for International Development staff are doing to help those fleeing from Daesh, in the camps of northern Iraq, I can assure you that their work would make you weep with pride.
The second point is that the UK was just about the only EU country willing even to contemplate direct military action to protect the Syrians – at that precarious moment when the leadership of the Syrian opposition had not been lost to the maniacs. It was thanks to Ed Miliband and the Labour party that the opportunity was squandered; but I don’t think you could fault the instincts of David Cameron.
And the third point in defence of the UK is that this has been a collective EU failure, and there is one key respect in which you could argue the confused response of some European capitals has made matters worse. This is a hard thing to say, but we must accept that by no means all those now trying to get to Europe are necessarily refugees, not in the strict sense of the term.
Look at those crowds tramping out of the railway station in Hungary. They seem to be composed overwhelmingly of young, able-bodied men – people who are in search of a more prosperous future – and it is neither callous nor lacking in compassion to say that many of them are arriving in Europe as economic migrants. We need, therefore, to be very careful about the signals that we are sending.
We live in an age of instant communication via social media, of swift and widespread changes in mass psychology, and it is all too easy to see how a generous message of openness and welcome to refugees could be misread – by millions of people in relatively impoverished countries surrounding the EU – as an invitation to up sticks and arrive in Europe.
There is a real danger of triggering further large migratory flows. We should think hard about the potential impact of such movements of people, especially if they were to accelerate – and not just on the countries of destination, but on the countries of origin as well.
It is certainly true that over the last few years, Germany, Italy and several other western European countries have seen a marked fall in their indigenous birth rate. They have ageing populations, and are failing to produce enough young people of their own. In accepting large numbers of energetic young migrants, they are actuated not just by compassion – though that cannot be denied – but also by a certain economic logic. It cannot be said Britain is in exactly the same position. We are going through a population boom. Our schools are bursting – certainly in London – and the demand is rising the whole time. The population of the capital went up by about 122,000 last year alone.
I am just about the only politician in the last few years who has argued consistently that immigration can be a wonderful thing; and I believe that the capital is the most dynamic and productive part of the whole EU economy partly because 40 per cent of its population were born abroad. But in managing the pressures we face – a shortage of homes, growing numbers of homeless from other EU countries – it should surely be up to us, in the UK, to decide how many more are allowed in – and not up to some quota-monger in Brussels.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves about the long-term impact on some of these troubled countries, if their most talented and energetic people are allowed to disperse themselves rapidly across the EU. Yes, of course we should help those Syrians who have no realistic hope of return, but it might also be sensible to improve the camps and the lives of those who must one day go back to rebuild their society, and offer a future to Syria.
To give those Syrians that hope of return it is increasingly obvious that we must do more. It is time once again to canvass the military options, to get Washington to take notice of a problem that is not going away and is, if anything, getting worse. If the generals think air strikes – or any other intervention – could work against Daesh/Isil, they should be listened to. I might be more inclined to listen to moralising from our EU friends if, this time, they were more willing to help.