Should the UK 'hang its head in shame' over Syrian refugee crisis?

Published 17 December 2013
(AP)
Syrian refugees stand near their tent at Zaatari camp near the Syrian border, near Mafraq, Jordan

Amnesty International has recently said that EU leaders, and the UK especially, should "hang their heads in shame" over their response to the Syrian refugee crisis. But is this really fair? To find out, here are the answers to some important questions on the issue of what the UK is doing for those suffering in the midst of Syria's ongoing civil war.

Q: Why should the UK help the Syrian refugees?

A: From a Christian perspective, the reasoning is very obvious. There is firstly the general principle of the Golden Rule, as laid out by Jesus as being one of the most important commandments: Love your neighbour as you love yourself. Damascus might be 3,536km from London, but it's fairly clear Jesus didn't mean our neighbour had to be next door.

There are also Jesus's parables to consider. Think of the story of the Talents in Matthew 25. Jesus's point at the end of that is that much is expected of those to whom much is given. Look at ourselves, in the UK, with all the money and freedoms we have. Do we not, as a result of having all of this, have an obligation therefore to use it in the best way possible? Specifically, the way that gives others the opportunity to have the same kind of freedoms and monetary security that we enjoy. There is an added poignancy here in that many (although sadly not all) of those fighting against the Assad government's forces are doing so for the possibility of a freer and more democratic future. Should we not be using our free and democratic present to help bring that about for them? The parable of the talents says we should.

Going into more specifics, the Bible makes it clear that this isn't just general assistance or provision of aid. There are repeated references in the Old Testament to the importance of caring for immigrants of all kinds. In the ESV, Exodus 22:21 says, "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." Hebrews 13.2 says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers." And if there were any doubt that God would not punish failures on this point, in Malachi 3.5 in the NIV God says, "I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice."

As Christians then, we have a clear and present responsibility.

Q: So what has the UK done?

A: So far, not very much. The UK has offered £500 million in aid. That's pretty much it. This might sound like a lot of money, until you realise that the UK spends more than that on its defence budget in a single week (approximately £652 million to be specific – a fraction of the £34 billion annual defence budget).

A more apt comparison still doesn't provide encouraging results, as £500 million only represents just over one thirteenth (7.4%) of the total budget of the Department for International Development. Although DFID has seen its budget increase substantially this year (from £1.4 billion in 2011-2012 to £6.7 billion in 2012-2013) the amount of this donated to the Syrian crisis is still very low.

It should also be pointed out that the budget figures here used are annual. The £500 million aid figure is the total provided for the whole conflict so far. A conflict which is now well into its third year. Although this amount is high relative to other aid donations to other crises in the past, with the Gov.uk website touting that the level of giving here as "the UK's largest response to a single humanitarian crisis", in context it is still not very much.

Q: So why isn't the UK doing more?

A: One of the Conservative Party's key campaign pledges when it was campaigning for the election in 2010 was to lower net immigration to the UK from "hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands".

As part of this measure, the new immigration statistics are calculated very simply. Take the number of people known to have entered the country on a permanent basis, and minus the number of people who are leaving on a permanent basis. As the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper points out, "Theresa May's net migration target treats all migration the same and doesn't distinguish between different types of immigration."

This is a very blunt instrument of political discourse. It acknowledges the media reality that simple numbers make a better message than complex explanations. Rather than observing the nuances of the distinctions between economic migrants, asylum seekers, skilled labourers, illegal immigrants etc, the government have instead opted for an easy to explain formula.

What this means though is that if you want to provide large scale asylum relief to the impoverished displaced Syrian refugees, you're going to take a political hit on your promise to lower immigration, since all the numbers, even the asylum ones, come in under the same overarching banner of immigration. If May allows 100,000 Syrian refugees to take shelter in the UK, her own statistical model tells the country she's let in 100,000 new people, the exact opposite of what she promised to do.

And in terms of news on immigration, this could not be a worse time for the government. In late November it was revealed that immigration had made a noticeable rise under current figures, jumping from a net increase of 167,000 in 2012 to 182,000 in 2013. Although this figure is more explained by the lack of people leaving than more people coming in, it is still the numbers going in the opposite direction to what the government wants.

UK politicians are unwilling to challenge the orthodoxy of "immigration = bad", and will fight to preserve their popularity at the expense of these people's lives. And more broadly, many in the population should also feel shame as their willingness to continue pressing an anti-immigration view is what has led to politicians feeling the need to take this line in the first place.

More recently the situation with the EU, something almost entirely outside of Parliament's control, has thrown up another possible source of increased immigration. On January 1, 2014 the probationary period on Bulgaria and Romania's EU membership will end. Citizens of these countries will now have the same free access of movement within the EU as does any other citizen of any of the 28 member states. Many British politicians are concerned that there could be a huge uncontrolled influx of migrants from those territories, but because of the EU's rules on free movement they are powerless to do anything about it, even though it is they who will receive the wrath of unpopularity from a less than happy public.

Q: So what more could the UK do?

A: Aside from sending more money, the UK could open its doors to the refugees the conflict is creating. Six million people have been displaced by the conflict, of which approximately two million have been pushed into neighbouring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel). This, coupled with the rather unprecedented levels of snow recently, is creating a massive humanitarian crisis that needs urgent attention.

It is this situation that Amnesty International has been most critical of the UK and many other EU nations in its failure to act on. In response to the crisis so far, 10 EU countries have pledged a grand total of 12,000 asylum places. The UK is not one of those countries pledging.

The figure does not look very substantial in terms of the two million refugees the conflict has created thus far, and it also looks pretty pathetic when you consider that the conflict is generating approximately 5,000 refugees every single day. 12,000 asylum spots might give some of the camps a longish weekend's worth of relief, but that's all.

To give a comparison to how Britain has offered help in the past, in 1944 during the height of WW2, Britain accepted more than 50,000 Jewish refugees into the then British controlled territory of Palestine. Even 50,000 wouldn't be that many in the context of the Syrian refugee situation, nor was it a huge amount in terms of the Holocaust, but it was at least something.

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