So many corpses are now washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean that they have stopped making the news. The death toll — about 10 souls a day — doesn’t really change but the methods of killing them do.
Last week, for example, we learnt about 200 migrants who set sail from a port in Libya. After a few hours, the people-smugglers ordered them to board a new, already-overcrowded boat in the middle of the sea. It sank under the weight of the new arrivals; entire families died together. “I saw my wife and my two-month-old child die at sea, together with my brother-in-law,” said one Ethiopian survivor. “They died in a matter of minutes.”
From the outset, British Prime Minister David Cameron has recognised this people smuggling for what it is: One of the greatest new evils of our time. It’s now a huge industry, worth about £4 billion (Dh21.46 billion) a year. The smugglers offer not just transport, but the ability to game the system — either with fake passports or help with an asylum claim.
This trade in human lives is greatly helped by the prize dangled by panicked politicians: That those who survive the journey, and end up on European soil, will be granted asylum. It’s a promise born of compassion, but has helped to lure hundreds to their deaths. To his great credit, Cameron has played no part in this. He has been wonderfully clear: Britain will take in 20,000 refugees, but it will fly them in directly from the Middle East. To take those who arrive in Europe, he says, is to play the game of people-trafficking — an enterprise that Britain wishes to eradicate, rather than support. On top of that, his government is giving £2.3 billion to help those fleeing war in Syria. And on top of that, the Royal Navy is to help save the lives of those making the crossing.
It’s not just that Britain is giving more than any country in Europe; it is doing more than the rest of Europe put together.
Which makes it so odd that Cameron is now under attack for not doing enough. The problem comes down to his point of principle: Taking refugees directly from the Middle East rather than Europe. This is being portrayed as a simple refusal to take refugees — and, ergo, proof of the blackness of his Tory heart.
A parliamentary rebellion has succeeded in the Lords, but was defeated in the Commons last Monday. The leader of the rebellion, Lord Dubs, says he has not given up. Some Tories are wavering. And Lord Dubs, 83, is proving a potent foe because he arrived in Britain as a child refugee from the Nazis.
Britain offered Kindertransport then, he says. Why not now? When the 1930s are mentioned, in any discussion, rationality tends to be thrown out of the window. Emotions run deep, as Ken Livingstone can attest. But this has been precisely the problem with the refugee debate: at times, it has seemed like being more about politicians’ depth of feeling than the fate of the actual refugees.
The tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, from all parts of the world, represent a very 21st-century problem. They deserve better than Second World War-era solutions, yet this is the prism though which most European leaders still see the migration crisis. First, this is not simply a story of children fleeing war. Only one in seven of the unaccompanied children who registered with European authorities last year is Syrian. About half were from Afghanistan, others were from Eritrea and Iraq.
The Swedes have found a phenomenon of “anchor children” being sent ahead by their families, so as to stand a better chance of settling. And by no means all of them are necessarily children: When the Danes did tests recently (with dental checks and collarbone X-rays) they found that three quarters of them were adults. It’s hard to blame those posing as children, or anyone who risks so much for the chance of a better life. The binary distinction between a refugee (who has a right to be accommodated) and an immigrant (who does not) might have made sense when the United Nations Refugee Convention was being drawn up in 1951. But the distinction is rather moot today. A Syrian fleeing war and a Somali fleeing poverty can end up in the hands of the same boat from the same people smuggler, risking being washed up on the same beach. When both are desperate enough to put their lives on the line (and the lives of their families), it’s far harder to say that one has a valid claim for help, and the other is a criminal.
The internally displaced, meanwhile, seem to have no rights at all. War destroys towns and families, but most of those facing starvation as a result have moved to a different part of the same country. If they cross a border, they’re categorised as refugees and have some hope of assistance. If not, the world ignores them. Syria has five million refugees, but a further seven million are internally displaced. These sickening totals put our debate about 3,000 child refugees into perspective. Those serious about helping Syrians, rather than virtue signalling to a domestic audience, could look to Jordan, where there are 600,000 Syrian refugees in urgent need of assistance.
This has been the focus of British efforts not just in aid but working with Jordanian authorities to let the Syrians work, rather than depend on handouts. And the children? Only last week, the British Government said it would take 3,000. But not just the unaccompanied children who are currently capturing the political imagination. Britain will take those on the United Nations’ “at risk” register, which includes teenagers at risk of child marriage or sexual exploitation. It is now seven months since German Chancellor Angela Merkel tore up European Union agreements and declared that Germany would give asylum to every Syrian who made it to her country. People-smugglers from Turkey to Libya would have rejoiced at this news: The number making the journey over the Mediterranean Sea has trebled so far this year. We can expect many more deaths as summer comes, and the crossings intensify.
This is a tragedy, but at least Britain has played no part in making this tragedy worse. When leading his parliamentary rebellion, Lord Dubs summed things up rather well. “Once in a while,” he said, “there are major challenges that test our humanitarianism.” He’s right. Cameron is about the only leader in Europe who has risen to this challenge, which is why it’s so important that he does not back down now.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Fraser Nelson is editor of the Spectator.