9 September 2015

Build a new Hong Kong for Syria’s refugees


We are condemned to live in a fallen world in which even wise non-Christians recognise that “original sin” is the best two-word summary of the human condition. As a condition of continuing sanity, we have to harden our heads to the evils which grown-ups inflict on one another. It is impossible to open one’s arms to all the wretched of the earth: all their cries of pain. That way, madness would lie.

Then comes the thunderbolt: the sufferings of children, which break through all defences. Suddenly, prudent actuarial calculation becomes irrelevant. We are drawn to imagine what is must feel like to be a drowning child, calling for parents and rescue: calling in vain. So we shut down imagination to preserve our peace of mind.

Yet the question remains: what can we do? At this point, there is a man who deserves sympathy, though he receives little. The Prime Minister has to balance emotion and reason. He has to find a solution which makes us feel good about ourselves, but which is practical. ‎There is no such solution.

Ask the average voter today what outcome he wishes to see. The answer would be instantanteous. “I never want to see photographs like that again.” Right, second question: “how many refugees would you admit to the UK?” No clear answer would emerge. Follow on with a third question. “How many young children have died during the recent disturbances in the Middle East?”

There would be no answer at all and nor could there be. No-one has a clue. But it is an awful lot more than two.

Press ahead with the interrogation. “During the past few years, while Middle Eastern children have been dying in their thousands, how have you balanced your families’ priorities: selling  a lot of what you have in order to fund the aid agencies – or shoving the odd 50p in a collection tin, while protecting your family’s living standards – including luxurious living?”

For the vast majority of the British people, there could only be one honest answer. But that is of no use to the PM. He is dealing with a public in the grip of emotion, who want him to devise some magical solution at minimal cost. They want to be comfortable in their hypocrisy. They do not want to be reminded of it.

Apropos of recent developments, there is one point on which we can be certain. They will lead to more deaths; there will be more drowned children. The people-traffickers will take heart. Social media will disseminate the message: “The West is weakening. Just sell all you have and give it to us. You’ll be on your way to a better life.” Those two drowned children will incite many loving parents to commit their children to the hazard of the seas.

The publicity will also exacerbate the Calais problem. Even if it has been overshadowed by recent events, it ought not be to forgotten. Because of the publicity, more displaced people will decide that it is a good moment to take their chance. Troops, dogs, barbed wire: they will all help but none of them provides a solution. Anger is justified, especially with the French. The Calais area has been a magnet for refugees since the late 1990s. Yet successive French governments have vacillated between cynicism and incompetence. As supposed allies, the French have been as much use as they were in 1940.

For the refugees themselves, it is impossible not to feel a degree of sympathy, blended with exasperation. These are poor people from broken countries who are desperate to improve their lot. In their circumstances, we would no doubt feel the same. Even so, there is no alternative. We must harden our hearts. The world is full of suffering and oppression. It would be folly to believe that we can cure all those ills. This is a small and overcrowded island. Our public services are overstretched and we have still not succeeded in assimilating all our recent immigrants and assuaging potential sources of religious and racial tension. We would be foolish to import more trouble: more angry people from conflict-torn regions who could only add to our difficulties.

Moreover, and even during a recession, this government protected the foreign aid budget. It is now clear that some thousands of Middle Eastern orphans will find solace here. As a nation, we are entitled to take pride in our altruism, while also insisting that ministers’ main priority ought to be our own people’s welfare. Altruism has its limits.

We will admit a few thousand Syrians, many of them orphans. But the refugee question requires  a more radical approach and there are three ways to protect ourselves.

First, Calais is the easiest and we must put pressure on the French. They could do much more to prevent the illegals from arriving in Normandy. Second, there must be an implacable insistence that no illegal immigrants will be allowed to settle in the UK. As they have arrived from France, they cannot claim asylum. Asylum-seekers are required to declare their intentions in the first safe country they reach. Though some British lorry drivers and holiday makers may have doubts, France would be defined as a safe country. All the refugees who manage to arrive in England should be returned to their homelands.

Many of them try to make life difficult for the authorities by destroying any papers which might identify their country of origin. Very well: those whom we cannot deport should be kept in camps and in austere conditions. This should be publicised as widely as possible; the BBC’s world-wide television network could help. Once the news was disseminated that even those who reached England would receive a refrigerated welcome, the people traffickers might encounter sales resistance.

But there is a more fundamental question. After 1945, Europeans had grave difficulties, and a bad conscience. As the War ended, Central Europe was full of displaced people, many of them victims of ethnic cleansing, who had lost homes, relatives, livelihoods and were often seriously malnourished. Equally, there were the potential refugees who had perished, especially Jews who had not been allowed to emigrate to the UK or the US.

In that era, there were attempts to efface horror with idealism, including a 1951 UN Convention, under which anyone with a well-grounded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or politics had the right of asylum. That seemed relatively uncontroversial. The early framers assumed that this was an essentially European problem, and Europe was settling down. The Iron Curtain may be been a hideous defilement. It was also an effective way of discouraging refugees. Mass air travel was still over the horizon. It seemed likely that those suffering oppression in backward countries would have to endure their miseries at home. In addition, colonial empires had imposed order and Muslim extremism was still in the future, there were many fewer failed states. The obligations which we had imposed upon ourselves under the Asylum Convention seemed sustainable.

That is no longer the case. Throughout the world, under the Convention’s criteria, hundreds of millions of people could now be entitled to asylum. On a bad day, they might include virtually the entire population of China. This could involve us in liabilities which we would have no means of discharging. Withdrawing from the convention might seem callous. Not so; it would merely be realistic. As a basis for policy, realism is preferable to hypocrisy.

Under new arrangements, the Home Secretary should be entitled to admit a small number of refugees per year. Beyond that, legislation would be necessary. If a new refugee crisis arose comparable to the German Jews in the Thirties, the Hungarian refugees after the 1956 uprising or the Ugandan Asians driven out by Amin, Britain should be generous, as we are being on Syria. But in future, commitment would be based on capabilities.

There could be another way forward. Libya is now a failed state and much of the Libyan coast is empty. Why not create two enclaves: let us call them West Singapore and West Hong-Kong. Use Dfid money, but also find financial sponsorship from the EU, the US and Arabia. Many of the Syrian refugees have technical qualifications, which could be used to create a new homeland, to the long-term benefit of the entire region. That would be a positive approach to failed states and misery. Although there would be considerable practical difficulties, it would be worth a lot of effort to overcome them.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.