Rule One: It’s Always Our Fault. A Syrian boy drowns in Turkey trying to reach Greece? Britain’s fault! A boat bound for Italy overturns in Libyan waters? Britain’s fault! Illegal immigrants force their way through Hungary toward Austria? Britain’s fault!
It’s our fault for bombing Libya. It’s our fault for not bombing Syria. It’s our fault for propping up dictators. It’s our fault for toppling dictators.
Over the past 48 hours, I have been variously told during radio or television discussions that Britain has a responsibility to take more Syrian refugees for the following reasons:
1) Because we stirred up a rebellion against Assad.
2) Because we’re backing Assad against the rebels (this rather surprising line was put to me on the Islam Channel).
3) Because we’re not intervening militarily in Syria.
4) Because we are intervening militarily in Syria.
5) Because we created the artificial Syrian state in the first place.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but surely the Syrian crisis has been caused by the badmashes tearing at that country’s entrails. You can lay the death of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned toddler, at the door of Assad or of Islamic State – or, indeed, of people traffickers. You can’t seriously blame David Cameron.
But we do. Here, to pluck an example almost wholly at random, is a Tweet by a UKIP candidate called Khalid Khan: “The dead #Syrianchild is result of David Cameron’s foreign policy towards #Syria. UK should be helping #Assad against the #ISIS terrorists.” Well, OK, it’s a point of view. But even if Britain were to perform a spectacular somersault and start backing the Ba’athists, how would that have the slightest impact on families like Aylan’s who are already in Turkey and want to move to Western Europe?
What we’re seeing here is a kind of national solipsism. All of us, being human, tend to exaggerate our own centrality to events, and we extend that solipsism into our politics. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that our self-centred bias is the proximate cause of religious belief. Our ancestors couldn’t accept that earthquakes just happened; they must somehow have been caused by human misdeeds. We, likewise, can’t accept that atrocities in far lands may be beyond our control. We must somehow have caused them.
Consider the other main route into Europe, the terrible journey from Libya to Italy. Some 90,000 people have made that crossing this year, and many British pundits assert, almost axiomatically, that the influx is a direct cause of the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Even if this were true, I don’t see how it would be Britain’s responsibility: the chief actors in Gaddafi’s overthrow were the Libyan people, not the British.
But it isn’t true. The vast majority of people arriving in Sicily and Lampedusa began their journeys far beyond the Sahara. I spent last week in Catania, volunteering in a hostel for underage migrants. I chatted as we worked to lads from Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal. Britain hadn’t bombarded their countries – except with aid money.
None of this is to say that the United Kingdom should refuse asylum to those fleeing persecution. Nor is it to say that we should reject economic migrants – though, in reality, it is hard to secure public support for either idea as long as we are in the EU.
All I’m asking is that we acknowledge the practical limits of our influence. When people say, “We should build up the countries people are coming from, so that they don’t have to leave,” they are engaging in wishful thinking of the most facile kind. We have poured resources into building up African and Middle Eastern states. Indeed, rising living standards is one of the reasons that so many Africans are on the move. People with cash and mobile phones can undertake journeys that their grandparents, living on subsistence agriculture, couldn’t contemplate.
There is an element of doublethink here. We British are blundering fools whose interventions have caused untold misery in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan etc; yet, oddly, we are the grown-ups in the room, the people who, if only we made the effort, could build functioning democracies all over the world.
Follow through the logic. If we really were to accept full responsibility for the refugee crisis, and were determined to stop it at any cost, we would presumably go straight to the source. We would deploy whatever force was necessary to rid Syria of both Islamic State and Assad, and we would assume administrative control so as to ensure that neither the secular tyrants nor the Islamists could make a come-back.
We would, in other words, colonise Syria. Is that really what critics of our current policy want? A twenty-first century imperialism?
Those who are readiest to cry “racist” are, curiously, often guilty of a racism of their own. The migrants, whether refugees or job-seekers, are treated as a sort of inert, listless mass. Whatever they do must have been caused by us. They are presumed to lack agency.
I wonder whether these critics realise how patronising they’re being. No, not just patronising: downright narcissistic. You know something guys? It’s not always about you.