Britain, Calais and the world

There are approximately 4000 people in the Calais camps. The harrowing tales of women and children have been captured in this article by Emma Graham-Harrison. Please read it. The British government’s response has been to abdicate responsibility and with it sacrifice the humanity of the British nation. A country which responds to the deaths of children, of babies, with dogs and fences and talks of ‘swarms’ has some soul searching to do. And now, as well as the barricades, the government plans to ‘make Britain less attractive’ to asylum seekers by abolishing the tiny amounts of money (£36p/w) some (not all) people receive during the asylum process. This approach is as mean as it is futile. If people are prepared to walk halfway across the earth, with their children on their backs, escaping beheadings, torture, genocide and rape, they are not going to change their minds over changes to Britain’s benefits system. The human will to flee persecution, to find a better life, is as old as time and unless the British government is prepared to start shooting people at the border, it cannot be stopped. We have to work out how to deal with it in a calm, measured and humane way.

Amnesty have been lobbying, rightly, for Britain to take a fair share of Syria’s refugees and as I understand it, to allow them to fast track through the asylum system. They don’t want to add to their trauma by making them wait in the usual asylum limbo (it can take years to have an asylum application approved) when they arrive in the UK. To date we have taken fewer than 200 Syrian refugees, and the numbers have stalled even there. Part of the problem is possibly that councils need to participate and our local councils are currently being decimated by the Conservative government’s funding cuts. Our beleaguered councils are so starved of funds that they can just about meet their statutory obligations (E.g. Child Protection, Adult Social Care) without also volunteering to care for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

It looks like the issue of internationally displaced people is going to grow and grow in Britain, so to deal with it we should look at council-by-council agreements, with accompanying resources from central government. This cannot be done on an ad hoc basis. Across Europe, do we need to start thinking about a joined up approach to the huge humanitarian displacement too? It is not good enough to say, ‘well they should just claim asylum in the first country they get to.’ That’s just too random – humanitarian policies should not be random, they need to be fair and considered, and kind. We need to have an agreement across all EU states that every country, every state, every municipality, will care for a fair number of displaced people. We need to build the systems locally, nationally and through the EU to ensure this can happen. Germany has already gone down this path on its own and has agreed to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. Individual states within Germany have their own direct international agreements too, e.g. Baden-Württemberg and the Kurdish Regional Government.

“As approved by its legislative assembly and in consultation with the KRG Baden-Württemberg is willing to receive up to 1000 women, children and, as appropriate, those accompanying them on humanitarian grounds, confirmed by experts familiar with local conditions and the culture in the Kurdistan region to be in need of special protection. The state plans to receive these people…. as part of a special quota, will provide medical and therapeutic care as well as accommodation without them having to go through asylum procedures and reception centres.

Joint declaration of intent between the state of Baden-Württemberg (Federal Republic of Germany) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (Republic of Iraq), Signed 16, 02, 2015

An EU-wide approach is surely not beyond Europe, and a UK-wide approach is surely not beyond us here. Harriet Harman has highlighted the problems being caused to the livelihoods of British truckers and business by the prolonged crisis in Calais. The local Sussex newspaper, the Argus, has an editorial this week about the huge and disproportional impact on Brighton. These problems are not on the same scale as the suffering of the refugees, but the impact is being felt, and it’s causing anger in Britain. If we deal with the problem systematically, calmly and thoughtfully, even fairly, we have an opportunity to do it in a way that does not cause fear and suspicion in our existing communities across the UK. If we continue to deal with it badly we’ll be dealing with worse fall-outs on that front too.

But beyond all of this, the uncomfortable truth is that the problems for truck drivers and holidaymakers in Sussex, Kent and Calais are a direct consequence of a global failure to end the violence that is forcing people to flee their homes. There is no natural end to this, it has to be stopped, and that probably means a long and extensive commitment to military intervention from the international community, including Britain. We have seen American airstrikes drive back ISIS for a few months, but it hasn’t destroyed them and they have come back inflicting more pain, more suffering and more death. If the world is not prepared to send in ground troops when the Kurdish Regional Government say they are unlikely to win without them, we are helping the Kurdish fighters to tread water in the conflict, but we are sadly not shortening the war. This applies in many conflicts around the world today.

Ann Clwyd MP said today that the second Gulf War could have been prevented if Saddam Hussein had been dealt with properly in 1991. “I think the suffering and the oppression would maybe have stopped if the Iraqi army at that time had suffered a significant defeat and the allied troops had actually gone into Iraq,”  Around 60 million people died in the Second World War, and very few people will today argue that the Nazis should not have been fought. You cannot kick these problems into the long grass forever. More people will suffer, more will flee, more will die. As Calais has shown, one way or another, eventually we all have to play our part in dealing with this – here, there, or everywhere.