Number Ten has spoken: The UK offers to take 20,000 refugees in over five years. Careful observers quickly pointed out that this equates to six refugees taken per parliamentary constituency each year. Hardly a generous offer.
It was essential for the British Prime Minister David Cameron to act quickly. The road was running out on one of his excuses: that the UK was the biggest donor in Europe to the refugee camps in the countries immediately bordering Syria, and so shouldn’t need to take in any refugees at home.
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News crews from Channel 4 and the BBC had found evidence of camp children forced into labour to keep their families fed. Far from assisting the refugees, Cameron’s aid package has consigned them to miserable stasis.
|The Listening Post – Politics and polemics: Europe’s immigration story|
The United Nations is also celebrating its 70th birthday this autumn, and is using the occasion to tell the British media about how poorly it is coping with the maintenance of the camps, mainly thanks to financial shortfalls.
The Eurosceptics and anti-refugee wing of Cameron’s party are flexing, with some success. They embarrassed Cameron within days of him returning to parliament as the prime minister and defeated him on a vote to allow the government to campaign in favour of the European Union in the upcoming referendum – a referendum Cameron desperately wants to win. He fears a sudden influx of refugees could swing the vote – hence the staggering of refugees over five years.
The prime minister also had just days before Jean Claude-Juncker delivered his speech to the European Parliament, and was prescient if he predicted the quota system the president now wants to impose.
They [the right wing] ignore that the economic arguments against migration have been shot down by study after study – immigration from both within the EU and outside has had a huge positive effect on the public purse.
Perhaps the most prominent factor in forcing Cameron’s hand has been a change of heart in the right-wing media. A Conservative government is rarely responsive to left-wing publications like The Daily Mirror or The Guardian, but when The Sun published a front-page plea for Cameron to act on the refugee crisis – the prime minister suddenly listened.
This was the paper whose most prominent columnist, Katie Hopkins, had earlier called those crossing the Mediterranean “cockroaches”, while its prominent writers had previously interpreted the comparatively minor Calais crisis as a threat to national, cultural and economic security.
The right-wing press has never been sympathetic to those fleeing persecution, with the Daily Mail opposing Jewish refugees in 1938. Indian Ugandans fleeing Idi Amin in the 1970s were labelled “parasites”, mirroring exactly the language of Amin himself – who had called them “bloodsuckers”.
In the most recent crisis, The Sun said “Halt the Asylum Tide Now”, and “Draw a Red Line on Immigration or Else”. The Daily Mail published a headline: “The Swarm on Britain’s Streets”, echoing the words of the prime minister.
A matter of internal politics
Supporters of this view say the coverage is simply realistic – we cannot afford to take in refugees. They ignore that the economic arguments against migration have been shot down by study after study – immigration from both within the EU and outside has had a huge positive effect on the public purse.
Rather than blaming the new arrivals for strain on the infrastructure, perhaps we should blame our governments for not reinvesting this wealth more wisely.
Cameron must also outmanoeuvre the pro-refugee offers from the opposition. The only leading Labour figure to give a firm number has been Yvette Cooper, who proposed 10,000 refugees to be admitted in the UK each year.
Now, she and the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, threatening Cameron’s narrow parliamentary majority, have even offered to take refugees into their own homes. Sturgeon has also announced the foundation of a refugee-welcoming task force.
Finally, hovering in the background is Cameron’s as yet unmet target to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands” – and he surely fears the refugees will be counted into this. In 2014, 318,000 immigrants entered the UK, the highest figure since 2005.
So the final figure, coldly, carefully and callously calculated – is just 20,000. This number is lagging behind what the UK could actually do.
Let’s assume for a moment that the opponents of taking in more refugees aren’t doing this consciously or subconsciously because those refugees happen to be largely non-white and largely Muslim, and address two common criticisms.
The first is that we face a security threat from ISIL fighters hiding among the refugees. Nobody is saying this isn’t a possibility.
Nevertheless, the process of separating economic migrants from war refugees will necessarily include a vetting procedure, which needn’t take place in the UK – a procedure which will far exceed the normal checks most visitors arriving in the UK undergo. Nobody is saying the security services can’t be involved in this procedure.
Secondly, an estimated 100,000 Jews arrived in the years before World War II – most of their own accord rather than under formal schemes, as the government was pandering to the largely anti-Semitic British press.
Though they endured prejudice, identical to the Islamophobic climate of today, they have gone on to become one of the most economically successful minority groups, starting businesses, creating jobs and generating tax revenue.
Rather than seeing refugees as a burden – we should see them as short-term pain for long-term gain, an opportunity to both do our bit and strengthen our country’s economy, for future generations to come.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.