A Libyan Navy boat carries migrants back to the coastal city of Misrata May 3, 2015.

On the steps of Downing Street last Friday morning, fresh from an election victory, David Cameron described Britain as a country of “great compassion”. He’s right. The British public contributes generously to humanitarian appeals in response to natural disasters or other emergencies around the world. But there is little evidence of either compassion or generosity in the British government’s own response to the unprecedented crisis along Europe’s southern coastline. 

Today the European Commission will propose a new EU-wide policy on migration, which is expected to recommend – sensibly and appropriately – that the EU agrees to take a larger number of refugees, as well as a new mechanism for sharing out more equitably the responsibility for refugee protection across the 28 member states. But UK Ministers have already rejected the proposals, saying that they will not participate in the scheme or accept any additional refugees into the UK. 

Britain’s response is simply indefensible. Less wealthy countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are hosting millions of Syrian refugees; Lebanon alone has over a million. And while Europe as a whole should be prepared to do more, Britain’s record compares unfavourably with that of other EU member states. In 2014, Germany, France, Italy and Sweden all granted asylum to more people than Britain.   

While a staggering 1,750 migrants and asylum seekers have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean since the start of the year, the British government also chooses to present this crisis not in terms of human rights or humanitarian obligations, but primarily as one of border control and law enforcement. At the UN Security Council, the British are pressing for military action to destroy the vessels being used to make the crossing to Europe. But they have not explained how such action would make things safer for asylum seekers and their young families, or what destroying their only escape route would mean for those then left behind in chaotic and conflict-ridden Libya. 

This approach also willfully ignores the massive and multiple push factors that lead people to flee their homes. Half of those who reached Italy from North Africa last year were from Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia – countries wracked by extraordinary violence and insecurity, where human rights abuses are egregious and widespread. Is David Cameron really suggesting that those who escaped the horrors of war-ravaged Syria or the police state that is Eritrea should be forced to go back there? The British people are more compassionate than that, and their government should be too.