David Cameron’s government has shown a shameful lack of leadership and compassion in the face of Europe’s refugee crisis. Until now, it’s not paid much of a political price for doing so. But the heart-wrenching image of Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, may change that. British citizens and much of the media are mobilised, outraged opposition and Conservative backbench MPs are clamouring for action, and European countries like Germany are urging Britain to do much more.
So what should be done? David Cameron should engage seriously and constructively with his EU partners and the European Commission to find a common response to the crisis and commit immediately to a step-change in Britain’s own contribution.
First, his government should match Germany’s in agreeing to take substantial numbers of refugees identified by the UN refugee agency as in need of urgent settlement. This means not only helping those fleeing Syria, but also people escaping repression and violence in places like Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, where violence and repression are every bit as real. David Cameron says Britain is a country willing to extend a hand to those in genuine need. But while Germany has agreed to take 30,000 vulnerable Syrians under the UN scheme, the UK has settled a paltry 216 – not even enough to fill a London underground train.
Second, Britain should join efforts to set up a practical and just relocation scheme for those who have already reached Europe and are now in Greece, Italy, and Hungary, and to help fairly distribute asylum seekers across the continent. The inadequate reception conditions facing asylum seekers arriving in Greece, the divergence in European responses and recent chaotic scenes in Hungary and on the Greek and Macedonian border all show why a common European system is so necessary. The British government should abandon its dogmatic opposition to such a scheme.
Third, it should increase financial and practical support for countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan that have taken in millions, not thousands of refugees. Britain has a good story to tell on this, having given over £900 million to support Syrian refugees in these countries. But they are now under extraordinary pressure, which may explain why growing numbers are making the onward and often perilous journey to Europe.
Fourth, Cameron’s government should continue its contribution to search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. While the numbers dying at sea have fallen since the spring – when European governments belatedly stepped up their efforts – scores are still drowning every month. Worryingly, ministers have questioned Britain’s long-term commitment to search and rescue, suggesting that the primary role of British vessels in the Med is now to police Europe’s borders.
David Cameron has mischaracterised and mishandled this crisis from the outset. He now has the chance to make amends – both politically and morally – by instigating a long overdue shift in British policy. It will be too late for Aylan Kurdi, and the nameless thousands who have also perished, but it will help save other lives. It would also go some way to restoring Britain’s battered reputation and diminished global standing.