It’s very difficult to speak about the current refugee crisis without feeling that my views are inevitably going to rub some people up the wrong way and although that is not my objective, I make no apology for doing so if it happens.
I am in awe of the rapid and efficient response of those people who are keen to do practical and sensible things in order to offer aid and assistance to refugees – such as setting up donation websites and collection points for donations of clothing, toiletries, household and other essential items – but I am equally appalled at the petty small-mindedness of others whose only response has been to bleat that “charity begins at home”, whilst simultaneously sitting on their backsides and not actually doing anything for anyone – either at home or elsewhere.
One would have to be living in a cave not to realise that there are people in Britain who, through no fault of their own, are homeless or living in poverty and who are experiencing genuine hardship. There are those who have slipped through the net of welfare provision and others who find that a small change in personal circumstances is enough to generate a material reduction in their quality of life or the amount of money they have to live on. They are the victims of a government which has disregarded their plight in its attempts to balance the books – the very same books which have been fiddled and manipulated by wealthy bankers, very few of whom have had to pay any penalty for their part in the mishandling of the economy. The poor and the needy in Britain are expected to carry the can as this government ruthlessly tries to eradicate a deficit which the poor and needy did not create.
Britain’s poor have been unfairly painted by the wealthy, elite sector of society as a drain on the middle-classes and are being punished accordingly, with the introduction of ever more draconian “austerity” measures, whilst the ruination of the economy can quite patently be laid fairly and squarely at the paws of the fat cats who have spent the past few years covering over the traces of their whiffy business in the financial litter box. I don’t see a lot of austerity measures in place in the House of Lords when its members shuffle in from time to time to claim their daily “allowance” and then naff off again. If that’s not a grossly unfair society, I do not know what is.
Sadly, the result of the recent General Election demonstrated that there is a significant proportion of the electorate in parts of Britain which doesn’t actually care about whether we have a fair society or not. That said, the results elsewhere – certainly in Scotland – showed a rather different picture. Regardless of the result of the referendum in September 2014, Scotland roundly rejected the uncaring ideology of the Conservatives and the wishy-washy backtracking nonsense espoused by Labour and the Lib-Dems. The colossal wave of SNP MPs sends the strong message that Scotland has rejected the status quo and ensures that the voice calling for a fairer, more compassionate and caring society is going be heard rather more loudly in Westminster. The SNP in Scotland also makes it very clear that caring and compassion also extends to refugees and asylum seekers and that Scotland intends to play a full part in doing so.
The current refugee crisis has shown up social attitudes very clearly, illustrating that because the government and its supporters do not care about the poor or the sick or the disadvantaged in Britain – they cannot really be seen to show greater benevolence to refugees coming to Britain from elsewhere. Instead they sit back and allow the poor, sick and homeless in Britain to question why home-based charitable organisations are looking after refugees and those in crisis overseas, whilst government policy continues to turn the screw on the needy in Britain. It also allows the armchair social commentators to rest complacently on their ample backsides, complaining long and loud about migrants and asylum seekers taking houses, jobs and benefits from poor British people, whilst not actually having cared two hoots about those same poor British people before the refugee crisis reached its current state. All that their sudden “faux” concern for the poor has done, is to create a climate of fear, suspicion and resentment towards refugees and migrants, whilst continuing to sit back and do nothing for anybody in need – whether “our own” or not.
There was an amusing Daily Mash spoof article circulating on social media earlier this week, with the headline “We need to look after our own first, say people who would never help anyone”. This extract “quote” from it is particularly significant: “These refugees may be fellow members of the human race but that is not enough reason to help them. What matters is not a person’s level of desperation but their geographical proximity to your sofa.” The spoof was undoubtedly very funny but the reality which underpins it is not. There is a troublesome prevailing attitude amongst a sector of society which fails to acknowledge any form of humanitarian responsibility towards anyone other than own countrymen and women. Even if they couldn’t have cared less about them before, suddenly the poor and neglected at home are a priority… or at least they are, if the alternative means potentially helping the poor and stateless from elsewhere. If the situation was reversed, one wonders how these people would feel if they were the ones fleeing from danger and persecution and they were denied safe passage into a country where they could have some prospect of a safe future – simply because that country was apparently too busy “looking after its own” to care about anyone else facing a more imminently desperate situation.
The reason that there are so many involuntarily homeless people in Britain is not the fault of refugees or migrants. It is because there is a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing. The reason that there is a shortage of social housing is because the Thatcher government sold so much of it off and did not replace it. Additionally, the high cost of maintenance has led to other social housing schemes being allowed to fall into such disrepair that they have been demolished and the land sold off to private developers.
The fact that there are poor, needy and homeless people in Britain is not in doubt; neither is the fact that more could be done to create a fairer society but this situation exists significantly because of government policy, underpinned by its flawed ideology. It is not, however, a humanitarian crisis – and that is the crucial difference. There is nothing wrong in highlighting and addressing the issues which cause poverty and hardship in Britain and indeed so we should – but this is not a matter of either/or.
Innocent people are dying in war zones and some are dying whilst trying to escape from the tyranny and vengeance of terrorist regimes. These people are giving up their homes, their jobs, leaving behind everything they own, taking a few meagre possessions and putting themselves and their families’ lives at risk in trying to get to a place of safety.
How many British people have found themselves doing that so far this year, I wonder?
Millions of people have fled Syria, millions more are displaced within it. Countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Italy, Greece, Turkey and others are struggling under the sheer volume of numbers of Syrian people trying to gain entry in order to feel safe. Some of these countries are far less prosperous than Britain and can ill afford the impact of millions of refugees landing on their shores but they are taking them anyway. Much of the fabric of life in several cities and towns in Syria has been all but destroyed and there are millions of people who now have little more than the clothes on their backs and a few personal items in a bag. Some don’t even have that.
They have nowhere to go unless more countries in Europe start doing their share and stop expecting others to do it all. In the longer term, it is reasonable to expect other countries outside of Europe and further afield to do their bit too – making it possible for refugees to make a new life. In time, a lot of them will probably wish to return to Syria – but in the interim, they just need somewhere where they will be safe.
David Cameron has been on the wrong foot right from the outset in his handling of Britain’s response to the refugee crisis, with his tactless, mealy-mouthed platitudes and he has compounded this further by attaching outrageous conditions to the meagre response he is offering. The idea that he would agree to take Syrian children as refugees, enable them to be cared for, educated, and allowed to hope for some kind of a future in Britain… only to deport them when they reach the age of 18 is abhorrent and shows that this over-privileged man is clueless, heartless and completely devoid of humanity. Britain is better than this and it’s time we stopped using self-serving individuals like David Cameron as a model for our response to people who are in crisis. If we follow his example, we all stand to lose our fundamental decency, our compassion and our humanity. Is that really a price worth paying?
For those who cannot see further than the end of their own nose, I would say this: Instead of demonising refugees or the people who are trying to help them, why not target your wrath at the government which is creating a society structured primarily for the benefit of the wealthiest and for those who give least back. Don’t be under any illusions that if the government chose not to provide funding and resources to offer a safe haven for refugees, they would instead spend these resources on the poor of Britain instead. That won’t happen and this will never be about “looking after our own instead”. Demand that Britain’s government does what is morally right – not politically expedient.