Britain’s belated response to the European refugee crisis

4 Sep 2015


Images of a small boy washed up on the shores of Turkey after drowning in a tragic accident have gone viral. The boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi. He was a three year old refugee from war-torn Syria trying to reach family members in Canada. His mother, brother and father were also in the boat that capsized in the Aegean Sea. Only his father survived.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, was not exaggerating or resorting to hyperbole when she said in Holyrood on 3rd September that she was "reduced to tears" by the sight. Many of us have been deeply moved by this tragedy. It is far from an isolated incident, but this image has brought into our homes the harsh reality of the growing refugee crisis across Europe. As whole families seek to escape from famine, war, death and torture, it is unsurprising that they seek the stability and safety that we take for granted in Europe and North America.

Some nations are beginning to realise the magnitude of our present crisis. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who was so recently derided for her severe treatment of Greece, has been referred to as "Compassionate Mother" by refugees who have been aided by German authorities. Meanwhile, until the uproar of the past 48 hours, the United Kingdom's government has sat on the sideline – unwilling to play a purposeful role in this worldwide humanitarian emergency. After previously saying that “taking more and more” refugees isn’t the solution, David Cameron has announced that Britain will accept “thousands” of Syrian refugees.

Britain has a proud history of helping people to flee violence and torment. Britain helped individuals to escape the horrors of the French Revolution in the 1800s. It helped Russian Jews escape pogroms in Eastern Europe – more than 200,000 refugees had settled in towns such as Leeds and Manchester by the end of the 19th century. In more recent times, Britain has provided refuge for Belgians during World War One, and for those who fled European fascism during the 1930s and 1940s.

Whilst David Cameron is right to say that our main focus should be to restore stability and peace in the countries from which people flee, he has until now forgotten that short-term remedies must accompany profound, long-term solutions. It is not easy to accept, house, feed and clothe thousands of people, but Britain should not shirk from this duty, or enter into it with a heavy heart. We must do everything that we possibly can to help ensure that suffering is prevented.

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