Theresa May has one objective when it comes to refugees: to keep them out of Britain. In her first three months as Prime Minister she has scrapped the post of minister for Syrian refugees, allocated £2 million to build a wall in Calais and called for greater investment in refugee-producing countries – all to combat migration. This refusal to share responsibility with global partners shows a naive grasp of the situation and a callous attitude towards human rights.
In her address to the UN General Assembly May said: ‘We must help ensure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach’, citing Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as positive examples. By contrast Tammam Salam, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, stated:
‘The world is witnessing the worst ever crisis of forced population displacement in history … This poses serious problems for our stability, our security, our economy, and our public services and the situation is becoming more dramatic by the day.’ He continued: ‘Lebanon runs the risk of a serious collapse’, and called for the repatriation of Syrian refugees.
Lebanon – a country half the size of Wales – hosts over 1 million Syrians. According to UNHCR, 86% of refugees live in developing nations. The vast majority remain in states bordering their own, in part due to a lack of safe or legal avenues into other countries. Yet May calls for these nations to take more people.
Building walls is not a solution
People living with daily violence will continue to leave their countries. The steady stream of refugees across Europe shows that walls and deterrents will not stop the movement of people. The EU-Turkey deal has significantly reduced the number of people crossing the Aegean, however UNHCR statistics show that in September alone over 3,000 refugees arrived on the Greek islands. A census carried out by the charity Help Refugees in August counted 9,106 people living in the Calais camp, up 29% since early July. The Overseas Development Institute stated in a report: ‘While on the surface, the number of people arriving in Europe has fallen, the rate of those taking hidden routes … has not been affected and is likely to increase.’ Measures to stop refugees from crossing borders push them to take more perilous routes, opening doors for people smugglers.
A British and a global issue
Despite widespread acknowledgment of failings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya there is little public appetite for drawing even faint connections between Britain’s foreign policy and levels of displacement unseen since the Second World War.
The world’s fifth largest economy, Britain plays an active role in the fields of aid, diplomacy, foreign affairs and the global arms trade. We cannot pretend that our involvement – for better or worse – in this humanitarian crisis stops at our own borders. This should not be dismissed as a French, Greek or Turkish ‘problem’. Instead, we must look at the situation from a global perspective and shake off this island mentality.
May said in her speech to the Conservative party conference: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. This closed-minded rhetoric will not take us in the right direction. The Prime Minister must wake up to the reality of migration and focus on a humane and nuanced global vision, not a knee-jerk reaction to win over the populist vote.