UK failing its refugee obligations

25th Sep 2015

For months, Britain and the rest of the EU have been playing a dangerous game by denying that those fleeing from Syria and other countries in conflict are refugees. Up to one million are expected to apply for asylum alone in Germany this year. Yet countries in the world’s largest trading bloc have been accused of abrogating their humanitarian duties by either deliberately describing the mass exodus as migrants or burying their heads in the sands to wish the problems go away.

Just to clarify for the BBC and others distorting the differences, migrants are people who have left their country voluntarily to make a new life in a new land. They make a conscious choice to leave their homeland. In contrast, refugees are those who are forced to flee their own countries out of fear for their lives and liberty. Importantly there are legal differences that carry obligations for receiving those fleeing under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The crisis is the worst since the Second World War and was first highlighted in April this year when five boats carrying almost two thousand migrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200 people. The tragedies follow EU member states receiving 626,000 asylum applications in 2014, according to official Eurostat figures, the highest number in more than 20 years. Four countries, Germany, Sweden, Italy and France, accounted for around two-thirds of the applications.

Temporary hope for the thousands of refugees arriving largely into what has become fortress Europe through Greece was short lived with again divisions arising. Razor fences, closed borders and the detention of refugees have come to the fore amid choruses of mutual recrimination among most of Europe’s leaders. Germany has allowed around 800,000 refugees, the highest in Europe. Member states remain unable and unwilling to agree on quotas and allow free movement between its member states.

Despite possibly having the greatest obligation under international refugees conventions, Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the UK will not take any refugees currently in Europe and will only take 4,000 Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East this year. He rejected German pressure to take part in a new system of binding quotas for refugees spread across the EU. Some European countries have refused to take in Muslim refugees because of their faith.

Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban writing an opinion piece in Germany’s Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, said: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots. Or is it not already and in itself alarming that Europe’s Christian culture is barely in a position to uphold Europe’s own Christian values?”

We have similar sentiments by Slovakian Government. Interior Minister of Slovakia, Ivan Metik, said: “We could take 800 Muslims but we don’t have any mosques in Slovakia so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?” The Government said it plans to ask the refugees their religion on arrival.

In the UK, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage shared the concerns of the Slovakians and Hungarians. “A lot of these Eastern European countries with very strong Roman Catholic churches and traditions are very concerned about the number of Muslim people [coming here]…My concern is that Isis have actually said that they will use the migrant wave to flood Europe with half a million of their fighters…Even if it’s only 500 I’m very worried about that,” he said.

A number of councils in France have also refused to take in any Muslim refugees. For example, Charvieu-Chavagneux Council said the town only wanted to accept Christian refugees because they “wouldn’t proceed to cut off the heads of their bosses,” adding that

“Christian refugees will not put others in danger, they would not attack trains armed with Kalashnikovs and would not gun down journalists in an editorial meeting.”

The refusal to take more refugees came after politicians of all parties and more than 250,000 Britons signed a petition demanding he abandon his stance. The UK, along with the rest of Europe, were shamed into reacting after the publication of shocking photos of Aylan Kurdi, a dead Syrian toddler, who washed up on a Turkish beach. Cameron had originally refused to take in any refugees. In addition the funding for the refugees are coming out from the already allocated existing foreign aid budget.

But while the UK could and should be taking in many more refugees and helping to coordinate intervention, many lessons need to be learned. Essentially there are foreign policy questions, about diplomatic engagement and arms exports that exacerbate conflicts and how and on what basis is its aid programme shared and distributed. Most of all it has been the involvement of British army, especially with the US, in creating war and conflict in the region.

Without addressing such excesses it can only have further implications on causing refugees. Facts speak for themselves. While the UK took only 25,000 asylum seekers last year, Germany took more than ten times that figure. So far this year is no better with the UK taking the second lowest intake of asylum seekers in the EU, as a percentage of a country’s population.

According to the UN’s refugee agency, almost 1.8 million of the four million Syrians who fled their country have gone to Turkey, more than 600,000 to Jordan, 132,375 in Egypt and 1 million to Lebanon – a country whose population is just 4 million.

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