My right eyebrow is exhausted. The reason is that it has been sardonically arched for most of this week, as the do-we-want-them-don’t-we-want-them debate over asylum seekers continues apace.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, has called on Britain to open 10,000 more places to people fleeing events in the Middle East. Her remarks created ruffled feathers and murmurings of ‘breaking political taboos’ by giving the British political class what amounts to a big, fat guilt trip. While stopping way short of a ‘fling wide the door’ approach, her idea that every city and borough in Britain should take ten families from the 4 million asylum seekers who have fled Syria to date, has been enough to send the professional ‘Jerusalem’ singers that inhabit Westminster scurrying up proverbial date palms. Her proposal would also require central government funding, which, as you can imagine, is about as attractive to the government as a punch in the throat.
Still, good for Yvette for pointing out that the crisis in the Middle East is a ‘humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the second world war.’ It’s reassuring to hear someone with political authority recognise that Europe has enjoyed around 70 years of relative humanitarian stability – something many other continents can only dream of. Perhaps this is why our leaders have failed to demonstrate any tactical understanding of the scale of this issue. What’s the expression? If you want to create a mediocre child, give it a happy childhood.
It’s important to disentangle the language of the debate. Refugees are not the same as asylum seekers, and migrants are different still. Just to make sure you’re with me – asylum seekers are people who have fled and applied for asylum from their country of origin under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. They retain the status of asylum seekers until asylum is granted, after which they become refugees. Oh, and refugees are allowed to work; asylum seekers aren’t – so there’s an inbuilt economic deficit that operates in the stage before asylum is granted. To stats-monkeys, asylum seekers are therefore walking minus pound signs.
Migrants – or economic migrants, to give them their full name – are people who have left their country of origin to seek employment. The means of seeking out the employment may be lawful or unlawful, but they’re still a migrant – not a refugee or an asylum seeker or, as certain politicians who have failed to grasp the situation imply, pains in the arse.
Admirably wading into the debate, David Miliband, former foreign secretary, who now heads the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid agency, asked the British government to take in its fair share of those fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts. He has said that continued failure to do so is an abandonment of the UK’s legal and humanitarian traditions. He’s also pointed to the double standard that exists: “When I hear people say we’ve got to firm up our borders, it makes me think of the message we’re sending to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, which is to keep their borders open for Syrians.
“People in Britain have got to understand that these countries notice the difference between what we’re saying and what we’re doing.”
But, although the sentiments are right, this is where the anachronistic approach of both Cooper and Miliband and the government is fatally flawed. All parties involved in this debate currently assume the acceptance of refugees and economic migrants to be a matter of choice and policy. However, what about the time when Europe and Britain have no choice? That world, we are assured by leading scientists, is coming in haste. It’s a world where an historically unprecedented confluence has taken place: between escalating political instability, and global climate change. This time will irrevocably change geographical borders and dislodge vast populations.
The shut-doorers of Westminster and European governments are the flat-Earthers of our day; denying what has already started. A heady cocktail of violent political extremists, rising sea levels, drought and flood is heading our way and, when the confluence takes place, vast swathes of humanity will up sticks to try to stay alive. And we’re not talking about thousands of people, nor hundreds of thousands, but millions upon millions. We won’t be able to distinguish whether they’re refugees or economic migrants – and the definitions stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention will be made irrelevant by these different global circumstances.
What then will the stats-monkeys say, when this exodus of minus pound signs descends upon the UK? How would our society embrace them and survive economically? I think the answer is, it couldn’t survive – not in a recognisable form. In fact the change that fleeing peoples will bring to our society will challenge it in a way that the Ostrogoths and Visigoths once challenged Rome.
Global climate change and dangerous political fundamentalism have just started to make a mockery of our door ajar approach to other people. We need our political leaders to engage seriously and tactically with these projected eventualities, to adjust our societal models to be able to cope with vast human influx. Why? Because it’s impossible to fortify the borders of an entire nation, especially when those borders are compromised by rising sea levels.
The ‘legal and humanitarian traditions’ Miliband mentions must be put to work strategically, defensively and immediately, to create a solution for us and for the world. Britain, the mother of democracy, needs to get off her arse and reconsider her global family, before she is destroyed by them.
© gvons 2015
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