I was talking to a colleague earlier this week. She told me that the current language about refugees within government stresses the distinction between the invited and the uninvited. Between resettled Syrians and the rest. Between good and bad refugees.
Now on the one hand, I’m being very careful in what I say about Syrian resettlement. People who have lived through the unimaginable horror of Syria deserve only the warmest of welcomes. Everything we can do to help and support them still isn’t enough. Let’s welcome them, more of them, and more lavishly. On the other hand, the rest; the uninvited. There is more than an implication that they have somehow cheated, it is openly stated.
The old line that people should seek refuge in the nearest safe country is being rehearsed again. It seems such a common sense argument. And of course, most refugees do, have a look at the endlessly fascinating if depressing http://www.unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html. 2.5M refugees living in Turkey. 1.1M in Lebanon (that’s about 1 in 6 of the Lebanese population). 38,000 people claimed asylum in Britain in 2015 including dependents; the Red Cross estimate 0.18% of the UK population are refugees. Drops. Oceans…
The logic of the argument is, well, helpful if (let’s imagine) you’re an island that is more concerned with keeping foreigners out than with either humanitarian concerns or abstract notions of fair shares. Obviously every country in Asia, Africa or the Americas are closer to somewhere else than to us. So they can all stay out. And even Europe; clearly all the eastern Europeans would find Britain out of bounds. And all of the western Europeans except for the Irish and a few people in northern France. Looking at a map we wouldn’t even get a few Icelanders. They’d wind up in the Faroes. Don’t be misled. It’s an argument for a wholesale opting out of any international obligations towards people displaced by war and persecution. The only criterion by which we will accept refugees is that they are invited, arriving in a planned and ordered way in the numbers we choose after cool deliberation.
If only we could control the demand for protection as well as we wish to control the amount we are willing to supply. If persecution only happened by invitation of the persecuted. If Libyans, Afghanis and Iraqis were only subject to devastating western ‘interventions’ by their own invitation. But they had no choice, and any country that wishes to consider itself civilised has no choice but to respond with compassion to those fleeing persecution, whether invited or not.