David Cameron recently sparked outrage with human rights activists lampooning both his rhetoric and Britain's policy on refugees. The media backlash did have a tinge of hyperbole about it and overlooked his more reasoned comments urging the prosecution of criminals trafficking both children and refugees. However, it is undeniable that as prime minister he must choose his words more carefully and not further the hostile rhetoric surrounding the issue.
What's more worrying is the stark difference between his recent statement and beliefs he espoused 2 years ago: “I believe that immigration has brought significant benefits to Britain, from those who’ve come to our shores seeking a safe haven from persecution to those who’ve come to make a better life for themselves and their families, and in the process they have enriched our society by working hard, taking risks and creating jobs and wealth for the whole country”. So what's changed? Well British political opinion to the EU for one thing. The principal problem is that this unhelpful language is continuing to cloud and disfigure the realities of the issue for the British public. Many members of the British press and government implicitly or explicitly classify many of those wishing to reach the UK as migrants as opposed to refugees.
Leaving rhetoric aside there is the more immediate problem that Britain is simply not pulling its weight in allaying the Europe-wide crisis. Any notion of helping Italy, which has been struggling to accommodate the 63,000 refugees that have arrived by sea, is caught up in the ongoing debate of Britain's position in the EU which, with the upcoming referendum, is coming to a head. When one looks at the numbers, Britain's ethical position is essentially indefensible. So far this year, more than 180,000 migrants have reached Greece and Italy by sea (others come from Turkey via the land border with Bulgaria). In Calais there are just shy of 3000.
Of course, people ask 'Well what about the next 3000’, and more refugees will come, but is it Britain's duty to stand quibbling on the sidelines of Europe, leaving countries such as Greece and Italy, far less able to process and accommodate migrants, in the lurch? UN Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland argued just this in his statement that the UK should take more migrants as part of a “fair” solution to the problem, saying that “at the moment there is a huge disparity in the numbers that different countries are taking. On any basis, the Germans and the Swedes are taking far more per capita than the United Kingdom.” Many asylum seekers head for Germany, which in 2014 had more than 200,000 applicants. Sweden's next, with 81,000, then Italy, France and Hungary. Britain is way down the list, with only 32,000.
The most recent decision of the British Government to opt out of a voluntary scheme to resettle thousands of refugees arriving in Europe drew criticism from around the world and rightly so. The heated talks at the EU summit in Brussels saw European leaders endeavouring to formulate a solution to the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Whilst a proposal for mandatory quotas was rejected, EU countries agreed on a voluntary intake scheme. In order to relieve the pressure from southern European countries, members agreed to resettle 40,000 refugees now in Italy and Greece and another 20,000 people currently outside the EU. However, David Cameron's government has opted out. Just as depressing has been the range of headlines from tabloid papers calling for the Prime Minister to 'send in the army'. Luckily, home secretary Theresa May rejected calls for this ludicrous policy. Nevertheless, Britain must start pulling its weight, accept the voluntary intake scheme, engage in meaningful dialogue with the EU and most importantly place the humanitarian plight of refugees over short term political appeasement.