If there’s one thing David Cameron is more reluctant to do than let refugees into the UK, it’s risk losing votes. This week, he abandoned plans to slam Britain’s door in the face of refugee children — not because he’d realised how callous this would be but most likely “to avoid defeat in the House of Commons”. Back in September 2015, responding to public outcry, he finally came to the realisation that he cared enough about Syrian refugees to let 20,000 in the country. This was something of a change of tack: just 11 months earlier his government axed support for Mediterranean search and rescue missions, leaving desperate people to drown in the sea.
In both instances Cameron’s change of heart was prompted by how it would affect him: a lost vote in the Commons or continuing to ignore refugees after photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi were made public would make the Prime Minister look bad. These rollbacks also work in his favour. Small capitulations make him seem reasonable: at least he’s taking some action, we should be thankful for that. But partial climb-downs aren’t good enough.
Let’s start with the government’s reluctant offer to refugees. Taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees is pitiful – with more than half of the country’s population displaced, this number amounts to the UK taking in 0.5% of the current number of people seeking asylum. And it entirely ignores the rest of the refugee population: people from Iraq, Afghanistan or Eritrea. Syrian refugees aren’t the only people willing to risk their lives to make it to European shores; they make up just under one in five asylum applications to EU countries. Instead of offering safe haven to some of these people, Home Secretary Theresa May fought to deport them, in March sending Afghan refugees back to a conflict-ridden country. If asylum seekers are given the chance to stay in the country, they risk being marked like animals with coloured wrist bands. This is what the government is putting its efforts into.
Then there’s news the UK will now accept unaccompanied refugee children from Greece, Italy and France. This victory is in no small part down to tireless campaigners including Lord Dubs, whose amendment to the immigration bill that called the UK to let in 3000 children, was initially defeated by 19 votes in the Commons. The version the Government finally accepted doesn’t specify numbers so there’s a very real concern that it’ll be a tiny amount, assumedly less than 3000. This is better than nothing at all – but that doesn’t mean it’s not measly. Rather, capitulating to outside pressures in this very minor way is part of a national narrative where Cameron seems to hold contempt for the supposed “swarm” of people who want to come to the UK.
But this isn’t about callous individuals, or even the “nasty” Conservative party.
To understand what’s going on we have to look to the wider context of what is acceptable – and even wanted, by some – in the history of UK politics. When the debate about child refugees hit headlines, the Kindertransport was conjured up time and again. This was partly down to the fact that Lord Dubs fled Germany via this crucial lifeline but also as a mark of this country’s “tolerant” history.
The problem is this: the UK’s history as a refugee-friendly power isn’t entirely accurate. As historian Gavin Schaffer has explained, during World War II there was significant hostility to black and Jewish refugees seeking safety in Britain. Some were initially put in internment camps while others were excluded from society because people were scared “their ‘racial’ characteristics would undermine the war effort and health of British society”. Like now, these ideas were vehemently challenged by antiracist campaigners, but we can’t rewrite history to pretend they didn’t exist.
There’s this vision of the UK as a liberal welcoming society that sadly doesn’t always play out in reality. There are surely many people who, armed with good intentions, want to help others all around the world. But age-old stereotypes of threatening outsiders paired with aggressively ambivalent government refugee policies leaves little hope that this country will do what it should during the biggest movement of people since WWII. Instead this government will do the smallest amount possible to help refugees in the long term: leaving people in hopeless conditions simply because of where they happened to be born.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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