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Refugee Crisis Demands Pragmatism and Compassion

Mal Fletcher
Posted 19 September 2015
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EU countries have taken in almost 250,000 refugees in the three months to June.

Some EU estimates put the figure at 500,000 for the year as a whole, with people coming mainly from Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, EU leaders will hold an extraordinary meeting in Brussels to decide what must be done to stem the flow.

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to host an event in Berlin, just as this crisis was hitting its peak.

The timing and location were interesting. This pan-European roundtable focused on how community leaders in volunteer organisations such as community groups and NGOs might better partner with governments to solve social problems.

The first part of the summit featured a tour of the Reichstag building, home of the Bundestag, the German Parliament. Our host was Mr Marco Wanderwitz, a frontbench MP in Angela Merkel’s governing alliance.

He addressed the group on a day that saw German leaders holding urgent talks on the unfolding migration crisis.

Mr Wanderwitz, his party's spokesperson on culture and media, reminded us that the German government expects to receive, at the very least, 800,000 refugees this year alone. Some reports put the figure closer to 1.5 million refugees.

As generous as the Germans have been – Munich alone has taken in tens of thousands in a few weeks – they then effectively suspended the Schengen Agreement, for a short while, closing their border with Austria.

This Agreement allows for its temporary suspension during emergencies, for periods of between two weeks and two months.

In reluctantly closing the border for a while, the German government recognised the need for a sustainable and strategic solution to what looks like a longer-term problem.

Donald Tusk, the chairperson of EU leadership summits, said recently that the crisis would remain a challenge for many years to come.

Schengen is beloved of most European politicos because it is seen as a core representation of what the European experiment represents – open trade and the free exchange of people and ideas.

Britain, of course, is not a part of the Schengen area. This encourages we Brits to think that we can march to a slightly different drumbeat on issues like mass migration.

Whether this position is sustainable in an age of increasing globalisation remains to be seen. I suspect it is not. In any case, migration issues will certainly play a key role in the forthcoming referendum on continued EU membership.

At the start of the current crisis, the British government elected to do very little.

Conscious of the fact that Britain saw a net migration of 330,000 people in the past year, despite government promises to reduce immigration, Prime Minister David Cameron chose to play a waiting game.

In the meantime, he reminded Parliament that the UK was the first G7 nation to enshrine in law its commitment to a UN development spending goal – to invest 0.7 percent of its gross national income on foreign aid.

However, on the refugee issue, public and political pressure arguably forced his hand. In early September, he announced that the UK will accept 20,000 refugees over the next five years.

He has stipulated, however, that these people will be drawn from Syrian camps, so that Britain supports genuine asylum seekers as distinct from economic migrants.

These people will be allowed to resettle as asylum seekers but will be required, at the end of five years, to apply for full asylum status.

This figure is nowhere near large enough, say some of the government’s opponents. The Green party labelled it ‘pitifully small’.

Critics point out that Australia, which is a long way from the crisis and boasts a much smaller economy, has pledged to receive another 12,000 people.

The debate over the scale of Britain’s response is likely to continue. The outcome is far from certain.

One thing is sure, however. Over the next 10 years, on a global level, we will see a ‘right to mobility’ enshrined as a core human rights issue, particularly as increasing numbers of people flee wars, natural disasters and poverty.

This will spark ongoing, heated debates about the tension between humanitarian concerns and the manageability of migration, in terms of employment, social cohesion and healthcare.

At the end of the day, we must face the problem of mass migration with a strong dose of pragmatism. Developed nations simply can’t take in everybody and we need to ensure that asylum seekers are distinct from economic migrants.

Politicos who promise quick and easy answers to the questions posed by sudden migrations are either disingenuous or intellectually lightweight. There are no easy answers.

Pragmatism will remain a vital component in decision-making on migration. Yet pragmatism must be tempered with compassion. Genuine asylum seekers must be afforded the right to protection and relocation.

When dealing with the vexed tensions between humanitarianism and pragmatism, our governments will make mistakes.

Yet if they err, when they err, it should always be on the side of compassion and generosity – at least where genuine asylum seekers are concerned.

Hear Mal Fletcher's BBC interview on this issue here

What’s your view?

Is your country doing enough to help refugees?



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