Written by Aleksander Binder
There have always been ‘episodes’ of migration to Britain, but it’s fair to say that until the end of the Second World War these were small and relatively insignificant.
The number of people born abroad but living in Britain was very small until the middle of the 20th century when between 1951 and 1991 it grew by less than two million people.
The British Nationality Act 1948 granted the subjects of the British Empire the right to live and work in the UK and as such net migration to Britain has been on the rise ever since.
Yet migration is not a new phenomenon; the Romans, Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans all came to Britain hundreds of years ago.
However, it is perhaps the dramatic increase in the pace and scale of change that has drawn so much attention to this political hot potato.
By far the highest levels of immigration have taken place from 1997 onwards and the increase in the foreign born population between 2001 and 2011 was absolutely without precedent in British history.
As a wealthy and peaceful continent surrounded by large areas of poverty, chaos and disorder, it is understandable that Europe is an attractive destination for so many seeking a better life.
As somebody with Yugoslavian heritage, some of whose family were amongst the 1.2 million people displaced by the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, the plight of the 4 million Syrian refugees is one which resonates strongly with me. It is also why I have been so very disappointed by the attitudes of certain Government leaders of Eastern Europe who seem to have very short memories.
I accept that there is a clear difference between a ‘regular’ or economic migrant and an ‘irregular’ migrant or refugee and that it is important to make this distinction when discussing this issue.
Not only is this important in order to safeguard the demography of the European nations and to ensure that the assistance targets the right people, but also because international law places different obligations upon states in respect of how these two categories of migrants are to be treated.
The question of how we deal with those who seek a better life rather than those who seek a safer life poses significant problems, both for the British Executive and Europe.
What makes this even more complicated is the limitations on the sovereignty of states established by international human rights law, international refugee law and international labour law. In particular, a state’s discretion in the adoption and enforcement of migration polices is limited by its obligation to respect, protect and promote the human rights of all individuals within their territory and subject to their jurisdiction (UN Human rights Committee, General Comment No.15 para.5).
The government response to the Syrian crisis will have three particular groups factored into its considerations: refugees, economic migrants and of course, the voters at home. The politicians and policymakers have the difficult balancing act of doing the right thing, without upsetting or alienating the citizens it serves and of course upon whose vote it relies. And just to really spice matters up; this situation has arisen at a time when Britain is preparing itself for a referendum on Europe.
Without doubt, one of the best ways to reassure anxious Britons is to dispel the inflated myth that immigration is ubiquitous with disaster on the home front. History would suggest quite the opposite. Conversely, the recent protests in London suggest that British support for refugees is high; therefore it is equally important to be clear about the serious implications of mismanaging this situation.
Under the terms of the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees (1951), many Syrian people are facing “well-founded fears of persecution”. Whether that threat is from the defiant President Assad and his barrel bombs, or the indiscriminate and brutal jihadists of the so called Islamic State is somewhat irrelevant. Add to that Russia’s recent military offensive in an attempt to ‘prop up’ the struggling government regime, and you have an environment that is quite simply not fit for human habitation.
It is inconceivable to me not to acknowledge that Britain and its European and transatlantic cousins are not, at least in part, responsible for the destabilisation of the Middle East.
In the 1990’s during the first Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf Jnr, who led the coalition forces in the liberation and safeguarding of Kuwait against Saddam Hussein’s invasion, secured an important victory in Operation Desert Storm; an extended air campaign followed by a highly successful 100 hour ground offensive which destroyed the Iraqi Army and liberated Kuwait in early 1991.
However, he also played an integral part in ensuring that government leaders were mindful not to remove Saddam Hussein entirely and take full control of Iraq. Although some argue that this rendered the Persian Gulf War only a partial victory, Schwarzkopf was aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the power vacuum that this would create, fearing either an Islamic extremist uprising or the seizing of Iraq by Iran; neither of which seemed an attractive proposition.
His view was simple; better the devil you know.
Fast forward 12 or so years and it’s hard to avoid the subject of the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan, followed swiftly in March 2003 by the invasion of Iraq in order to arrogate Saddam Hussein’s imaginary cache of weapons of mass destruction (I won’t discuss the legal issues of this war here). This war lasted for 6 years and 179 British military personnel lost their lives, as did who knows how many Iraqi civilians. In an interview in 2009 shortly after the last British troops returned home, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown declared “Today Iraq is a success story”. He continued “Britain can be proud of our legacy that we leave there” [Iraq]. I’m not sure that the Iraqi people share that sentiment today.
In 2014, the final British forces presence withdrew from Afghanistan, bringing to an end a 13 year military campaign, the financial and human cost of which is difficult to comprehend, not least the loss of 453 incredibly courageous British service personnel.
Few will forget the undignified end that met the once omnipotent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed Libyan dictator, in 2011 during the battle of Sirte.
In 2011, Egypt’s 18 days of protests in Cairo’s Tahir Square marked the start of two years of unrest which saw not one, but two revolutions during which many civilians were killed and from which the Egyptian administration is still to recover. This, combined with the unrest in Tunisia, gave rise to the Arab Spring protests: the democratic uprisings that arose independently and spread across the Arab world in 2011.
The movement quickly took hold in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, where civil war has been raging since.
With a defiant President Assad showing no signs of standing down, the increasing political tensions between Russia and the West, which are not likely to improve any time soon in light of Russia’s support of President Assad and the ongoing campaign of the so called Islamic State, this situation is probably the greatest humanitarian crisis we have faced since the Second World War.
As of January 2015, the death toll in Syria had risen above 220,000 with estimates in April as high as 310,000.
There are clear human rights violations by ISIS, Syrian government forces and other opposition forces with reports of many massacres occurring, not to mention the recent suggestion that chemical weapons are now being used. In addition, tens of thousands of protestors are reported to have been imprisoned and there are reports of torture in state prisons.
More than 7 million Syrians have been displaced with more than 5 million fleeing to nearby countries.
Of course, there are limits to how many migrants society will want to accept; indeed there are limits on how many migrants society can accept and it is vital that those refugees with the greatest needs are prioritised.
The moral conscience of Angela Merkel’s ‘open arms’ approach, including her declaration of “exception” to EU asylum rules led to 20,000 refugees arriving in Germany in a single weekend. 20,000 is the same number that PM David Cameron has agreed to help over the next 4 years. Combine this with the reluctance of our Eastern European counterparts to show such hospitality to these desperate refugees, and Jean-Claude Juncker (President of the European Commission) insisting that irrespective of its nuanced views Europe must simply accept the changes that are taking place and their inevitable consequences, it is fair to say that current political and social tolerance across Europe is varied and widely unclear.
Given the difficulties that the UK has faced over recent years such as the impact of austerity measures, an increasingly strained National Health Service, troubled education system, pay freezes and ongoing cuts to public services, combined with the increasing racial tensions resulting from such incidents as the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, the growing profile of ISIS and the deaths of British aid workers in Syria, the fears and concerns of the people of this small island are reasonable, fair and just.
If we are to help address the Syrian crisis then we must strengthen our own infrastructure too and we must do it properly.
But how? I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel not to have to find the answer to that question.
It must also be said that it is not Britain’s job and Britain’s job alone to “save the day”. Nor should the responsibility fall solely at the feet of Europe. America and the rich monarchies of the Gulf must all play their part in the short term as well as working towards a sustainable long term solution to this global issue.
We should also remember that around 80% of displaced Syrians are still in Syria, still at the mercy of Assad’s ongoing civil war and ISIS.
We have a duty to help protect the rights and fundamental freedoms of these Syrian refugees; these freedoms are the foundations of justice and peace in the world.
This problem will not go away. Indeed it seems it will get much, much worse.
It will be very difficult to defeat ISIS without military action and incredibly difficult to stabilise Syria without removing President Assad but it seems nobody is keen to move in either of these directions at this moment in time and given the impact of military intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it is hardly surprising.
I certainly don’t have a solution. I’m not sure yet that there is one, but what is clear is that we must do something.
We have described the influx into Europe of the hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants and refugees as a crisis; what will we call the influx of the millions who are yet to arrive?