Mark Argent
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Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
The shocking stories of refugees from Syria should stir a response

7 September 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

David Cameron seems, at last, to be softening his stance, but references to “swarms” of refugees have been shocking. It has felt as if he were a party-politician more in sympathy with the xenophobic strand of his own party than a statesman able to see the plight of people making desperate journeys to escape a situation in Syria that most of people in the UK should be glad not to understand.

The numbers should inject some realism. The total population of Syria is just under 23 Million. The total population of the European Union is 503 Million. Around 7.6 million people have been displaced within Syria, 1.6 million to Turkey, 1.2 million to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, 242,000 to Iraq, 136,000 to Egypt. That puts the 150,000 who have sought asylum in the EU into perspective.

Surely we should be providing asylum for those who need it, and not whipping up fears. The costs need to be taken with caution — support in the short term will cost us, but those refugees who settle in the EU will end up paying taxes and contributing to society. If we get it right, those who eventually return to Syria will help to build bridges between our countries. Both of these are good things.

There have been mutterings about forms of military intervention — Liam Fox on The World at One (4 September 2015) suggested that the Commons got it wrong in voting not to intervene when there was evidence of Assad was using chemical weapons on his own people and arguing for an enforced “safe zone” in Syria. In July Michael Fallon seeming to be seeking support for the bombing of ISIS positions in Syria.

But the West has a dismally-consistent record of military interventions in the Middle East that end up making things worse. Recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have not been notable successes. We could do some real good if we took some of the money we might spend on a military intervention and used it to help refugees, in Europe and in refugee camps nearer to Syria.

Genuine compassion and support at this stage puts us on a very different page from either Assad’s regime in Syria or ISIS. This isn’t about intervening in a way that actually defeats them. This is about acting in a compassionate, non-violent way that has the potential to make lasting change.

The refugee crisis is challenging the EU. The Schengen agreement that provided for open borders in most of the EU assumed refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in lower numbers than we now have, so it may need to be tweaked. Climate change is likely to lead to more migration of people from parts of the world that become uninhabitable. The EU was created to ensure peace and stability in Europe, and it is only in the time since it was formed that people in Western Europe have not faced the prospect of becoming refugees.

We Europeans are now in a very fortunate position. People seek sanctuary in our part of the world rather than fleeing it. Our long-term stability depends on friendly relations with the rest of the world. Responding in a compassionate way is the humane thing to do, but it also builds the connections with the rest of the world that protect our long-term stability.