My parents grew up during the Blitz. My father once described to me how, for years, he could not hear the sound of an aeroplane overhead without fear. I was born in the late 1960s—part of the generation that believed the Bomb might fall at any moment: the ones who read When the Wind Blows, read leaked copies of Protect and Survive, and celebrated when the Berlin Wall came down.
In 1986, I stayed with a family in Würzburg. The mother told me how her mother had thrown her into a hay-cart crossing the border in 1961. A few weeks later, the East-West German border was closed. She never saw her mother again.
In the 1990s, the next-door neighbour at our office in Ghent was a man who had survived Auschwictz. He used to come in to use our photocopier. Sometimes, very gently, he would tell me about his experiences.
The community where I grew up, Stechford, was one of the rather less salubrious parts of Birmingham. It was multi-cultural, before the notion was popular. Alongside teenage ribbing, I saw some genuinely nasty examples of racism, much of it copied behaviour from older children. As the ’70s and ’80s progressed, I felt that attitudes were improving. By 1988, my feeling was that most people agreed that racism was wrong, even if they struggled sometimes to put that into practice—hence the well worn, and all too revealing phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…”
By 2001, back when I first stood for parliament, the landscape had changed. I was out of the UK from 1988 to 1996, and in some ways I’ve never quite adjusted to some of the cultural changes that took place while I was away. I look blankly when people talk to me about 1990s TV shows, bands and cultural phenomena. All we could get was Radio 4 Longwave, entirely given over to cricket during Test Match Special—a delight to me, but less useful in following cultural development.
What really struck me in 2001 was that the casual racism of the 1970s had returned in a new form. This time it was directed at asylum seekers, or, as the press always referred to them, ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Technically speaking, of course, you cannot have a bogus asylum seeker. Anyone who is seeking asylum is doing so. If they are in the country illegally and not seeking asylum, then they are illegal immigrants, not bogus asylum seekers.
Even the term ‘asylum seeker’ was new to me. In the 1980s we still called people ‘refugees’. I don’t know when the change in usage happened, but, as I now understand, it was a fairly cynical ploy to change the way people think by changing the words they use. Britain has international obligations to refugees. ‘Asylum seekers’, by contrast, are merely people who are candidates to be ‘refugees’. Etymologically, this is nonsense: a refugee is someone seeking refuge. By logical definition, an asylum seeker is a refugee. By UK legal definition, and in the popular press, they are not.
During the First and Second World Wars, Britain welcomed enormous numbers of refugees. I learned today that a quarter of a million Belgians came to Britain during the First World War—one out of every 40 people in Belgium—and returned to their homes once the war was over. During the 1970s and ’80s, it would have been popularly unthinkable (though I’m sure it still happened) to turn down asylum seekers coming over from the Soviet Union—victims of the Gulags and the purges.
Today, people are telling me that Britain is full, that migrants are a ‘swarm’, that people are coming to this country paradoxically only because they want our jobs, and only because they want to claim benefits. I’ve seen dozens of Facebook memes shared by people who I really thought knew better alleging that migrants are housed in multi-million pound homes with thousands of pounds a month in benefits, while British ex-servicemen are forced onto the streets. My heart goes out to anyone and everyone who is forced onto the streets, but none of them were forced there by asylum seekers.
We did experience a worldwide recession in 2007. It was not caused by immigrants, migrants, refugees or asylum seekers, nor was it caused by East Europeans. It’s easy to blame the bankers, but the truth is that Western economies have been pursuing ever greater prosperity since the 1950s. We have been happy to vote in governments that relaxed rules on financial transactions, and happy to buy into trickle-down economics. We’ve turned a blind eye to the startling increase in wealth inequality, just as long as we ourselves became ever more prosperous.
What was once an aspiration—to be more prosperous than our parents, and to increase our standard of living year by year—is now regarded as a right. Collectively, we reacted with outrage when our prosperity dropped in 2007, and took more than five years to recover to, and then exceed, its 2007 levels.
During the same period, xenophobia—when measured by the success of avowedly xenophobic political parties, distribution of Britain First memes on Facebook, and the rhetoric used by the mainstream press and some mainstream politicians—has also risen. Commentators pointed out that this always happens during recessions. Clearly a corollary, but recession itself is not the cause.
Popular response to the refugee crisis, or migrant crisis if you prefer, has oscillated between compassion and selfishness. ‘Someone should do something’ versus ‘they must not come here’. Britain is 14th in the league table of European countries accepting refugees, notwithstanding the fact that refugees are far more likely to be able speak English than most other European languages. Arguments about people being ‘economic migrants’, ‘illegally trafficked’ and so on do not wash. If Germany and Scandinavia can accept people, there is no reason why we should not.
It is true that there is a housing crisis in Britain—but this is a crisis of suitable accommodation in the south of England and in prosperous cities where the majority of high-paid jobs are to be found. In many parts of Britain, property prices are actually falling and properties go unsold or unlet. The people who climb into desperately unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean, or who wait for months in a shanty-camp at Calais, are not asking to be housed in chic boho streets or quiet suburbs. They merely want to be somewhere where they can be safe, and where they can start to rebuild their shattered lives.
The ultimate cause of the refugee crisis is war. Politicians may claim that their main concern is to welcome only genuine refugees while excluding economic migrants, but we are seeing people flee their countries in large numbers right now not because they suddenly decided they wanted to become rich, but because war has driven them from their homes.
We did not start this particular war, but we cannot claim to have no responsibility for it. ISIL, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan crisis, the Arab Spring, the second Iraq war, the first Iraq war, the Iranian revolution and the ongoing crisis in Israel were all influenced by a pattern of British intervention in North Africa and the Near- and Middle-East which goes back to before Lawrence of Arabia. There are moments in that history of intervention which, in retrospect, we can probably be proud of. There are passages which, while well-intentioned, produced largely harmful results. Sadly, there were also interventions which it is hard to characterise as anything but purely self-serving.
Even if this were a conflict in which we had no hand, and never had, Britain remains a signatory to the International Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. This is not an onerous or burdensome protocol. It does no more than solidify the way in which Britain treated refugees during the First and Second World Wars, and extend that to cover refugees of subsequent conflicts and persecutions. It does not create an open door for anyone who happens to feel like it to come to Britain, nor does it offer refugees a better standard of living than the one they had before they came under threat. Furthermore, it has enough signatories that even the numbers of refugees leaving North Africa at this time could be easily distributed around Europe without creating any particular drain on any economy or national life. Of course, the one place least able to accommodate economic shocks—Greece—is working to satisfy its obligations right on the front lines.
Britain must stop posturing and playing politics. The next General Election is five years away. If the government by some extraordinary generosity were to welcome more than Britain’s ‘fair share’, everyone would have realised by 2020 that it didn’t actually seem to make a great deal of difference to our national life. At the moment, we are in no danger whatsoever of accepting our ‘fair share’.
The very fact that we are trying to second-guess whether refugees are ‘genuine’ or not says an enormous amount about us, and nothing about the people claiming our help under international treaties, and under the common bond of humanity.
Even if our desire for prosperity has somehow corroded our compassion to the point that we no longer want to respond as our nation once did, there remains an underlying, unyielding moral and legal obligation.
By international law, we should help the refugees. By the most basic human morality, we must.