Human Rights

Why I’m in

Tomorrow, the nation votes.

I’m in.

Why?

It seems to me this is a referendum about what kind of Britain we want to have, and believe we have. There is a vision of Britain which is stronger with many friends, which engages with the world around it, which enjoys a major role in the world’s most sought after club. There’s also a vision of Britain beset on all sides, overrun with immigrants, where there is not enough to go round, and if we don’t pull up the draw-bridge quickly, it will be too late.

I am solidly for the first vision. I have never heard of any nation that was weaker for having allies, nor richer for living in isolation, nor kinder for being more afraid.

Most of the arguments of Leave and Remain do little for me. I accept that we are likely to be damaged economically by leaving. However, if leaving were the right thing to do, I would be willing to accept the economic damage. I also accept that we don’t have as much freedom to do anything we want if we’re part of the club. If staying is the right thing to do, I don’t see why that should be a problem. I can’t think of any regulations that we have adopted from Europe that we wouldn’t have adopted on our own account anyway. Food safety, environmental safety, electrical safety and other forms of protection are what good governments do.

There are some arguments which I don’t and can’t accept.

Britain is not overrun with immigrants, although, to be fair, it is entirely populated by people whose ancestors were, at some point, immigrants. Something like 92%-98% of the UK is not built on (it depends what you count). We have a housing problem in London, but London is the place where residents are most likely to see the benefits of an international, multi-cultural society. As you move away from London, we have whole areas of the country which are less populated than they used to be. The reason that we welcome so many people from other countries is that we have far more work that we want done than people willing to do it. That has always been the reason why we have welcomed immigrants. It has not changed.

The British way of life, and British values, are also not being overrun by foreigners—unless we see small-mindedness and fear of the other as part of our way of life. Culture is changing. Maybe it’s changing for the worse (these things are hard to measure), but the big influences on cultural change are not shops selling Polish sausages, but the influence of American television and the all pervasive power of the world wide web. Not that we should ban the world wide web, which was, after all, a British invention, and probably epitomises the best of our values and way of life: free discussion, the freedom to express opinion, the freedom to put forward new ideas and the make the case for them.

It is the freedom to put forward ideas which is most important to me in this debate. At the moment, I can travel anywhere in the European Union and make the case for my politics, my faith, and even my favourite kind of music. I could open up a pancake house in Bruges, or a shop selling Union Jack t-shirts in Madrid. Naturally, people from elsewhere can do the same thing here, but, somehow, they don’t: the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are not full of traders selling Spanish flags, nor are the empty shops in Evesham being swallowed up by chains of Czech furniture makers. When people do travel to other countries and start to trade, we all benefit. Their natural inclination is not to. Given the choice, it’s something we should encourage.

I’m a committed Christian, and I spent the first third of my career (so far) as a cross-cultural Christian worker in Belgium, what used to be termed (and for all I know, in some circles, still is), a ‘missionary’. We didn’t have pith helmets, mosquito nets or arduous journeys round Cape Horn to get there, nor did we attempt to educate the locals in the British way of life (though, to be absolutely fair, from Hudson Taylor on, that’s not what traditional missionaries did, notwithstanding the Carry-on film stereotypes). I was there before the EU happened, and afterwards. Before, we found that every minor official who didn’t like the case we were making, or us being there at all, had a thousand ways of holding us back—from mislaying our residence permit applications (someone once told me I had not provided the six photos I needed while she was actually holding them in her hand) to demanding that we show our valid performance permits at a police station three kilometres distance. From 1993, after the EU treaty came in, all of that changed. We were free to move as easily as we would have been in Britain.

I am not asking for any special considerations for Christianity. If you are a Brexiter, and you have been arguing as a non-Christian for more protections for Christians, please do not do so on my account. I believe both passionately and rationally that the New Testament faith is persuasive enough to merely need an opportunity of explanation. I don’t need my ‘British’ Christianity (as if Christianity was British anyway) to be protected from anyone.

If you are a Christian, I’ve recently done a debate with Stephen Green, a prominent Brexiter. You can watch it (for free) on YouTube, here.

I’m also a democrat. As it happens, I’m a Liberal Democrat. People have often told me that Europe is somehow weakening our democracy, and we must therefore leave it.  Two things trouble me about this. First, most of these people were adamantly opposed to our attempt to reform British democracy with a referendum during the last parliament. If democracy really was their main issue, they should have supported us. Second, the European Union is already much more democratic than the UK. True, we have an unelected Commission, but the leaders of the Commission are appointed by our elected leaders, and ratified by the parliament. The function of the Commission is essentially the same as our civil service—except that the Commission is tiny in comparison to ours. Its size compares with a mid-sized city council. The Parliament is fully elected, and is much more democratic in its electoral system than ours is. There are no safe-seats—the bane of our democracy—in the EU parliament. The European Council, which is the third part, is made up of our prime minister and the corresponding positions from other countries. All of them are elected, because non-democratic nations cannot join the EU. The Council is the equivalent of our Cabinet, and it is exactly as democratic in the way it is appointed, and more democratic in the way it operates. What Europe doesn’t have is an unelected House of Lords. I have some very good friends in the House of Lords, and they are fine people, and the House does good work, but it is not democratic.

What I struggle with most when people talk about democracy is my feeling that they don’t mean ‘democratic’ at all. They are secretly fearful that all of the Czechs, Germans and Spanish will gang up on us and vote through a plot to ban British produce, or to eject our football fans from their stadiums. But that is how democracy works. The moment you allow democracy, you create the possibility that a lot of other people will vote for something you don’t like. As a Liberal Democrat, I’m well used to this. Even when we got 24% of the vote in 2010, we still got less than 10% of the seats, and were thus powerless in many cases to stop the Tory agenda, though, as you can see now, what we did stop was well worth stopping. The thing is, the alternative to democracy is some kind of dictatorship (by whatever name) or an oligarchy. The people who run society can still do things you don’t like, but you have no recourse, no matter how many of you there are, to stopping them.

The final thing which troubles me that I often hear is that we are somehow opening the doors to Muslim extremism by allowing Turkey into the EU. This is troubling on many levels.

First, the vast majority of Muslims are not extremists, and even most of those who would seem ‘extreme’ to us are not violent. While I was living in Ghent, Belgium, my wife sent my to pick up a copy of the Qu’ran from a local Turkish mosque. The trouble was, it was a mosque of the sect known as the Grey Wolves, the most fanatical Muslim sect in Turkey, and it was in the middle of the first Gulf War. They were absolutely charming to me, gave me a cup of tea, and engaged me (slightly to my alarm) in an utterly reasonable conversation about Saddam Hussein. These were people who believed passionately in what they believed, but they were not remotely advocating violence. The vast majority of Muslims are non-violent. In today’s world, you are  far more likely to die by falling off a ladder than in a terrorist attack. Our fear of terrorism (which terrorism is designed to create, hence the name) has led us to a completely irrational assessment of the risk.

Second, there is absolutely no likelihood of Turkey joining the EU, now, or ever. As long as Greece as a veto, which it will always do, Turkey cannot continue to occupy part of Cyprus and expect EU membership. What’s more, there are some 35 criteria which Turkey has to meet before it can join. These include things such as human rights and democratic government. I doubt that Turkey will ever meet them, but even if it met half of them, as part of its road map to an eventual application, it would be a country completely transformed. What we have failed to do in eight hundred years of  armed conflict will have been achieved purely through peaceful means.

Third, the idea that we should allow unfounded fear of things which might potentially happen in the future is utterly paralysing, and should never play any part in our national decision-making. If we reason from fear, then there is an infinite variety of terrors ahead of us. Nations have gone to war in the past simply out of the fear that their competitors will do the same. The arms-race which led up to the First World War was fuelled by such fears, as was the complex network of military alliances which turned it from a local to a global conflict. The Cold War was half a century of fear—a twilight era to which we should hope never to return.

I am IN, because I see hope, not fear, as the basis for a better future. I believe in times of plenty we should build a longer table, not a higher wall. I believe that the freedom to go wherever we wish and say whatever we wish is far more valuable than freedom from regulation about the size of eggs.

One century of genocides: the anniversary that no one wants to celebrate, but no one should forget

One century of genocides: the anniversary that no one wants to celebrate, but no one should forget

I’ve refrained from writing this article for almost the whole of 2015, but now it’s time. Perhaps I should have written it in April, but I was hoping that someone else, better qualified, would write it. Perhaps they did, and I missed it.

On April 24 1915, a massacre of Armenians began which ushered in a century of genocides. The word had at the time not been coined, but when Raphael Lemkin did coin it, in 1943, he specified that this, like the Holocaust, was a genocide. Since Hitler’s genocide, we have seen the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Darfur genocide and the former Yugoslavian genocide. Unlike the Armenian genocide, which has never been formally acknowledged by the United Nations, and which Turkey still maintains was not a genocide, these others each prompted, rightly, International Criminal Tribunals.

One century. Six genocides — not including the actions of Daesh against the Yazidis and other tiny people groups in their own territories. We have also seen similar actions against Kurds, though these have not yet led to international criminal tribunals. In Turkey, it remains a prosecutable offence to claim that the Armenian massacres actually were a genocide. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Turkish actions against Kurds will ever be acknowledged.

I am not here trying to point the finger at Turkey, or Cambodia, Sudan, Rwanda or Germany. Far from it. The kind of thinking that suggests that particular nations or ethnic groups are more guilty of genocide than others, or more prone to be, is exactly the kind of thinking which puts us on the path to genocide. Indeed, in Rwanda, from my memories of reading transcripts of some of the court cases that followed, many people who took part in it said that they felt it was ‘us or them’.  It was human beings who committed genocides, people like us. Some of the Rwandan transcripts made me feel keenly just how much like us they were.

The Armenian genocide should not have come as a surprise to the West. Indeed, Gladstone, in his last public speech, January 1895, urged Britain to take note of the plight of the Armenians. The Sultan demanded an immediate disavowal by the British government, and the Earl of Kimberley, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, responded immediately to assure the Sultan that this was purely a private speech1, and did not reflect Britain’s view. Twenty years later, the genocide began, with many of the practices subsequently used by Adolf Hitler against the Jews.

Hitler was not merely unconsciously echoing what had happened to the Armenians. In August 1922, Hitler wrote:2

“…Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Monument to Soviet soldiers, Armenia

Monument to Soviet soldiers, Armenia

While the world has largely forgotten the Armenian genocide, Armenians have not. In Armenia, the landscape still contains many statues to Soviet soldiers. This surprised me, when I was there. When I asked local people about them, it was clear that they still regarded the USSR as the great deliverers from oppression.

There is, of course, no comparison before or since with Hitler’s genocidal passion. As his letter about the Poles indicates, his hatred was not just for Jews, but for Poles, Soviets, and anyone else who did not fit into his narrow category of worthwhile humanity.

Nonetheless, just like the Armenian genocide, the rest of the world should have seen the Holocaust coming. Mein Kampf, which is being republished, did not in any sense attempt to cover up what he intended. Admittedly its first substantially distributed translation in English — and the one widely available at the time in the USA — had been excised of the parts which would not play well with Anglo-Saxon audiences. Even so, it should not have required a great deal of investment of effort — and remember that resurgent Nazi Germany was already establishing itself as a power in Central Europe, and therefore should have attracted the attention of diplomatic and intelligence linguists — to analyse in the original.

I remember the post-Yugoslavian genocide unfolding in the press and on the news. What astonishes me now is that I, like many others, was far too quick to assume that there was probably right and wrong on both sides, that things would sort themselves out, that it was all terrible, but not a great deal could be done about it from our end.

In retrospect — and having read George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf, in which he describes popular British responses to Hitler in the 1930s — I recognise now that those are exactly the conditions in which genocide flourishes. We assume that things cannot be as bad as they seem, we prefer the less extreme (and highly propagandist) accounts issued to counter the hard news, we want to let sleeping dogs lie, we worry what the impact of intervention will be, we find out far too late that all the men in a city have been rounded up to be executed, that a new term, in that case ‘ethnic cleansing’, is really no different from the old term. We wring our hands again, and wish that we had acted.

I am not going to apply this directly to Daesh and to Britain’s decision to join the bombing. I disagreed with that decision, as I have written elsewhere, while accepting that I did not have all the facts. We cannot use the possibility of genocide as a blanket excuse or reason to intervene in every foreign emergency.

Nonetheless.

Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, has put forward a theoretical framework of eight stages by which genocide progresses. 3 His analysis follows the pattern: formulation, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, extermination and denial. Some have argued that it does not seem to apply particularly well to all genocides, and it does not seem to help us in predicting where they happen next.

What is perhaps more useful to us is to recognise the failings and lacks of which we ourselves are guilty, in allowing genocides to progress. Since the Kosovan crisis, Western powers have accepted a military dogma known as ‘R2P’ or, Responsibility to Protect. We accept that it is no longer the case that our moral responsibility and authority extends only as far as defending our NATO allies — which is the classic international military and diplomatic position — but that it now goes beyond to protecting those unable to protect themselves. And yet, often, we have not acted.

The eyes of the world are now on Daesh. They should be, but why have we done nothing about DR Congo? The situation in DR Congo is so bad that it could almost be referred to as an ‘Omnicide’, where everyone is attempting to exterminate everyone else.

I don’t want to chart out the stages by which Western nations permit genocide to take place. However, I do want to put forward five ways in which we as individuals in Britain can better help to prevent them.

  1. Engagement with world affairs. Britain is a democracy. Government listens when enough people start lobbying. Mostly, though, we only engage with places we’ve been to or might consider visiting. There was a fair degree of criticism on Facebook when many people (I was one) changed their profile picture to one with a French flag after the Paris massacres. Why had we not done so for other, much larger massacres? It was a valid point, though I still stuck with the French flag. Gladstone engaged with the plight of the Armenians in 1895, but his own supporters and followers did not continue the pressure. If they had, it might never have happened. Whether that would have had a substantial effect on later genocides I cannot say, but it would certainly have been infinitely better if it had not happened. We have better, cheaper and easier access to information about the world than ever before. We need to makes use of it.
  2. Investment in international journalism and broadcasting. The BBC World Service is once again under threat. Why should Britain pay for the world’s radio? In many countries, the BBC is still regarded as the most authoritative way of getting news. When we invest in international journalism, and international broadcasting, we offer a mirror to a wider world, as well as assisting our own engagement. People locally are in a much better position to speak out if they know what is happening. If a genocide is genuinely being contemplated, their own state-sponsored broadcast will already be doing its best to suppress it. Many of the people who participated in the Rwandan genocide said afterwards that they did not realise or understand the full scale of what they were taking part in. Would better journalism and broadcasting have helped? Almost certainly, it would have done to some extent.
  3. Stamp out misinformation on social media. According to recent research by Nielsen4, people are now more likely to believe online opinions than they are traditional news. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of meme-sharing. Urban myths, of course, will always propagate. Nonetheless, there are particular kinds of myths that work to demonise particular people groups. Alongside the disgraceful memes alleging that all central banks are owned by the Rothschild family (really a coded version of the old ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ myth), we are seeing a growing number of memes demonising refugees and asylum seekers, based on supposedly accurate information. Whenever the information is checked, it almost always turns out to be wildly untrue. That doesn’t matter, though, if the people sharing it do so on the grounds that ‘there must be something in it’. However, it is by exactly these mechanisms (or the pre-internet versions thereof) that sympathy with what was happening in Nazi Germany spread. Britain would probably never have engaged in its own persecution of Jews, mainly because it did not have the same proportions of Jews living here (as a result of earlier persecutions) but antagonism towards Jews, and sympathy with the Nazi view, meant that Britain did too little, too late, until it almost was too late.
    We need to be better committed to fact checking and getting to the bottom of things. Copies of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ were in wide circulation during the 1930s. To many people, they seemed to be genuine, documentary proof of the Jewish Conspiracy. It would not have taken anyone a great deal of thought or research to discover that they were a hoax. However, most of us are all to happy to believe a hoax, if it appears to have a bit of a document behind it, and it suits our prejudices.
  4. Move beyond narrow ‘British Interests’. The job of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to look after Britain’s interests in the wider world. But what are Britain’s interests? The current mood in Britain is that they are narrow notions of things which are good for Britain’s economy, good for our internal security, and good for keeping us at the top table. Ultimately, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will pursue the agenda set by government. Who sets the government? We do. We could argue that only 1/3 of people actually voted in the current government. Even so, everyone involved in politics, journalism or even local church hall debates helps to set the agenda. If MPs, during election time, hear a thousand times that the price of butter is too high, and once that Britain is not doing enough to stop Boko Haram, they will go into the next parliamentary term determined to lower the price of butter. No matter how much more sympathy they have with stopping Boko Haram, this is unlikely to progress beyond signing an Early Day Motion, which is really the same as parliamentary graffiti. Amid all of the online grass-roots pressure groups that have sprung up to demand this or that, I have yet to see one that insists Britain do more to protect the most vulnerable people groups from destruction.
  5. Abandon the right of selfishness. Selfishness is not one of the UN’s fundamental human rights, nor is it enshrined in the Human Rights act. But it might as well be, because, in almost all debates, ‘looking after our own’ is presented as an unassailable and fundamental right. No one even bothers to argue with it. It is a clincher on television, on radio and on the doorsteps. There is, of course, nothing wrong with looking after our own, but that is not what the phrase is used for. Facebook is now flooded with memes demanding that we do more for homeless ex-soldiers, rather than refugees. Before the refugee crisis came up, there was relatively little interest in helping these homeless veterans. ‘Charity begins at home’, the old version of ‘looking after our own’, was never used as an encouragement to be more charitable locally, merely as an excuse not to intervene internationally.
    When we turn back refugees at the border, or make them wait in migrant camps in Calais, or demonise them in the popular press, we send back the most powerful signal to those who persecute them: the West does not care, you may do what you like. Driving people out of a country to die as refugees on the journey was a feature of the Armenian genocide, and also a feature of the Nazi genocide. More Armenians died fleeing persecution than were actually killed in the persecution.
    The moment that we put our own comfort, convenience and prosperity above the needs of those fleeing for their lives, we, too, have become complicit.

My prayer — and I do mean prayer — is that as the 100 years of genocides comes to an end, the genocides themselves will come to an end. I understand that there will always be atrocities. There will always be people angry enough, or selfish enough, or heartless and calculating enough, to commit massacres. Nonetheless, if, for once, we could learn one lesson of history, let it be this: never again.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. See this newspaper article
  2. The letter was presented in evidence at the Nuremburg Tribunal as Exhibit USA-28. A copy is available here. Note that Turkey disputes its authenticity.
  3. Helpfully summarised on Wikipedia.
  4. Report here

Is it prosperity that has robbed us of compassion?

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.

Help Haiti

Help Haiti

Child victim of Haiti earthquake 2010, image courtesy WorldVision

Tens of thousands have been killed and more than three million people have been devastated by the massive earthquake that has rocked Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Disasters Emergency Committee website is www.dec.org.uk. This is an umbrella group for key aid agencies, and is coordinating UK giving to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

The impact of an earthquake of magnitude seven is almost impossible to imagine.

Two years ago I went with World Vision, one of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) partners, to Armenia, scene of the devastating 1988 earthquake. Even after twenty years, and hundreds of millions of pounds of international aid, Armenia, previously one of the wealthiest Soviet states, is still in poverty, with much of the infrastructure unreliable, unsafe (to Western eyes), or incomplete. The landscape was littered with derelict factories and abandoned buildings. People I talked to told me that they had simply abandoned the last twenty years, and their hopes were that their children would one day be able to live the kinds of lives they had lived before the quake.

Haiti was, by contrast, already one of the poorest states in the world before the earthquake struck. It has for long been one of the least able to organise even ordinary levels of nutrition, housing and sanitation.

Clearly, everyone must make their own mind up about what they want to do, and each is in a different position financially. However, I want to put my weight behind the call to donate to the Haiti Earthquake Appeal. All the monies through DEC will be handled by well known, well trusted charities, including Oxfam, tearfund, actionaid, WorldVision, the British Red Cross, CAFOD and Christian Aid. It’s simple to donate online, or by phone to 0370 60 60 900, or by cheque payable to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE and sent it to DEC HAITI EARTHQUAKE, PO BOX 999, LONDON, EC3A 3AA.

Back to Top