Never again? Our concern for refugees should not be consigned to the past

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By Sarah Soyei

On the 1st July 2015 Sir Nicholas Winton died, he was 106. Sir Nicholas was famous for his actions during the Second World War, where he saved 669 Czechoslovakian children from the Holocaust. He arranged the transportation of the children, who would have faced almost certain death if they had stayed, to London. In order for the children to be allowed into the country he had to find foster parents and a £50 guarantee. When he felt that time was running out and the Home Office was taking too long to arrange entry papers he resorted to forgery to ensure that the children could escape… After his death, Sir Nicholas was rightly lauded for his actions by the British press “Holocaust Hero” proclaimed the Express, “Britain’s Schindler” declared the Mail. David Cameron said “The world has lost a great man. We must never forget Sir Nicholas Winton’s humanity in saving so many children from the Holocaust.”

His death fell in the year of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. During the commemoration of this event, the government announced the creation of a national Holocaust memorial to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved and that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten. “Never again” is the mantra repeated upon such occasions. “Never Again…”

In other news, there have never been more displaced people across the world than there are today. The total number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution rose to a record 59.5 million at the end of 2014. The single biggest source of refugees is Syria. An estimated 9 million Syrian people have been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, whilst 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. Over half of Syria’s refugees are children.

Existing refugee camps in neighbouring countries have been overwhelmed. Lebanon had no established camps to house the 1.2 million refugees that have arrived in the last four years, around quarter of their population. Refugees are forced to create their own makeshift camps sheltering in places such as abandoned chicken coops and storage sheds. Without access to work, people are forced to rely on handouts; water shortages are common and diseases easily spread throughout the improvised camps.

Those who can, from Syria and other countries where their lives have been marked by war, poverty or persecution, seek to travel further. Some end up in Libya where human traffickers can get them onto boats to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean So far this year over 180,000 people have reached the shores of Greece and Italy by sea and over 1,800 people have drowned trying to make this journey.

So, what has been the response to the plight of these people who are fighting for the right to live in peace, for their children to be warm and safe, to get an education, to build a future?

The Sun, Britain’s newspaper with the highest circulation, chose to run with Katie Hopkins’ article “Rescue Boats, I’d use Gunships to stop migrants“. Katie’s response included lines such as:

“No, I don’t care, show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches…”

The Daily Mail focussed on a different angle, the “Misery for Holidaymakers” who are having a terrible time in Kos as their views are ruined by the sight of “straggly migrants”.

The British government has spoken about “swarms” of “economic migrants”, rather than referring to people as refugees. But, almost 60 per cent of the new arrivals are from Syria while others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia, all countries which have been devastated by war and humanitarian crimes.

The compassion shown for these refugees decreases even further as they get closer to British shores. Recent weeks have seen hysteria over the people in Calais, who are making desperate attempts to cross the channel to make a life in the UK. It doesn’t need to be this way. There used to be an immigration centre in Calais which processed people’s claims for asylum without people having to die under trains and lorries. However, in 2002 Britain closed it. In response to the current situation, instead of reopening the centre, processing claims and providing medical support, the government has resorted to increasing the razor wire, troops and dogs that surround the makeshift camp. The Express is in meltdown that Songs of Praise should have chosen to film an episode in a church in the camp, presumably worried that showing a human side of the story will impact on their ability to paint these refugees as monsters.

This fear of refugees and asylum seekers has been fuelled by the toxic rhetoric on immigration which has dominated Britain for the past few years. We are told that “marauding migrants threaten our standard of living“. That, “Britain is full” and by affording people shelter and safety we would damage our “social infrastructure”. Though, ironically, only people safe in the privilege of enjoying the safety of their homes, never needing to rely on the generosity of others, can afford to have such little empathy for people in such dire situations.

Whilst a picture is painted that suggests the worlds refugees and asylum seekers are “swarming” on Britain, which is a magnet due to being “soft”; simultaneously providing benefits for the workshy migrants and allowing them to steal British jobs, the statistics paint a different picture. In the first four months of this year, more than a quarter of a million people claimed asylum in a European Union member state; fewer than 10,000 of those claims were in the UK. Those that do want to come to the UK are often drawn by things such as, an ability to speak the language, having family over here, or because this country historically has ties with theirs. These factors are often legacies of the UK’s previous excursions into other countries, excursions from which Britain is often still benefitting.

There are around 3,000-5,000 migrants in Calais. Even if we assume the higher number and allow all of them refuge in Britain, it would constitute an extra 2.5 people per British town, this is hardly a flood. In addition, providing shelter and safety for those fleeing for safety would not be a one way street. Evidence shows that immigrants bring new innovations and ideas, work harder and longer, and are less likely to claim benefits than British born people. A study by University College London found that recent migrants have contributed significantly to the UK, paying 34% more in taxes than they have consumed in benefits. In addition, research published in March 2013 showed that halting immigration would cost the UK £18bn in five years.

Our humanity, empathy and benevolence should not be consigned to the past, we need to change the narrative and show real compassion for those who have fled for their lives and had to survive the most traumatic and desperate of conditions, today. When we do this, and fight to transform the conditions for refugees both when they reach the UK and long before they reach our shores, then we can stand up and truthfully repeat the words ‘never again’.

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