There was a very poignant opinion piece in the Guardian I read last week by Nelofer Pazira under the headline ‘Possessions they can carry – but the soul of the refugee is left behind.’
Pazira’s family had fled Kabul in 1989, fully aware of the risks in making the journey on foot through the villages and mountains of Afghanistan. Fear of death, she writes, was at every step, but it was the hope of life in front that kept her family walking.
“When living conditions become unbearable and when dying is what is left of life – as it is for Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans and so many others who are on the move today – then taking the risk to walk, to swim, to get on a boat, even knowing it’s not seaworthy, seems less dangerous. At least there is a chance to survive and reach a place of safety.”
But Pazira adds that as horrifying as the hardship and danger involved in this voyage to a new life may be, from a refugee’s perspective, the inner journey of realisation of the loss of one’s home is almost as difficult and painful. The displacement becomes an abiding anguish, a feeling of eternal dissolution and non-belonging wherever one ends up. This displacement even continues when one returns home after years of exile, having tried hard to protect and preserve identity and becoming shocked by the changes wrought to one’s homeland, both good and bad.
I have been thinking about her words as the Government continues to ensure that a safe, lawful and efficient process is in place to transfer eligible unaccompanied children to the UK as a matter of urgency, and to ensure that they are kept safe during the clearance process.
The ‘jungle’ camp in Calais was considered squalid, ramshackle and lawless; the French were right to pull it down. It was no place for children. Here, the British tabloid press, which has always been less than generous towards asylum seekers, a reflection perhaps of its concerned readership went typically overboard. Soon they were querying whether the new arrivals were under 18 or not. But there is a dilemma here, and it is shared throughout Europe and should not be dismissed outright. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have turned up in European cities. Last year 35,000 lone children sought refuge in Sweden. As of September, there were 51,000 in Germany. We take much fewer, but the numbers are growing: in the year to September 2015, 2,564 unaccompanied children applied for asylum here, 50% more than the year before. Working out the age of these children is not standard procedure. In Britain, there has been a call for dental checks but some have described this as outrageous, and yet that is how other EU countries do it, albeit as a last resort. Here, we use social workers, while the Home Office checks European records to see whether the children have been processed earlier in their journey. Besides the truth is that dental checks are actually of limited use, by the time children are in their teens their teeth can have changed significantly, so such tests have a margin of error of about four years.
That aside, the flow of refugees is going to keep coming, both unaccompanied children and adults. After all the passion and struggle for a better life is much stronger than the passion that exists to stop people having it. Meanwhile, Europe will continue its ambivalence to the problem, which will result in individual countries pursuing their own policies. We may have been the first with our referendum, but we won't be the last. I would say this is a far greater threat to the EU project than Brexit.
In Britain relations with France remain tense. France has found itself to be a country of transition rather than a destination and therefore a reluctant gatekeeper for the British. This is now being exploited for political ends ahead of the next French presidential elections. Nicolas Sarkozy is already threatening to tear up the Le Touquet agreement which gives Britain the right to conduct border checks in Calais.
There is no doubt about it, migration trends are becoming a huge political issue and governments of all hues and colours are barely coping. And the facts are stark: Worldwide, more than 21 million have been forced to seek sanctuary abroad. In reality its poorer counties mainly Middle Eastern, African and South Asian countries, that host an incredible 86% of all refugees. And that is why it is so important we keep up our overseas aid budget. A budget, which is also now being used to finance refugees here for the first year and which will help local councils with things such as housing.
And yes, I’m proud of our record in Government. We have been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, including as the second biggest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, having already pledged £2.3 billion. Some £105 million of that funding will help Syrians who are still in Syria. And yes we are a moral nation. That is why we sent the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean, saving thousands of lives; why we meet our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our economy on aid; why Britain is the second biggest bilateral donor in the world to Syrian refugee camps; and why since the crisis began we have granted asylum to nearly 5,000 Syrians and their dependents through normal procedures. Yes, we can do more, taking in the Calais children is an example of this, and we are also resettling up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. The crucial point is that these refugees will come from the region to discourage people from taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. It is important to remember that the vast majority of refugees are displaced in the region not outside of it, which is why it is crucial we focus our efforts on supporting those who are displaced there. That is what the national debate should focus on, not necessarily on how many refugees we take in.
For those that have nowhere to go, but have found refuge close to their war-torn lands mainly in camps, we, the ‘wealthy’ West, have a moral duty to support them for the time they are there. These people will not loose their ‘identity’ - the one that Nelofer Pazira’s mourns so much - they have shared values, language, habits and shared dreams of return. We must keep their children educated. And we must give them hope that sometime soon their nations will re-emerge, that they will not be dependent on foreign aid that they will rebuild the land of their fathers and become settled once again.
As for our political responsibility, we need to find a comprehensive solution that deals with the people most responsible for the terrible scenes we see: President Assad in Syria, the butchers of Daesh and the criminal gangs that are running this terrible trade in people.