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The best way to save refugee lives (Britain's doing it)

Syria’s displaced are best helped as close to home as possible

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

How should a country deal with refugees? This week the British government received an important legal vindication of its approach: the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling in January that four Syrian refugees resident in the jungle camp in Calais could travel to Britain to have their asylum applications heard here.


The Spectator’s leader, read by Lara Prendergast


Under the Dublin Regulation, which governs the handling of refugees within the EU, it ought not to be possible for migrants in Calais to travel to Britain to make asylum claims. The rules are clear: refugees must make their asylum claims in the first safe country in which they arrive. Those who have relatives in Britain — as the four Syrians did — are entitled, following a successful claim in another EU country, to seek residence here. But the initial claim must be made where they first arrive. This is an important principle because it helps distinguish between those who have fled their homeland in fear for their lives and economic migrants, who have other ambitions.

This is a distinction which means little to Yvette Cooper, who chairs Labour’srefugee task force. She says she is ‘appalled’ that the government should refuse to take refugees from the Calais camps. She has fallen into the same trap as the dozens of celebrities and virtue-seekers who have made the pilgrimage to Calais over the past couple of years to huff and puff against British policy on refugees. To them, Britain has become a uniquely callous country which is refusing to do its bit while more moral countries such as Germany open their doors to the needy.


This could not be further from the truth. Britain’s response to the Syrian crisis has been timely, generous and logical. It has avoided the problems which have followed Angela Merkel’s magnanimous, though misguided, decision last August briefly to lower her country’s barriers to migrants — refugees or not. While Germany now hums with popular resentment — and genuine fear, given a spate of attacks originating with terrorists who took advantage of Merkel’s invitation — the unsung British effort to help genuine refugees goes on apace.

You would never guess from the pronouncements of Yvette Cooper and others that Britain has put far more money towards the Syrian refugee crisis than any other European country. Of the $15 billion spent by world governments and non-governmental organisations on helping Syrian refugees over the past four years, one tenth has been contributed by Britain.

British efforts are less visible than Germany’s — in Europe at least — because they have been concentrated on helping Syrian refugees where they can best be helped: as close to Syria as possible. As Rob Williams, CEO of the charity War Child, wrote earlier this year, $3,000 spent in Jordan will feed, clothe, educate and offer other opportunities to one Syrian refugee for a year. To offer the same help in Germany would cost $30,000.

But there is more to it than that. However warm a reception refugees might receive in Germany, most are unable to travel to western Europe because they are too weak and sick, or because they have young children. Those who do succeed in making the journey are mostly fit young men, and they are mixed in with plain economic migrants.

The jungle camp at Calais, together with the arrivals in southern Germany, are mere sideshows. Most Syrian refugees haven’t even left Syria. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are 6.6 million Syrians internally displaced within their own country. Of those who have left, 2.7 million are in Turkey, 1.5 million are in Lebanon and 1.2 million are in Jordan. Germany, the European country which has taken the most Syrian refugees, has 600,000.

It was appreciated early on in the British response to the Syrian crisis that one of the aims ought to be to discourage refugees from making dangerous journeys. Other EU countries were more inclined to wait for the refugees to reach them before offering help. By doing so they unwittingly encouraged them to try to reach Europe at any cost, falling victim in the process to people traffickers with their unseaworthy boats and perilous lorries. Only in the past six months has the EU appreciated the problem by doing a deal with Turkey which allows the return of those migrants who try to make sea crossings to Greece. While it might seem outwardly harsh, the policy is already saving many lives.

Helping refugees close to Syria is not merely in the interest of the refugees as individuals; it is in the long-term interest of Syria itself. One day the war will be over and Syria will require rebuilding. That is going to be hampered if doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and other talented people vital to the health of a regenerating nation are dispersed and happily settled in first world cities.

As Home Secretary, Theresa May was a keen proponent of the policy of helping refugees as close to the source of the problem as possible. It can only be done if simultaneously the principles of the Dublin Regulation are keenly upheld. Helping the odd resident of the jungle camp start a new life in Britain might make good film or theatre, but it ignores the wider issue of how to offer the greatest number of people the greatest amount of help.

David Cameron weakened in the face of emotional campaigns by Labour and gangs of celebrities. Our new Prime Minister, we trust, will keep a stronger resolve and maintain her government’s policy of giving the right sort of help in the right place, to save and rebuild the greatest number of lives.


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