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Tom Charles

Narrow UK approach failing to meet global refugee crisis

The UK's policy forces many to adopt criminal tactics in order to enter Britain [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 31 August, 2015

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Comment: Britain has a particular responsibility to displaced Syrians and others, for its complicity in fuelling conflict across the region, but it is failing to become part of a solution.

The UK government's narrow national and domestic interests are preventing the country being part of a solution to the expanding global refugee crisis.

As the total number of refugees worldwide approaches 60 million, there is no sign from the Conservative government that it is willing to back down on its election pledges to be tough on immigration, and instead it is becoming even more bellicose on the issue.

The UK has a particularly great responsibility to displaced Syrians, as a substantial backer of groups seeking to topple the Assad regime.

Frustrated in the House of Commons in 2013 over plans to attack Syria, the Cameron government now seems indifferent to the consequences of its role in fuelling the conflict.

This hands-off approach and lack of willingness to engage in collective international action has "nourished a now deeply entrenched culture of impunity" on all sides, according to Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

The war crimes and refugee crisis worsen, but the UK government is distancing itself from the issues.

More than 10 million Syrians, more than half the country's population, have been displaced. Many have sought refuge in Europe, often with tragic consequences. Like the Palestinians, displaced Syrians are overwhelmingly taking refuge in already poor countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which lack the necessary infrastructure and international support to deal with the influx. Turkey alone hosts 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

     The UK has a particularly great responsibility to displaced Syrians, as a substantial backer of groups seeking to topple the Assad regime


The Syrian refugee crisis is part of an unfolding global tragedy that is spilling across Europe's borders.

In 2015 alone, around 2,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Italy has been under such pressure from the influx that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi threatened to "hurt" Europe, should fellow-EU member states fail to show solidarity in dealing with the crisis.


The Italian sea rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, ended in October 2014 having contributed to the rescue of 150,000 people. The UK government ignored calls for it to be reinstated and properly funded, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition instead blamed the rescue missions themselves for attracting people to make the dangerous crossing, stating that they had an "unintended pull factor".

The UK's resources are instead used on border surveillance and targeting people-trafficking gangs, with Home Secretary Teresa May arguing that economic migrants attempting to reach Europe should be turned back.

The UK is also fighting plans to force EU member states to take their "fair share" of refugees, preferring to deploy gunships to take on the trafficking gangs - a plan the Cameron government has formalised in a draft UN resolution.

The UK approach is clear. "Our focus must be on targeting and stopping the callous criminals who lie behind this vile trade in human beings," said a Home Office spokesperson.

But it seems unlikely that this policy will succeed, even on its own narrow terms. Peter Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute think tank called the government's anti-trafficking plan "hugely impractical… and probably not deliverable by the military in any shape or form".

There has been little criticism of UK policy within parliament, although Scottish National Party foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond criticised May for "hopelessly misjudging this issue" and stated that people were dying "because some people in this government… weren't prepared to have collective action at European level".

More commentary from Tom Charles
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- Hamas-Hizballah 'association' can't stop Corbyn surge

- UK: Still looking for simple solutions to complex issues

- Hamas' image problem

- Jeremy Corbyn: Will UK Labour give peace a chance?


The Conservative government is desperate to appear independent in Europe ahead of a possible in-out referendum on the UK's EU membership.

But the UK's role goes deeper than any immediate party political concerns and speaks to the government's denial of the disastrous impact of its Middle East and North African foreign policy, which continues to be centred on war and control of natural resources.

During the election campaign, Labour party leader Ed Miliband laid partial blame on Cameron for the crisis in the Mediterranean, pointing out that "the failure of post-conflict planning has been obvious" in Libya. He might have gone further and stated that the failure of conflict has been obvious; among those attempting the perilous sea route in to Europe are Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians; Britain's responsibility for the crises in those countries is obvious.

Amnesty International recently published a report outlining the deterioration of the situation inside Libya, which is leaving many desperate people at the mercy of criminal gangs and vulnerable to "rape, torture and abduction", with migrants captured for ransom being held "effectively as slaves" if the sum cannot be paid.

Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, has condemned the inaction of the international community since the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, saying it had "stood and watched as Libya has descended into chaos… effectively allowing militias and armed groups to run amok".

The UK desperately needs an overhaul of its attitudes and policies relating to the Middle East and North Africa. The most recent utterances to come from the government were from foreign secretary Philip Hammond describing African migrants as "marauding". Such language shows that the UK government will watch the refugee crisis deepen and use it for political capital, rather than seeing it as a problem with a solution.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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