In a recent poll on the question of Syrian refugees, as much as 51 per cent of the population said that David Cameron had done enough in accepting 20,000 over the next four years. That might surprise John Morrison who wrote of our history of taking in people needing protection [Letters, September 11]. The percentage might not reflect his enthusiasm.
We should be wary of public opinion apparently turning radically on a photographic image of one single tragic case. In our time, when more hearts are worn on sleeves than ever before, it is as though all previous cases of people embarking in unseaworthy vessels on the Med have been thought to have involved voyages of plain sailing, literally and metaphorically. However, mass emotion easily turns in an opposite direction. We need to be on our guard with extremes of both sorts. In this case we have at one end the Prime Minister of Hungary’s approach. At the other end of the scale we have the Rev Giles Fraser who claims we should take in every last refugee, reportedly recommending that: “If we must we should dig up the green belt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats, and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as investment vehicles.” Recent developments in Germany suggest not even Angela Merkel would go that far.
Mr Morrison quotes a list of other occasions when we have taken in refugees. Yet if there is public scepticism, and the 51 per cent figure would suggest as much, there are several grounds for believing it is because the current situation differs from all others. The first is that the previous rescues were not open-ended. We speak of tens or even hundreds of thousands. The potential from the Middle East runs into millions. Yet what is happening is the equivalent of placing huge bowls under a massively leaking roof while ignoring the necessary repair work up top.
The second ground for scepticism, and even cynicism, is that on no previous occasion had we just been told net immigration had hit one third of a million in the preceding year to March. That figure is more than the intake of foreign people between 1066 and 1950 in total, with the exception of wartime. When immigration was negligible we had the space and capacity to deal with refugees. It would not have been necessary to contemplate Giles Fraser’s stark suggestions.
There is a third ground for scepticism and cynicism. Particularly in wartime situations, it was not only Europe that came to the rescue, but also the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
In the present case one can also cite the deafening silence from the wealthy Arab nations: a far more pertinent and geographically convenient base, from which the much-needed doctors, teachers and scientists would be able to return to Syria when eventually safe for them to do so. While the United Arab Emirates has responded to the call, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait – a country that ‘owes us’ for what happened to it in August 1990 – have taken in none. Why should this matter be left exclusively to Europe?
Yes, the British have an historical record for acting compassionately. If they are showing a certain reticence currently, it is not difficult to see why.
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