RDN on BBC shows: Syrian refugees

I was asked onto BBC1’s The Big Questions (7 February 2016, Episode 5, Series 9); on BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye phone-in (25 February 2016); and BBC Radio Scotland Good Morning Scotland (27 February 2016) to discuss whether Britain’s stance on Syrian refugees was morally acceptable (TBQ) and whether one had a moral responsibility toward helping them (Call Kaye) or both (Good Morning Scotland).

In a nutshell my view of these questions is: yes, the British government has got the right end of the stick, morally and practically; and that I am nervous of prescribing other individuals’ moral responsibilities in this area. I don’t think I will be taking in any refugees, and that may mean I am not very moral. But my reluctance to open my home also makes it difficult for me to propose that others do so, even if I thought it the moral thing to do – and I am not at sure it is. More broadly, I think it would be very bad EU policy to encourage Syrian refugees to think that their mass resettlement in Europe or Scandinavia is a likely outcome of their terrifying predicament and journeys. I argue this only partly as a matter of European practical politics as to the outcomes for the Syrian refugees already in the EU. I think resettling more than a very select few of even these few Syrians will probably make things worse for their countrymen presently in Syria, or displaced in camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

I am bolstered in this thinking by the arguments put by Paul Collier, who has infinitely more experience of the issue than I.

On TBQ and Good Morning Scotland I said that it was important to see that there are important distinctions within migration in general (people on the move from their home country for any reason). Stateless persons, asylum-seekers, refugees and economic migrants each demand a different response from other countries.  It is often assumed that the kind-hearted and even the moral response to any and all Syrian migrants should be to resettle them in European countries. There are several things which might make one think this is bad policy, even in the slight degree to which it would actually be followed, except for the ‘lucky’ few Syrians (shortly to be ex-Syrians) who would benefit from it. Firstly, the policy would encourage many, many more Syrians to put themselves into the hands of people traffickers since such an approach would seem to guarantee a new life in Europe. But it is not remotely clear that the countries of Europe will be willing to resettle those Syrians already in Greece and seeking to go north, let alone the tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of Syrians who might be tempted to follow them. Secondly, since the Syrians who arrive in Europe are mostly those with resources (as well as abundant initiative, strength and courage), we seem to be watching the Exodus of a class of Syrian who will be very valuable in the rebuilding of their country. It is not the least important issue here that those Syrians fleeing are selling off at give-away prices their remaining assets, and a good part of their stake in their country.

Some of these thoughts would not apply to the Syrians if they were stateless, or needed asylum from persecution even in the event of the end of Syrian civil war. But most seem to be neither (unless, for instance, the end of the war brings a settlement under which their particular group might be persecuted); indeed, most are refugees seeking safety, and it is the moral duty of the rest of the world to try to provide it. That is what the UK’s policy is mostly directed towards. Doubtless, the civil war has been an economic disaster for almost all of the refugees. But surely that dimension of their misfortune will have to be addressed when the war is over and the nations of the world work out to help rebuild Syria? It isn’t best addressed by regarding Syran refugees as being especially urgent economic migrants, and thus requiring resettlement.

On the Call Kaye show, I didn’t have the time to be as clear as I was on TBQ and Good Morning Scotland. But I did try to argue with the other professional guest that day: he, an immigration academic, said that the immigration debate in the UK was toxic and that was why British borders would likely be closed to Syrians. I said that I thought the British immigration debate was in a much better place than it used to be, and that it was now a more or less settled position (across most political parties, I might have said) that the voters now wanted as few new immigrants as possible, consistent with their moral obligation and their country’s economic advantage. Sweden and Germany – often used to shame the British in this matter – have had a quite different recent immigration history, and anyway were arriving (with a less pleasant political debate) at the conclusions the British have over many years arrived at.

The academic also said that there was no clear distinction between economic migrants and any other sort. Well, he is at least half right about that. But these are distinctions which nonetheless matter greatly: the more one flirts with the idea that the Syrians are economic migrants, the more they will be placed in the same category as – for example – most African migrants. That’s to say: the less sympathy they will get as the British people, and other European, contemplate letting them in.

Granted that few Syrians will be resettled in Europe, it is probably kinder not to send any other sort of message to their compatriots. It will best for the Syrian nation if those who have left it can find safety and be given the sort of lives which will equip them to be even more useful to their country when the opportunity arises. The British can help the country by helping the countries in which the Syrians have sought safety. Presumably  that means we should be helping Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, and any other country where Syrians find themselves. But it seems to me that, even then, the Syrian refugees should be in places and given a status which make it clear to everyone that their European lives won’t be permanent.


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Publication date

26 February 2016