Refugees are a test of our shared humanity

Published by the ipaper (18th September, 2016)

South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having just passed its fifth birthday. But there is little to celebrate in a brief life of a country stained by conflict, corruption and chaos that has already seen almost one-tenth of its population flee its borders. Last Friday the United Nations said its one millionth citizen was seeking refuge in a safer place, a tragic milestone placing it alongside Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia in the world’s saddest club of nations.

This is a salutary reminder that terrible troubles rumble on in our world with minimal attention, despite destroying so many lives of fellow human beings. And it reveals once again that for all the agonising over migration to rich nations such as Europe and the United States, the vast majority of refugees end up in much poorer developing nations. More than 125,000 South Sundanese have sought asylum in neighbouring Uganda alone since civil war flared up again in July, many bearing witness to appalling atrocities.

This is more than three times as many people as applied for asylum in Britain over the whole of last year – and already there are more than half a million hosted by this impoverished east Africa nation. They find not just safe haven, despite some inevitable frictions, but one of the planet’s most progressive official responses. Families receive free healthcare and education for children, along with fertile land and the chance to work or set up businesses. This means they can retain dignity and rebuild lives while contributing to a fast-growing economy. They are thus able to return easily to native countries when fighting ends.

Contrast this to wealthy nations such as Britain, France and the United States. Once they led the way in showing a sympathetic response to those fleeing danger, helping create the protocols that guarantee global rights and enshrine protection for refugees. Now they are fractured by populist anger against foreigners that makes little real distinction between migrants seeking a better life and refugees escaping savagery. With noble exceptions, few politicians have displayed much leadership in response to the demagogues who exploit fear.

This week, however, there is a chance to make amends with two summits in New York, called by the UN and President Barack Obama. These take place shortly after a peace deal ending a half-century conflict that displaced 8 million people in Colombia highlighted how even the most intractable conflicts eventually end, allowing refugees to return home. Yet they also come as a Republican candidate in the host nation’s presidential election seeks to build a border wall, as European nations do deals with despots to stop fresh arrivals, and as forced repatriations in Kenya and Pakistan threaten core foundations of refugee status.

There will be outpouring of platitudes from politicians, as always with these grand events. Those involved claim the gatherings will be ‘game-changers’, a new declaration reaffirming the role of international protection. Yet campaigners claims substantive proposals to provide safer passage, family reunions and to rehouse ten per cent of refugees annually have been dropped already from the document. It feels reminiscent of February’s donor conference for Syria in London, which proclaimed pledges of £6bn yet has seen only £1bn delivered.

The key is not simply aid but the ability for refugees to find first a sanctuary and then work. It is easy to chuck a chunk of a bloated aid budget at nations on the frontline of the Syrian crisis such as Lebanon and Jordan. Yet despite good intentions, I have seen how the refugee camps and food programmes there are woefully inadequate responses that drive families into soul-crushing dependancy or working in the black economy for a pittance. This also raises a moral question: why should a nation’s proximity to war make it responsible for big flows of people escaping bombs and bullets?

Europe, the self-styled cradle of civilisation, puts hurdles in the way even of those fleeing Syria, despite polls showing public sympathy for their plight. Meanwhile few care about Iraqis fleeing Islamic State – created as backwash from our own intervention – let alone Nigerians escaping Boko Haram or those unfortunate South Sudanese. People crossing the Mediterranean and Sahara still die in their thousands. Now those reaching Greece are effectively imprisoned since fewer than 5,000 refugees have been shifted from there, and Italy, to other European countries, despite promises to relocate 160,000 a year ago.

There was a tide of warm words when the image of a drowned child, Alan Kurdi, made waves in 2015. But so little real action. Britain has a particularly bad recent record, despite its history of enrichment from successive groups of refugees dating back to the arrival of Huguenots fleeing French massacres in the sixteenth century. Ministers opposed taking significant numbers of Syrians, grudgingly accepting a paltry 20,000 people from the most destructive conflict in living memory – and remain sluggish in fulfilling even this pathetic pledge. So what hope of a sensible scheme such as the one in Canada which allows supportive communities to privately fund refugees?

Our new prime minister takes a tough stance. She ran the home office when ministers axed funding for a Mediterranean rescue mission and then dishonestly rebranded Eritreans fleeing repression as economic migrants. Now, rattled by the referendum result, she is sending signals to those backing Brexit that their voices are being heard. Yet some Western leaders are showing real leadership on this issue: Obama, for instance, wants the US to take 25,000 more Syrians despite the divisions stirred up by Donald Trump. The migration crisis is a test for liberal democracies. But it is also a test for our decency and shared humanity.

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