The big society bites back on refugees

Published by The Independent (7th September, 2015)

Over the past five years I have spent much of my time covering the story of migration. I have met people fleeing poverty across Africa, spent time with migrants in Libya, seen refugees left rotting in Greek police cells, visited festering camps in Jordan and Kenya, and sailed from Sicily to help rescue a sinking boat filled with those fleeing conflict.

Three things struck me on these missions. The first is the appalling indifference of the self-serving political classes to the tide of human misery washing up on Europe’s shores, which seems all the more callous given our nation’s recent military actions swelled the number of refugees escaping blood-stained chaos in the Middle East. The second is the extraordinary friendliness and politeness of desperate people whose lives have been devastated, so often happy to discuss their plight despite suffering terrible tragedies and unspeakable horrors.

The third is something less tangible. But it is something that has become more apparent in recent days, as widespread revulsion over the image of a dead boy on a Turkish beach forced leaders to offer more support for those fleeing violence. For beneath the froth and furore provoked by fears of immigration and behind the hatred of the xenophobes, there is often goodwill and generosity towards new arrivals in need of help.

If you wanted to give this a name, how about the big society? It is, after all, a vivid display of individuals doing good deeds and filling gaps in public provision. I first saw this amid the economic collapse in Greece, finding communities and families held together by a shared sense of survival. Among the worst afflicted were those arriving from abroad, often facing violence from far-right groups alongside hunger and homelessness. But at the same time, despite widespread and worsening hardship, food banks and free medical centres sprung up to help refugees descending on the shattered nation.

I am writing now on Symi, a small Greek island six miles from Turkey, where last month British expats and concerned locals set up their own reception centre to help soaring number of refugees from Iraq and Syria. Pensioners cook for them, housewives wash their clothes, hoteliers sort rooms, tourists even hand over shirts and shoes they bought on holiday. On nearby Kos, a group of local activists have been making up to 800 hot meals a day. I came across refugees there who had not eaten for three days; Medecins Sans Frontieres say one told them on Saturday they were eating leaves.

Or take the case of George Vihas, a cardiologist who set up a pioneering clinic for uninsured people in Athens. He did this after a patient almost died having lost his job, his access to treatment and his prescriptions. The doctor told me of others dying needlessly: when I visited his centre, most patients were migrants and the rooms filled with donations. There are now about 40 of these impressive social clinics across the country, all staffed by volunteer health workers. As austerity bit into public services, they ended up earlier this year supplying state hospitals with bandages, catheters, drips, drugs, even wheelchairs.

The same humane determination to stop people dying needlessly lay behind a remarkable mercy mission launched by American millionaire Chris Catrambone and his Italian wife Regina. They ignored the political paralysis and the naysayers to spend £5m buying and converting a 130-foot trawler, then hiring a specialist rescue crew. So far this heroic couple have saved an incredible 11,124 lives in the seas off Libya. They have also drained their savings, yet Regina insists no price should be put on saving lives. “What should we do: just let them sink because they are running away from war?” she asked me.

Unfortunately, that was the response of our government and others when they tried to stop supporting Mediterranean search and rescue missions. Thankfully, they were shamed into restoring services rather than leave mothers, fathers and children to drown. Yet still ministers argue against taking in families fleeing war on that spurious ground that it will encourage others to make the journey. This is utter nonsense – another false argument driven by fear of political backlash from politicians who have muddied the issues of immigration and asylum for their own purposes.

Migration is among the defining issues for our age, so their stance has been both morally wrong and politically-dangerous. Not least when, beneath headline polls showing strong feelings over immigration in general, the same surveys find much less concern from people over how it impacts on their community, their lives and their voting – especially in areas with experience of incomers. Just look how rapidly the mood changed with one awful picture, alongside the actions of a warm-hearted Icelandic novelist, the welcoming signs of German football fans, even the campaigning of Citizens UK to galvanise change in Britain.

But how curious the big society in perhaps its purest manifestation has come back to bite a government led by David Cameron with such sharp teeth. Perhaps this is just a blip of compassion before the bile starts flowing again in our corrosive public debate on migration. But at least a few thousand Syrians will be given sanctuary in a nation that should never have turned its back on such people. That is cause for celebration, alongside the good-hearted activists doing such inspiring work across Europe.

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