Why is the UK government not pushing for a substantial co-ordinated response to refugees crisis?

Summary

It’s like there is an international politics vacuum in the face of a big crisis. So what are our institutions doing?

Frances Coppola posted http://www.coppolacomment.com/2015/08/europes-shame.html in which I feel similar. So what are international governments doing in the face of it? By the responses on the news today, very little.

The thing is, we’ve been here before. During my teens, the news was regularly filled with the horrors of the wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vukovar, Mostar, Dubrovnik, Srebrenica, Zagreb, Sarajevo – the names trip off my head as if it were yesterday. And the EU froze in the face of it. President Mitterand, Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister John Major failed to come up with a common EU response. At the same time, the UN peacekeeping missions were regularly humiliated with repeated incidents of peacekeepers being taken hostage (as happened to British forces in 1995) or forced to back off in the face of fighters more heavily armed than they were. I can’t help but feel that ever since then, the UN has been sidelined, and ultimately made redundant on the big international stage following the Iraq War of 2003.

“Yeah – where is the UN in this?”

Good question. Because if the UN Security Council cannot respond to what’s happening in Iraq & Syria, what’s the point of it? Has the UK given up on the UN as an international policy-making institution? The UN has been conspicuous by its absence as a place where decisions are made and things happen as far as mainstream news is concerned.

Trying to deal with international issues while placating domestic audiences at the same time

Both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron seem to be caught in the headlights on this. Chancellor Merkel has to keep domestic critics in line with all things Greece, while Mr Cameron has his own self-tied hands with the EU referendum coming up. In the latter’s case, it was something completely self-inflicted as he panicked in the face of the 2014 UKIP threat – one that failed to materialise in the 2015 general election. EU institutions are paralysed at source. They have no separate source of funding (for example through a financial transactions tax, a multinational corporations’/’we’re based on an offshore tax haven’ tax or through duties on imports into the EU) for European institutions. EU commissioners are tied by patronage to member states that nominate them. Hence little appetite to take on powerful national leaders. What do they do in the face of the refugees crisis?

What about the refugees?

The UK government’s response is the policy equivalent of putting some plasticine into the channel tunnel. Hearing ministers and the Prime Minister talk of fences, sniffer dogs and more private security guards has been quite frankly embarrassing. Everyone knows that the highest walls in the world around Calais are not going to solve the problem. People will simply switch to another port. Even then, the numbers being mentioned of those heading to the UK are a fraction of those heading say to Germany.

A little bit of history

On the difference between Germany and the UK, having spent several months in both Germany and Austria in the middle of the last decade, one thing that struck me culturally was the impact of land borders with the rest of Europe vs the UK. In a post-1945 and a post-1989 world, I could understand the desire to remove what seemed like unnecessary land border controls. Compare this to a history of at one time having the world’s most powerful navy. In the run-up to the First World War, the UK maintained a ‘two-power standard’ – that’s to say government policy was that the Royal Navy would be bigger and more powerful than the next two most powerful navies in the world combined. Up until 1900 this was always thought to be France and Russia. So our historical mindset is that we’ve always been able to control our sea borders.

Yet being a sea-trading nation and a former imperial power, we also find that a number of these refugees speak English pretty well. You only have to watch the news reports of the UK journalists interviewing refugees – sometimes in pretty distressing circumstances. I recall clips of some being interviewed on crowded trains, or having just stepped off death-trap boats having survived hazardous crossings.

“So…what is the solution?”

You know what? I don’t know. Haven’t a scoobie doo. Not the foggiest.

All I know is that what’s currently happening isn’t working, and that no one single policy response will work. The problem is too big in scale and too complex in its makeup for something like ‘remove all border controls’ to work without creating its own problems elsewhere.

“Has the hollowing out of nation states contributed to the crisis?”

I think it has. Having been in a policy team where I felt we did not have the staff or expertise to face down very powerful industry lobbyists in pre-austerity days, I can’t imagine what it must be like for those in policy teams who have to advise ministers and politicians whose world view seems ever so narrow. If you’re a minister and the main public comments you make are about fences in Calais rather than a co-ordinated EU-wide policy response, your world view is narrow. In my opinion anyway.

Looking at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/12/facts-figures-syria-refugee-crisis-international-resettlement/ by Amnesty International, it’s interesting to note the lack of solidarity from other Gulf nations. Given the UK’s close diplomatic links with countries in that part of the world, shouldn’t ministers and royals be pushing for those states to do far more regarding a crisis that is on their doorstep? That’s an example of an action that could form part of a co-ordinated policy response. So why won’t ministers make more of a big deal of this given the wealth from those parts of the world we see in our media and sometimes on our streets in the form of expensive cars?

People taking their own actions inspite of the UK government…

Cambridge politicians and activists have formed a refugee support group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1671185293117244/ – there are also numerous other examples of civic society putting ministerial inaction to shame. Inevitably what small groups can do will never be enough to match the powers that the state has, but while the state does next to nothing, it’s understandable that people will want to take their own positive action.

As we found out with the Tsunami of just under a decade ago, it’s one thing raising money & aid, but quite another thing effectively distributing & delivering it. Hence needing competent (in more ways than one) authorities to at least do the co-ordinating. Whether it’s reception centres for refugees to having a unified response to those oppressive governments in those countries that are the source of refugees – both numbers and as a percentage of population.

The issues and problems are linked, and that means the policy response must be linked & co-ordinated too. Unfortunately we’re seeing perilously little of this. As a result, the end to the refugee crisis seems to be a very long way away.

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