European Refugee Crisis: A Call to Action

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Ben Grant-Foale calls for a revision of foreign policy to foster compassion, empathy and tolerance.

Imagine being forced from your home. Without warning you must step onto a boat and leave your country and all that you hold dear. After days of travel you finally arrive in a strange land. You have no ties to this place and are completely reliant on the generosity and kindness of its people. But you are not even allowed to find a job until you are recognised as a refugee. It is difficult to comprehend the sense of trepidation and anxiety you would feel, but this is the inescapable reality for millions of people. Too often we see the refugee crisis through the prism of dehumanising statistics and fail to engage with the plight of individuals. Of course it is important to recognise the massive scale of the crisis, but it is also imperative that we put ourselves in their position to fully empathise.

The goal of politicians such as Nigel Farage is to limit our capacity to do this. To peddle his nationalistic narrative he employs falsehoods and provocations that present immigrants and refugees as the source of the world’s ills. His ‘Breaking Point’ poster in the run up to the EU referendum was a prime example, casting refugees as parasites that would overwhelm Britain. This sort of scapegoating has been used throughout history. We are all guilty of stereotypes and Farage’s unseemly tactics are an ugly extension of our tendency to assign characteristics and behaviours to different people, resulting in prejudice and fear. Donald Trump also employs these tactics, promising to ‘build a wall’ around America and ban Muslims from entering the United States. The incoherence and hatred of these policies become irrelevant when people feel as though their national identity has become diluted by the foreign ‘other’.

David Cameron also fed this prejudice, dismissing refugees as a ‘bunch of migrants’ in an attempt at political point-scoring against Jeremy Corbyn. Such callousness reveals the rationale behind his decision to only allow 20,000 refugees to enter Britain within the next five years, despite Germany accepting one million in 2015 alone. And it was only after the dead body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean that he agreed to help any refugees, showing his cynical approach to the crisis.

Although the European Union promised a compassionate response to refugees, the outbreak of deaths in the Mediterranean has challenged their commitment. Research from Lorenzo Pezzani has found that the Italian government’s decision to end the Mare Nostrum rescue mission and switch to the EU border force Frontex has led to more deaths. Various reports found that the number of rescue missions dramatically decreased and the training and equipment were of a poor standard. The quality of the rescue boats were also shown to be woefully inadequate, as 400 people died due to overcrowding on 12th April 2015.

Our current Prime Minister has also failed to adequately respond to the crisis. During her time as Home Secretary Theresa May took a hard-line approach to refugees, refusing to guarantee citizenship to asylum-seekers. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to scrap the post for newly arrived Syrian refugees, showing that the crisis is not even a marginal concern for the government.

It is now our moral imperative to try and shift our foreign policy in an outward-looking, compassionate direction that embraces respect for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity and gender. Our response to the refugee crisis should be a platform on which we attempt to do this. Only then can Britain justly say that it has lived up to its much-vaunted principles of tolerance and decency.

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Photo by Freedom House (flickr, Public Domain)

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