David Cameron’s limited promise of only 4,000 places a year for Syrian refugees provides a glimpse of the impotence of Britain’s future role in world affairs outside the EU.
His Commons promise to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years is at the bottom end of expectations. It stands in sharp contrast to the French pledge of 24,000 places over the next two years. As the Labour MP and father of the house, Gerald Kaufman, angrily pointed out: “The Germans took in 10,000 refugees in one day.”
Cameron has deliberately spurned taking part in a much bigger EU scheme to resettle those in the camps in countries neighbouring Syria. He has also rejected playing any part in the expected EU request this week to relocate the estimated 160,000 refugees who have made it across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece or through the Balkans to Hungary.
With more than 4 million Syrians already living in UN camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey it is hard to see how Britain’s own-brand resettlement scheme can make any significant difference to the situation.
It will undoubtedly make a world of difference to the few thousand who are lucky enough to be named each year by a British official as among the most deserving of sanctuary in the UK. But all the signs are that Cameron is set to repeat the same mistakes made when the UK’s vulnerable persons relocation scheme, as it is officially known, was set up in January last year.
In his Commons statement, Cameron made much of how Britain did not need to take part in the EU’s programmes to provide international protection, saying they could only operate within the Schengen border-free zone.
But as Ireland, which also has an exemption from EU asylum programmes, has shown by volunteering to take 1,800 Syrian refugees over the next two years, it is perfectly possible to take part in that coordinated European response if Cameron wanted to.
The UNHCR has called for an end to Europe’s fragmented response to the refugee crisis. France and Germany seem to recognise that a joint European approach is the only way to match the scale of that crisis. In a key test of European solidarity, when Germany is saying it cannot be expected to act alone, Britain has decided once again to sit it out on the sidelines.
As the French president, Francois Hollande, put it on Monday: “It’s true that Britain is not in the Schengen area … but that doesn’t absolve it from making an effort in terms of solidarity,” making clear there would be a price to be paid when Britain in turn demands ‘solidarity’ over reform of the EU.
When the skepticism began, he remained steadfast. “There is nothing to joke about !” he wrote. “I don’t joke on the misery of people
As live feeds of Syrian refugees walking out of Hungary have flooded the airwaves and pictures of drowned refugee children plaster social media, the response has been dramatic. In Iceland, 10,000 people offered to house Syrian families. Singer Bob Geldof announced he would let four families live in his homes. U.S. Senatorscalled on Congress to take in at least five times more refugees than the country currently allows.
Sawiris isn’t the first to propose such a seemingly outlandish idea, but his is the most singularly generous and bold so far. The telecommunications mogul is worth around $3 billion. In an interview with AFP, Sawiris estimated the cost of purchasing the island—$10 million to $100 million, he said—wouldn’t be a deterrent. The issue also isn’t supply, as there are numerous uninhabited islands in the Mediterranean. The main problem would be persuading the current owners to sell off a plot of land. Then he would target the bulk of needed investment into infrastructure, like “temporary shelters to house the people, then you start employing the people to build housing, schools, universities, hospitals,” he said.
Meanwhile, in June, a California real estate millionaire named Jason Buzi launched a plan for a “Refugee Nation.” He outlined (PDF) four options for resettlement: one involved purchasing island and another involved building a new island. “The solution is simple: for the millions of stateless people around the world—a state of their own!” it said.
His idea received mixed reactions. In theGuardian, Alexander Betts, with Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center, warned not to dismiss the innovation, but worried it could isolate refugees like a leprosy colony.
“You end up with refugees trapped forever in what is effectively large-scale prison camps,” James Hathaway, the director of University of Michigan’s Program in Refugee and Asylum, told the Washington Post, referring to Australia’s practice of holding refugees on the Pacific Islands.
“This proposal may be ridiculed or attacked by some, but hopefully is not ignored,” Buzi wrote. “It should be vigorously debated, because the world needs a solution to this staggering humanitarian crisis…But we can no longer sit idly by as millions of our fellow human beings suffer due to human-created conflicts.
Greece is struggling to assist the influx of needy refugees streaming across its borders by the thousands, exacerbated by its current financial crisis.
Refugees coming to the island of Kos were attacked by people with bats on Friday morning, according to Amnesty International. So far this year, 31,000 refugees have passed through Kos, which currently is hosting more than 3,000 in makeshift conditions. In August, 2,000 refugees were locked in the sports stadium.
In Lesbos, the number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in transit—around90,000 this year—is more than the island’s total local population. On Friday morning in Lesbos, where dinghies and boats have brought over thousands of refugees from Turkey, 200 Syrians threw stones at police who were keeping them from boarding a ship to the mainland.
The mayor of the island’s main town begged for more assistance. He said he’d been asking the national government for a state of emergency to be declared on the island but to no avail.
“[T]he situation has become unmanageable,” he told reporters.
In his interview with AFP, Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian magnate who has the funds, imagined a place where the refugees would be treated once more as human beings.
“The way they are being treated now, they are being treated like cattle,” he said.