Britain’s refugee policy leaves much to be desired when compared with most of Europe. Toxic attitudes to refugees and migrants across our country have steadily been on the rise since the Brexit referendum, while our European neighbours are putting us to shame in welcoming refugees in large numbers.
This, however, hasn’t stopped Britain making policy announcements that give the impression that we are being active in addressing the refugee crisis. More recently, the government declared it would increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the UK from 10,000 to 15,000.
Nonetheless, when taken away from a global total of 6 million Syrian refugees - as well as 14 million from other countries - this is a pitifully small number of people for the world’s fifth largest economy to help. By contrast, Germany, with only a slightly larger population and economy than the UK, hosts 1.4 million refugees.
One of the main differences between Britain and its European neighbours is not only its attitude to welcoming refugees, but its culpability in creating them.
The UK’s ugly history of colonialism and its present foreign policy and arms trade have all been contributing factors as to why so many are fleeing their homelands in search of a better life.
There are 20 million refugees in the world registered with the UNHCR, not including unregistered or completely undocumented refugees. Clearly Britain cannot admit them all, but it can play a pivotal role in helping them wherever they are - especially given our particular historical responsibility.
Public policy shouldn't be held to ransom by angry Far Right rhetoric that encourages the shunning of refugees and blames them for our economic struggles, rather than the billionaire elites who refuse to pay tax or the greedy bankers who broke our economy in the first place.
A strong economy at home and a robust, world-class humanitarian record are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Britain should aspire to become a humanitarian superpower.
The UK Department for International Development and various British aid agencies and charities (including my own, Penny Appeal) are active in the developing countries that take in the most refugees, without the huge accompanying controversy that follows even small movements of refugees in Europe.
Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan all host millions of refugees, and have done so for many years. Their motivations are complex and multi-faceted: altruism, cultural proximity, and no doubt an understanding of the incredible contributions and soft power refugees can contribute to the host country (this is particularly true in Turkey).
These countries - despite all their internal challenges and fledgling economies - have led the world in sharing their resources with those in need. If they can do it, what is Britain's excuse?
Ironically, NGOs in these countries are supported by a wide array of British charities, who have donated hundreds of millions of pounds on behalf of the British public. This suggests that public opinion is not as one-dimensional as the endless headlines about the rise of populism and the Far Right suggest.
To the rest of the world, Britain’s policy on refugees seems counterintuitive: how can a country that actively creates a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees be so generous in assisting them abroad? But this isn’t new. In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £1 billion to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, based on the logic that by bettering their conditions there, fewer would be driven to risk their lives trying to reach Europe.
Ultimately, the UK’s greatest assistance to the displaced will be in reexamining our role in the conflicts that drive them from their homes in the first place.
The roots of this go deep. Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Britain has played a central role in creating weak, economically subservient and politically unstable states in the Middle East and Africa. These intractable domestic and international conflicts were further exacerbated by subsequent foreign policy decisions, which have gone from bad to worse since the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
And through it all, the British arms trade has profited from - and contributed to - the chaos. This is most notable in Yemen, the location of the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe today, where British arms manufacturers have been indispensable to the relentless bombing and destruction of an entire country.
As politicians continue to talk of “British values,” it is high time we thought again about how those values can be projected abroad - and what their legacy can be.
Britain’s standing in the world has been built on our unseemly colonial history, but perhaps its future can be secured by exporting good governance, justice, and opportunity rather than bombs.
Reimagining the UK as a 21st century humanitarian superpower may seem like a pipe dream, but we have to start somewhere and in reality we are far behind most of the world.
Adeem Younis is Chairman of Penny Appeal, a British-based Muslim charity working in 30 countries around the world, including the UK.
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