I was heartened by the response from National readers to the joint letter I put together to the EU's President urging real action on refugees back in the Spring (April 22). I and so many others across Scottish civic society were afraid that without concerted European action the trickle of desperate souls fleeing danger and coming to harm on the EU's shores would only increase.
How wrong I was. It is way worse than I feared, and the response individually by the member states of Europe and collectively by the EU has made me doubt my faith in humanity. We live in bleak, shrill times and it is being exploited by a political agenda we should all be chilled by.
First published in The Sunday Herald 6 September 2015
There has been some action from the EU, but it has been a series of sticking plasters because in the absence of a common will amongst the member states the EU can actually do little. With the exception of Sweden and belatedly but very welcome, Germany and Austria, the member states have dragged their feet, and in some member states the debate, and not just on the wilder fringes, has been more reminiscent of the 1930s than any enlightened time. For the UK Prime Minster to talk about "swarms of migrants" shames all in these islands. Let us also not forget Gordon Brown's "British jobs for British workers" and the record of Labour, or the "go home" vans of the Lib/Con governments. Few UK parties have a record to be proud of on asylum.
The conflation of refugees and migrants is a vile misrepresentation, done deliberately. Refugees are not migrants. They're not voluntarily moving, they're fleeing immediate danger to them and their families, often leaving everything behind in the process. Syrians, by far the biggest group now, will continue to flee Bashar al-Assad and ISIS (also known as Daesh) only to die in trucks, trains or boats approaching Europe until a credible solution is found to make their homes safe.
Refugees of course come from various places, across North Africa, Eritrea Afghanistan and others, but the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the Middle East is the biggest since the second World War, little wonder the consequences are being felt in Europe. In Syria, up to 4.1 million people have fled the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced, still in Syria but away from home. Across the border, there are an estimated 3.2 million Interally Displaced People (IDPs) across Iraq and more than 8.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
The greatest burden of this torment is assuredly not falling on Europe, and even less so on dear old Blighty. Those who say the other Arab states should do more are right in the case of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, but wrong elsewhere and it does not excuse our inaction anyway. Over 2.1 million Syrian refugees have been registered by the UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon along with over 1.9 million in Turkey. One in four residents in Lebanon is a refugee, just imagine what that does to public services and life in that already shaky country. The countries providing safe haven to such numbers deserve nothing but praise, and support. The EU has contributed financial aid and that is to be welcomed, but no amount of sticking plasters will cauterise this gaping wound.
By consequence, the numbers the EU is contemplating are actually entirely manageable. I'll stress my main point again: most of these people (lets call them what they are) are not migrants, and we should be in no doubt the numbers are going to grow further. In July alone, the UNHCR said that 50,424 people arrived in Greece, mostly fleeing the conflict in Syria, compared to 43,500 for the whole of 2014. In recent weeks, up to 82% of the total refugees arriving in Greece were Syrian.
Until we achieve a viable peace in Syria and Iraq there is no amount of razor wire will stem that flow, and for the Tories to be calling for a Fortress Europe should, surely, give even them pause.
The only possible solution is the longest and hardest to achieve, an actual solution to the crises in Syria and Iraq, starting, surely, with an internationally mandated and internationally enforced no-fly zone over Syria to keep the regime's planes on the ground.
Only then will there even start to be an incentive for the refugees to go home, which the vast majority want to do if and when they feel it is safe to do so.
We in these islands bear a special responsibility to the people of Iraq, and Syria. The instigation for this ongoing tragedy was the chaos that followed the toppling of the unlamented Saddam Hussein, creating the vacuum into which ISIS expanded and later infected Syria with.
The very same people that the government policy of the UK (and others) tipped into the abyss are fleeing to us for help, and we are failing them again, as is the rest of Europe.
Scotland as part of the UK can only do so much but we should do our utmost. We need to face up to our part in the causes of the crisis and do some heavy-lifting to find a political solution based on international law, accountability and security. In the meantime, we need to give protection and safety to those fleeing harm.
And for the EU as a whole, German leadership is not sustainable by itself and the UK cannot shirk responsibility. The upcoming emergency meeting of European interior ministers must be bold. There should, absolutely, be EU refugee quotas agreed at EU level, and as our First Minister has already said Scotland will absolutely play our full part. What a grievous shame our representative in those talks, the UK Minster, will be arguing the opposite. Pedro Serrano, Managing Director for Crisis Response and Operational Coordination of the EU's Foreign Service, recently told my Committee that "any return policy [for refugees] is currently unthinkable".
Equally, any policy which entirely neglects the causes of why those fleeing to Europe are doing so, is only going to damn the poor souls to continued torment. The international community could solve Syria, and Iraq. Yes it will be hard, and a long process but the alternatives are worse. Scotland could do so much better than those who pretend to speak for us.