Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War has thrown up many awkward questions about Britain’s response towards displaced Syrians. Perhaps it’s time to examine the acrimonious debate on social media and review our own status as ‘expats’.
As with other refugees throughout history, the Syrian people have become the victims of political, religious and sectarian barbarism. They are fleeing the murderous advance of Islamic fanatics and the incessant bombing by their own genocidal president, Bashar al-Assad.
The luckier ones have managed to escape to Europe, but despite reaching safety, they have also unwittingly stepped into another danger zone – one shaped by xenophobia.
In Britain, the debate initially centred on whether the UK – the world’s sixth richest country – could accommodate any refugees at all. It was only when pictures emerged of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach that the public began to react with a modicum of compassion. Up to that point, cynics wanted to give the impression that the UK itself was an overcrowded raft about to sink under the weight of undesirables.
They conveniently ignored the fact that gaining refugee status is not as easy as people are being led to believe. According to data from Eurostat, most first-time asylum applications are turned down. Last year, out of a total of 625,920, less than half (45 per cent) were successful. Syrian applications accounted for only 20 per cent.
As we all now know, this year will be very different. In the first quarter alone, first-time asylum applicants reached 184,800 – representing an 86 per cent jump.
But numbers only tell part of the story. Increasingly, migrants themselves have come under the spotlight with skeptics questioning their intentions. If these people could save 3,500 euros to make the hazardous trip from Syria, so the argument goes, they are certainly not refugees, giving rise to the fallacy that refugees are by definition poor.
Others have sanctimoniously tut-tutted at the sight of migrants using smartphones or wearing quality brands, as if mobiles and sartorial elegance were the exclusive preserve of westerners.
Highly suspect reports have also been posted, claiming that the migrants are in fact fifth columnists; an ISIS Trojan horse, no less…or maybe they’re in cahoots with the multinationals to drive down labour costs so that we all end up working for peanuts. Anything goes when you’re in a race to the bottom.
When the pictures of little Aylan first appeared there were some who directly blamed the parents for the boy’s death, an unfortunate comment given that his mother had also drowned. But the crass remark perfectly illustrated the inability to fully comprehend the scope of the catastrophe enveloping Syria. The bottom line is that many simply don’t care what happens to these people.
A Daily Mail poll just over a week ago revealed that nearly three in 10 Britons were against allowing any refugees in at all, and that 51 per cent would vote to leave the EU in the wake of the migrant crisis.
A highly acrimonious debate is being fought elsewhere, too. Social media is not necessarily an accurate method of gauging public opinion, just as polls don’t always reveal a true picture, but they can provide an insight, however small, into a nation’s psyche.
Browsing Facebook has been a harrowing experience recently. It’s quite an eye-opener to discover that the chap with the happy disposition and beaming smile you recently ‘made friends’ with on Facebook is happy to post memes of Syrians depicted as little more than murderous thugs.
Perhaps we ought to own up and admit to some unpalatable truths about how we, the British, often view foreigners, and why we feel the need to describe ourselves as ‘expats’, not ‘immigrants’.
The term sugarcoats our status; it makes us feel that little bit more exclusive and special. It’s a uniquely British trait. But while many may not like to describe themselves as ‘immigrants’, it’s time for a reality check.
An immigrant is simply a person who migrates to another country and settles there permanently. There can be many reasons for this, but they are mostly economical, so let’s not get precious about the idea that we flocked to Spain solely as a life-style choice.
Many Brits point out that they came to Spain with wads of cash in their pockets and so, unlike our Syrian friends, were already financially secure. But wasn’t the decision to emigrate largely based on cold economics? Before the 2008 crisis, at least, we benefited from a high pound and Spain’s low cost of living. If money had not played a part in our decision, how many of us would not have preferred to settle instead by the shores of Lake Como or the Côte D’Azur?
We also tend to forget the impact our arrival has had on Spaniards, and how much harder it would have been for us to settle here if the Spanish had shown the sort of hostility towards us we in Britain habitually aim at others.
Pointing out that we’ve brought wealth and revitalised dying villages is not much of an argument to those Spaniards (and they do exist) who are convinced the influx of Britons is threatening their cultural and national identity. An absurd argument, but it’s one which should ring a bell.
It’s not all been good, either. Remember Tony King, the psychotic Brit who murdered two Spanish girls in Benidorm in the late 1990s? During his trial many Spaniards questioned why UK nationals were not being subjected to tighter border controls when entering their country.
Let’s not get started, either, on the impression created by boorish drunks in Magaluf, or the never-ending Crimestoppers’ list of Brit fugitives swanning around the Costas.
So why do we appear to be so detached from the plight of others? It could be that attitudes are inextricably linked to a country’s history. Germany’s post-war devastation saw more than six million starving refugees flood into its immediate borders following the dismemberment of Nazi-held territory. More than 1.1 million starved to death. Spain also faced its own refugee crisis relatively recently. At the end of the civil war in 1939 some 440,000 people fled to France in what became known as the Republican Exile.
By contrast, Britain’s recent history is, for better or worse, still mired in the Second World War. For many, it has become their sole reference point; a soothing balm to atone for future sins. The fact that we won has become so imprinted in our subconscious that we assume only the evil lose; that they somehow have it coming.
Mention the British Armed Forces to most Britons and their chests will swell with pride. This will quickly be followed by much beating of the chest at how cuts in military spending have reduced our splendour as a nation. We want to have our cake and eat it. We want to punch above our weight and have a say on the world’s stage, but we refuse to deal with the repercussions. It’s a Boy’s Own view of the world which ignores cause and effect.
The UK, by helping to draw the boundaries of the Middle East, and more recently by engaging in ill-conceived wars, has an added responsibility to see this through.
We’re all immigrants, after all. It’s something to think about should any of us end up living next door to a Syrian family in the coming months.