David Cameron has never looked shiftier or more downright disreputable than he did yesterday, when he attempted to defend the UK’s iniquitous and morally indefensible response to the most serious refugee crisis since the aftermath of World War II. Faced with calls from Germany to accept a quota of refugees, he offered the following weasel observations:
‘We have taken a number of genuine asylum seekers from Syrian refugee camps and we keep that under review, but we think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world. I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.
Few people could deny that ‘peace and stability’ in ‘that part of the world’ is the only longterm solution to the current refugee crisis, though the British record in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Gaza or Yemen has done little to bring about that outcome and has more often than not contributed to making things worse.
Throughout the wars and interventions of the last fifteen years, successive British governments have invoked concepts like democracy, freedom, human rights and female equality to oil the wheels of militarism, while doing everything possible to prevent victims from these conflicts from reaching our shores. Cameron’s comments on the ‘genuine asylum seekers’ that Britain has supposedly saved from refugee camps are grossly dishonest and offensive, in their suggestion that the other inhabitants of these camps are not ‘genuine.’
They are also disingenuous and deliberately misleading. Since it began its Syrian refugee resettlement program last year, the UK government has accepted less than 200 refugees into the country. In addition the government has increased restrictions on visa applications from Syria since the conflict began – a decision that has resulted in an increase in the refusal rate of nearly 60 percent. The Home Office has also been removing Syrians to the European ‘border countries’ where they first arrived under the terms of the Dublin Convention.
As if all this was not bad enough, Britain has been at the forefront of attempts to harden the EU’s borders even more than they already are. The Coalition government opposed search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean on the grounds that they would increase the ‘pull factors’ that brought migrants here. The current Tory government has turned a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in Calais, which it has depicted entirely in security terms. Its politicians, including Lord Snooty himself, describe migrants as a ‘swarm’ and a ‘marauding’ invading army, and have reiterated again and again the rancid canards that refugees are intent on taking advantage of British ‘generosity’ and taking ‘our’ benefits etc, etc.
All this is a disgrace, and that disgrace is now evident to everybody, to the German government, which is threatening to oppose Britain’s proposals to reform the EU unless it accepts more refugees; to the politicians who never had a word to say about refugees, who are echoing the call for Britain to accept quotas. You know you are in trouble when even The Sun, which only a few months ago published an article describing migrants as ‘cockroaches’, carries a picture of the poor drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi and urges Cameron ‘to help those in a life-and-death struggle not of their making.’
This transformation is partly a response to the shocking events that are unfolding at Europe’s borders. But something more than death and tragedy is taking place here; in the last few week’s Europe’s refugee crisis has become more than a crisis – it has become an insurgent uprising against Europe’s cruel and lethal borders, a rebellion by the stateless and excluded, by the men, women and children who are now walking across borders and barbed wire, climbing onto trains and over walls and fences, blocking Eurotunnel trains, defying the riot police who attempt to turn them back with truncheons and tear gas.
There have been sporadic and isolated precedents over the years; in the protests and hunger strikes in migrant detention centres; in the mass crossings of the Ceuta and Melilla border fences in 2005 and earlier this year. But now there are too many people for these events to be contained and isolated – not unless European governments order their police and armies to actually shoot them down.
As with all insurgencies, the events of this summer have begun to challenge the established consensus. Across Europe what were once small and isolated acts of popular solidarity with migrants have become increasingly mainstream. In Iceland, 10,000 people have offered to take migrants into their homes. In Germany football fans wave banners saying ‘ refugees welcome here’ and Germans have showered toys, clothes and food on refugees arriving in Berlin. In Calais, convoys are now taking food and clothing to migrants.
In effect, we are beginning to see the emergence of another Europe, one that rejects the ‘fortress’ model which European governments have established with such disastrous consequences over the last three decades and the ‘us and them’ rhetoric that supports it.
These divisions are also breaking down on political lines and opening faultlines between nations and within them. The conservative German government has agreed to take in 800,000 refugees and called for other governments to accept quotas, while Hungary builds fences and Czech police pull refugees off trains and writing numbers on their arms. In Spain the Partido Popular government has refused to accept quotas, even as the newly-elected leftist councils in Madrid and Barcelona have pledged to find ways to receive and help refugees.
As a result, Europe’s refugee insurgency is forcing Europe to decide what it wants to be, and growing numbers of Europeans in many countries are challenging the exclusionary framework that has dominated European border policy for so long.
The UK is not immune to these pressures, as much as its government would like it to be. And this was why Lord Snooty squirmed and lied yesterday, because he knows that what he is doing is wrong, and he knows that many other people know it too, and that the space for lies and evasions is narrowing, as Europe’s border insurgency breaks down the old barriers and reminds us all that too are part of this divided and fractured world, and cannot seal ourselves off from disasters that we bear part of the responsibility for.