Europe is facing the most serious refugee crisis since the end of the second world war. In response, EU leaders are acting in very different ways. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has taken the humanitarian high ground, declaring that her country will receive up to 800,000 asylum applicants this year and confronting the anti-immigrant voices in her country. By contrast, David Cameron seems to be taking a mean approach, strictly limiting the number of refugees Britain will receive. The prime minister may think his stance is well judged, given how neuralgic an issue immigration has become in British politics. But it is a political miscalculation and one that he should reconsider.
Some German politicians and newspapers have turned on the Cameron government this week, attacking its reluctance to take asylum seekers. Focusing on the British in this way is a little unfair. Any serious attempt to tackle the crisis will require agreement across the EU to monitor refugee flows and share the burden of asylum claims. On these issues, many EU states have been at loggerheads.
Even so, the UK’s dismal record on refugees is hard to ignore. According to Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, the UK gave asylum in 2014 to around 10,000 foreign nationals. This contrasts with figures of around 40,000 for Germany, 30,000 for Sweden and 21,000 for Italy. As for Syrian refugees, around 90,000 resettlement places have thus far been offered across the developed world. While Germany has provided one-third of those places, the UK has so far pledged about 200 and committed to no more than 1,000.
In one of the few noteworthy events in the Labour leadership campaign, Yvette Cooper argued this week that the UK should immediately pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, 10 times Britain’s current commitment. This would see the UK taking its fair share of the EU burden of asylum seekers. Mr Cameron would do well to adopt this pledge ahead of EU meetings on the crisis this month.
There are two reasons why he should do this. One is purely pragmatic. Mr Cameron’s narrow stance risks damaging his reputation internationally. He is losing precious goodwill as he seeks to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership ahead of a referendum. He also risks alienating countries in the Middle East. While Britain keeps its own frontier shut, it expects Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to keep their borders open to millions of Syrians. To these struggling states, Britain seems to be adopting an unacceptable double standard.
More importantly, a generous approach to refugees is the right moral stance. Britain has a strong humanitarian tradition, notably in taking 80,000 Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s. Today, that tradition is foundering because the UK’s political leaders are scared to disentangle the different aspects of the immigration debate. Much of that debate focuses on the free movement of citizens across the EU and the British government’s limited ability to restrict it. But the question of asylum is a wholly separate issue, one which touches on the need to provide sanctuary to people fleeing persecution. As Ms Cooper has argued, asylum and immigration are separate issues and need to be treated as such.
Britain’s politicians have long believed that voters instinctively reward toughness on immigration. But there is a compassionate and humane streak in the British people that ought not to be underestimated. As Europe’s refugee crisis develops, it is not the defensive crouch of Mr Cameron that Britons may come to admire but the courage and principle of Ms Merkel.