It would take a heart chiselled from ice-cold granite to be unmoved by the refugee crisis. We - not a British ‘we,’ but a global ‘we’ - are in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe that, when all is said and done, will go down in history as one of the bleakest events of modern times. Syria has been torn apart by the butchery of the Assad regime and the inhumanity of ISIS, and the Syrian people are fleeing for their lives. As has been pointed out: for parents to risk their children's’ lives by squeezing them onto rickety, over-crowded boats and entrusting their fate to the seas, there must be something truly horrifying occurring on the land. Therefore it is not, quite rightly, a question of whether we welcome refugees to our shores, but of how many, and how quickly.
The debate over Britain’s response has, however, been clouded by the sudden spike in public uproar caused by the harrowing image of Alyan Kurdi. For many people, the refugee crisis has ceased to exist solely in the confines of their television sets or newspapers, and suddenly has a name; a face; a tiny, lifeless body. It’s absurd to think that this poor child was the first to fall victim to the unscrupulous merchants of false hope who profit from trafficking refugees across the water, but - in the eyes of the public - he may as well have been.
The realisation of the sheer repugnance of the perils faced by those escaping Syria has led to an outpouring of support. Social media and MPs’ inboxes have been inundated with demands for action and offers of spare rooms. However, as tends to be the case for knee-jerk public reaction, the emotion of the situation often belies the reality (for an infinitely less serious example of this, see Lion, Cecil the). How many of those who publicly offered to house Syrian families would actually follow through with that offer? Plenty of those offers came from residents of idyllic towns and triple-barrelled villages, safe in the knowledge that refugees are highly unlikely to be settled there. No, the Syrian victims - and that is what they are, victims - will be placed in cities. Cities that already have a paucity of public housing and plenty of their own homeless people for the council to deal with. I am yet to see any grandstanding tweeters offer up their third bedrooms to the man sleeping in the doorway of the local WHSmith. I make that point not to bring race into the debate, but to point out that the British are accomplished exponents of unbridled moral outrage that often fails to mature into personal action.
Following on from the national sentiment of shock and revulsion, there has - of course - been a myriad of hand-wringers for whom the government’s proposal to take in 20,000 refugees over 5 years is simply not enough. Many of them seem to have taken the perceived paltriness of this figure as a personal affront. “Shame on the Government!” they splutter over their morning lattes. “Typical evil Tories,” they knowingly whine as they sit round the pub table. “Look at how many Germany are taking - we MUST do more,” they soapbox on Facebook. Keep an eye on how that works out for Germany. The Schengen Agreement is in tatters, with the Hungarians kicking their toys out of the pram (along with the odd refugee), and Denmark closing its borders with Germany. Angela Merkel, in her signature overbearing manner, has issued an open invitation to Syrians, along with a threat to EU members who are reluctant to help her deal with the influx. Thankfully, as a non-participant in Schengen, we are able to set our own asylum numbers, free from the arbitrary quotas being circulated on the continent.
20,000 may not seem much in comparison to other countries, but given our relatively high population density it is a decent enough figure. It also allows the government room to increase that number at a later date, once the logistical details have been sorted out. Were we to freely open our borders à la Germany, it would only serve to move the crisis onto our shores, rather than solve it. 20,000 means that we can genuinely help those refugees that we take in, rather than offering asylum to hundreds of thousands and then leaving them to fend for themselves. By extracting them directly from the refugee camps, it weakens the deadly influence of human traffickers, already responsible for so many deaths. So no, keyboard warriors, there is no shame in the actions of our government. There is no evil afoot, nor is there an unwillingness to play our part. The actions of Germany may look good on paper, but in reality they do nothing to stem the tide of desperate souls risking their lives to get to Europe. If you truly want a humane response, it is found in pragmatism: remove the danger of travel, take in as many refugees as your public services can handle, get them on their feet, then go back for more. The heart may yearn to help every single last refugee, but the head has to overrule it in order to truly help the Syrian people.