Bri­tain goes its own way on refugees

Coun­try has opted out of Europe-wide so­lu­tions, to the ir­ri­ta­tion of oth­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY GRIFF WITTE IN LON­DON griff.witte@wash­post.com Karla Adam con­trib­uted to this re­port.

More than a year af­ter Ayham al-Hal­abi found refuge from the Syr­ian war in the rolling green foothills of north­ern Eng­land, these are the words he uses to de­scribe his jour­ney: “very com­fort­able, very easy and with­out any prob­lems.”

Com­pared with the hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants and refugees who have braved treach­er­ous seas, ra­zor-wire fences, pep­per spray, tear gas, long days on foot and cold nights on the street, Hal­abi has an al­most unimag­in­ably idyl­lic ren­der­ing of the path to Europe.

But the 20-year-old Hal­abi took a dif­fer­ent route, one that re­flects a Bri­tish ap­proach to the refugee cri­sis that has placed this coun­try sharply at odds with its Euro­pean coun­ter­parts. Held up by Bri­tish of­fi­cials as a po­ten­tial model for eas­ing the cri­sis, the strat­egy has been blasted by crit­ics as a dan­ger­ous ab­di­ca­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity at a time when Europe needs to hang to­gether more than ever be­fore.

Alone among Euro­pean Union mem­bers, Bri­tain has opted out of a quota sys­tem for dis­tribut­ing 160,000 refugees who have al­ready ar­rived on the con­ti­nent’s shores. Bri­tain in­stead runs a par­al­lel pro­gram un­der which it plans to take, over five years, 20,000 peo­ple who have fled Syria but re­main in camps or other shel­ters in the Mid­dle East.

Like Hal­abi and his fam­ily, those who are cho­sen for re­set­tle­ment in Bri­tain can by­pass the voy­ages on flimsy rafts and the odysseys across borders. In­stead, they sim­ply fly here on com­mer­cial jets.

To Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, it’s the only way to bring some or­der to the chaotic flows and to re­duce the pull fac­tors that have helped to lure more than 500,000 mi­grants and refugees across the Mediter­ranean to Europe this year — 3,000 of whom have died along the way.

“There are 12 mil­lion Syr­ian peo­ple who have been made home­less by Bashar al-As­sad,” Cameron told CBS News this week, re­fer­ring to the Syr­ian pres­i­dent. Cameron pointed out that only a small frac­tion has crossed into Europe. “So there’s mil­lions left in the re­gion, and we should not be en­cour­ag­ing those peo­ple to make the jour­ney.”

But to other Euro­pean lead­ers, Bri­tain’s stance smacks of an is­land na­tion’s aloof un­will­ing­ness to help its fel­low E.U. mem­bers at a time of vast need. Through the end of Au­gust, Bri­tain had re­set­tled 216 Syr­ian refugees since the start of the four-year Syr­ian con­flict. Nearly 5,000 oth­ers had been granted asy­lum or other forms of pro­tec­tion af­ter ar­riv­ing here on their own. Both num­bers are far be­low the to­tals that have been ac­cepted in other parts of Europe.

French Pres­i­dent François Hol­lande has point­edly said that Bri­tain should not be ex­empt “from mak­ing an ef­fort” be­cause it sits out­side Europe’s visa-free travel area. Aus­trian Chan­cel­lor Werner Fay­mann has warned that Bri­tain won’t get what it wants on other Euro­pean mat­ters if it re­fuses to co­op­er­ate on this one, not­ing that “sol­i­dar­ity is not a one-way street.” The in­flu­en­tial Ger­man tabloid Bild has la­beled Cameron a “shirker.”

Tak­ing only the refugees who are still in the Mid­dle East, af­ter all, does noth­ing to ease the bur­den posed by the hun­dreds of thou­sands who are al­ready in Europe. And it’s an op­tion for Bri­tain only be­cause of ge­og­ra­phy: The English Chan­nel makes this coun­try far more dif­fi­cult for asy­lum seek­ers to ac­cess than the Euro­pean main­land.

“If you’re far away from the cri­sis, you can have the lux­ury of a more dis­cre­tionary and more pas­sive refugee pol­icy,” said Alexan­der Betts, di­rec­tor of the Refugee Stud­ies Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

Betts said there are pos­i­tive as­pects to Bri­tain’s ap­proach, which is sim­i­lar to that of other coun­tries that are ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tant from the Syr­ian war, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia and the United States.

Among the ben­e­fits: A for­mal refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gram can re­duce the in­cen­tive for asy­lum seek­ers to em­bark on dan­ger­ous jour­neys and al­lows host coun­tries to se­lect the need­i­est cases while weed­ing out those who don’t merit asy­lum or who pose a se­cu­rity risk. As the refugee cri­sis has wors­ened this year, top U.N. and hu­man rights of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly called for coun­tries to ex­pand their re­set­tle­ment pro­grams.

But where Bri­tain errs, Betts said, is by treat­ing re­set­tle­ment pro­grams as a sub­sti­tute for what is known as “spon­ta­neous-ar­rival asy­lum.” That’s when refugees reach a coun­try on their own.

Other na­tions in Europe, in­clud­ing Ger­many and Swe­den, ac­cept large num­bers of refugees through both meth­ods.

The gov­ern­ment has gone to great lengths to re­duce spon­ta­neous ar­rivals, such as spend­ing mil­lions on fences and snif­fer dogs at the French port of Calais, where thou­sands of mi­grants are camped out with the hope of smug­gling them­selves into Bri­tain aboard a truck or a train.

Cameron has been deeply re­luc­tant to broaden the refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gram and has done so un­der pres­sure. Ear­lier this year, 10 Down­ing Street had promised to limit the to­tal num­ber of Syr­i­ans to 1,000.

Then, in early Septem­ber, photos emerged of a dead Syr­ian tod­dler, Ay­lan Kurdi, washed up on a Turk­ish beach. Cameron was forced by an out­pour­ing of public sym­pa­thy to change tack overnight, an­nounc­ing the new tar­get of 20,000.

The refugee cri­sis comes at a tricky po­lit­i­cal mo­ment for Cameron, who is also try­ing to rene­go­ti­ate the terms of Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union in ad­vance of a ref­er­en­dum he has promised by the end of 2017.

That vote was forced in large part by a back­lash against immigration, which hit record lev­els this year as mi­grants from other parts of Europe have poured in to take ad­van­tage of Bri­tain’s com­par­a­tively strong econ­omy. Among other things, Cameron is seek­ing the right to limit wel­fare ben­e­fits for im­mi­grants from other E.U. states.

Although refugees rep­re­sent only a small per­cent­age of over­all immigration to Bri­tain, the is­sues have be­come in­ter­twined.

So far, the Bri­tish ap­proach to the refugee cri­sis seems to be alien­at­ing Euro­pean part­ners and less­en­ing the chance Cameron will get what he wants.

“I don’t think it holds much wa­ter [in Europe] for the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to be say­ing, ‘It’s not re­ally our prob­lem,’ ” said Claire Spencer, a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Lon­don-based think tank Chatham House.

Do­mes­tic crit­ics, too, have hardly been pla­cated by Cameron’s an­nounce­ment that Bri­tain will take more Syr­i­ans and say the num­ber re­mains far too low.

Ge­orge Gabriel, lead or­ga­nizer for the ad­vo­cacy group Cit­i­zens UK, said there’s a reser­voir of un­tapped sup­port for refugees.

“Peo­ple in this coun­try stand ready and will­ing to do more,” Gabriel said. “The ques­tion is whether the gov­ern­ment will let them.”

Hal­abi, for one, said he hopes it does.

The Syr­ian said he feels noth­ing but grat­i­tude to­ward Bri­tain for al­low­ing his fam­ily to re­set­tle here af­ter they fled a war that claimed his fa­ther’s life. They were se­lected for re­set­tle­ment by the U.N. refugee agency be­cause Hal­abi’s 12-year-old brother, Hamza, suf­fers from leukemia, and re­quires costly chemo­ther­apy treat­ments.

But Hal­abi said he knows that many oth­ers who are just as needy re­main in the coun­tries ring­ing Syria, and that lack­ing bet­ter op­tions, they will try to reach Europe by what­ever means they can.

“Peo­ple don’t have any choice,” he said. “The sea is their only so­lu­tion.”

STE­FAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

ABOVE: Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron meets with chil­dren at the UNICEFMakani Cen­tre in a refugee camp near Amman, Jor­dan, last month. Cameron vis­ited Syr­ian refugee camps in Le­banon and Jor­dan to pledge in­creased aid, which he said would help stem the mi­gra­tion cri­sis in Europe.

STE­FAN ROUSSEAU/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

TOP: A pro­tester holds a plac­ard next to the rail­ing out­side theHouses of Par­lia­ment in Lon­don last month dur­ing a demon­stra­tion to ex­press sol­i­dar­ity with mi­grants and to de­mand that the gov­ern­ment welcome refugees into Bri­tain.

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