Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
What kind of people have we become? We are four years into an Arab civil war, fought as though on the Eastern Front by men pitiless as Hitler and Stalin, until the last of the oil money behind Assad and ISIS runs out. Any sane person will flee the hell Syria is now, and they will need somewhere to live for decades. Yet Slovakia agrees to take 200; Poland 2000, but only Christians; Hungary builds a fence on the Serbian border; Britain hunkers down behind the Channel. Germany, which expects to admit 800,000, stands alone.
Germany apart, we are who we’ve always been, afraid of newcomers after our jobs, houses, and places at local schools. Add two distinctly modern fears: of terrorism, and for the welfare state. This is not about the facts of the matter – if anything, Syrians have more grounds to complain about European jihadists going over there – but identity and trust. These tribal instincts are strong and among our oldest. Would we really be human if we didn’t feel them?
Yet we’re not at their mercy. We live in some of the most complex and sophisticated societies the world has known. All of us, even the poorest, have a standard of living unheard of a hundred years ago. We can treat diseases incurable thirty years ago and skype people on the other side of the world for free. We’ve dealt with much more difficult problems than a few hundred thousand people who need somewhere to start their life again. Even in the 1970s, when everyone was a lot poorer, France settled 100,000 people from Vietnam, and Britain 60,000 expelled from Uganda. Even Ceaucescu’s Romania accepted 3,000 Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s dictatorship (those refugees may have drawn the short straw). Europe’s 500 million people should be able to deal with this.
We have the technical and economic capacity to deal with this crisis. The problems are political, and profoundly local. People worry that the refugees will be an economic burden, that schools won’t cope, that they won’t integrate into the societies into which they settle, that this will reward people smugglers and that they’ll bring terrorism and organised crime with them. These fears are more intense in Eastern Europe where there’s no tradition of non-Christian immigration, but are hardly absent, for instance, here.
The Dublin Convention, where you are supposed to claim asylum in the first EU country you come to has broken down. It anyway is based on the idea that the persecution from which people are fleeing does not last long, so anywhere will do. But if, like the war in Syria, it will probably go on for decades, it makes sense to settle people in places where they are most able to support themselves and contribute to their adoptive country. Germany’s integration programmes, based on those designed for ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union have been successful. Sweden’s and Britain’s have not. Things work better when whole families, and not just young men, come. It is reasonable, too, to demand that people accept the basic constitutional and social values of their new home. The United States does this best, and has produced far fewer anti-American terrorists than France or Britain.
Inevitably, refugees are at first put in poorer parts of town. It’s where housing is cheaper, apart from anything else. But they’re also areas with troubled families, higher crime and put-upon social services. These communities will need intensive, and adequately funded, assistance. Even in Germany such help is needed, particularly in the East where the far right is strong.
But politics is stuck. The welfare nationalism that David Goodhart introduced, destructive and economically illiterate as it is, has become the orthodoxy. We spend more on building a fence at Calais to keep people out (£12 million) than it would to support them while they found a job. It will take time for things to change, and it’s down to us to rediscover Britain’s tradition of hospitality and welcome. Here are three things we can do.
First, there are plenty of people taking essential supplies to people stuck at Calais, in Macedonia or Kos. Find someone who’s doing it. If you don’t know of anyone, support this effort which has people with years of experience helping Syrian refugees in Turkey behind it.
Second, lots of people will be needed to teach languages and customs, organise efforts to bring refugees and host communities together, and build accommodation. Existing social services won’t be able to cope. But Teach First provides a model. There are plenty of young people across Europe looking to do something meaningful and challenging for a couple of years.
Third, though the amounts of money needed are not huge it will be hard to get public support to allocate tight budgets to help refugees. But a “social impact bond” whose repayments are tied to the tax revenues that settled refugees will make when they work could provide a way to raise the funds. It will need the co-operation of national governments and the EU, but that is much easier to obtain when it doesn’t cost them money.
Stop imagining there’s nothing we can do. There’s plenty. We just need to do it.