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Friday, 4 September 2015

Europe's shame

Here is a message for the political leaders of Europe: Read what follows and be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

Last weekend, German football fans hoisted huge banners in their stadiums -- the message said: "Refugees welcome".

In Vienna last Monday, trains packed with people arriving from Hungary were welcomed by applauding crowds and a banner reading "Refugees welcome -- open borders." The Austrians also brought bottles of water, bread, biscuits, fruit and sweets.

In Germany, a website called Refugees Welcome, described as an "Airbnb for refugees" has been inundated by offers of accommodation, and has already helped people from Afghanistan, Burkino Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.

In Iceland (population: 330,000), more than 11,000 people offered accommodation to Syrian refugees after the government said it would accept only 50. 

Here, refugee charities are reporting huge increases in inquiries and donations: a 70 per cent rise in inquiries at Save the Children; £150,000 raised in 24 hours by a Mediterranean rescue charity; thousands of people joining a campaign to persuade local authorities to accept more refugees.

A petition on the parliamentary website calling for the UK to accept more asylum seekers and increase its support for refugees has been attracting support at an astonishing rate: as of Friday morning it stood at nearly 350,000 signatures: you can add yours here.

Compare and contrast: leaders from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (the UK -- of course -- has an opt-out) are opposing a European Commission proposal to establish a fair quota system for the acceptance of refugees across the EU. Shame on them.

And David Cameron is dragged screaming and kicking from "Taking in more refugees is not the answer" on Wednesday to an expected announcement 48 hours later that "We will take in thousands more". The UK has accepted a grand total of 5,000 refugees from Syria over the past four years -- Germany is on course to take in 800,000 asylum-seekers this year alone. Shame on Mr Cameron too.

I wish I could force every EU president and prime minister to hang on their office wall that photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning in a doomed attempt to reach safety in Canada with his family. (The photograph appeared on the front pages of The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, and Metro.)

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch asked a good question this week when he recalled the massive international programme in the 1940s to resettle all those who had been displaced by the Second World War: "Do we lack something that our fathers and mothers had? Do our leaders lack the moral courage to lead and do we lack the moral courage to recognise the need to be led?"

How is it that as recently as 20 years ago the UK could take in more than 75,000 refugees and would-be refugees a year (mainly from the former Yugoslavia), without -- to use George Osborne's words in a different context -- the world falling in, yet now we slam the door and build ever-higher fences to keep out "marauding" refugees (yes, shame and double shame on you, Philip Hammond)?

This is not about the law on asylum, or the Dublin regulation, or EU opt-outs. Nor is it about bringing peace and stability to Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan, or Eritrea or Nigeria or Mali, or any of the other countries where people live in fear.

This is about common humanity. It is about our fellow human beings. It is about a Europe of 500 million citizens, one of the richest continents on the planet, opening its doors to people who are begging for sanctuary. It is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and being able to say: "We did everything we could."

The governments of the EU -- with the honourable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, which have taken in far more refugees than anyone else, and Italy and Greece, which are making herculean efforts to cope with the thousands of men, women and children arriving on their beaches every day -- are behaving shamefully.

But they can be made to confront their shame. The death of little Aylan Kurdi, and the picture of his lifeless body on that Turkish beach, has galvanised public revulsion aginst the cowardice of our leaders. The spread of grass-roots initiatives at local level could -- should -- jolt them out of their torpor. Mr Cameron's U-turn is stunning evidence of the power of a single image.

The Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper is one of the very few British politicians to have recognised the scale of the tragedy that confronts us. Good for her. And shame on all her colleagues who prefer to say nothing.

I have been banging on about this crisis since October last year. I wrote then: "When people are threatened by war, genocide or famine, they try to escape.  They do not flee because they think they might like to try a life on benefits in the UK, but because they are terrified. How hard is that to understand?"

In July, I proposed setting up EU-run processing centres at the main entry points in Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Genuine refugees would be offered asylum according to an agreed quota calculated according to population and GDP; those deemed non-eligible for asylum would be offered a choice: wait in a camp until your number comes up, and then go where you're sent -- or go home.

And it is worth repeating: there are already more than two million registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and another 1.7 million in Turkey. Look at those numbers again and compare them with Europe's shameful record.

Why should we do more? Because refugees are our fellow human beings. Why do I feel so strongly? Because my parents were refugees.

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