Friday 31 October 2014

This immoral government

I have rarely felt so ashamed, or so angry. David Cameron, it seems, regards it as a "moral duty" to cut taxes -- but not to save desperate migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. By comparison, Marie Antoinette ("let them eat cake") was compassion incarnate.

Sometimes, it's a real disadvantage in politics to be blessed with a memory. But I do have a memory -- and I remember the days when Mr Cameron branded himself as a "compassionate Conservative". As recently as 2011, the Tories published a pamphlet in which they still insisted that they stood for "modern, compassionate Conservatism".

Huh. Compassionate, as in: No, we won't help to fund an operation that rescues drowning migrants, because -- get this -- it might encourage others to embark on equally perilous journeys. As in: No, I won't rescue a child running across a busy road, because it might encourage other children to do the same.

Not my definition of compassion. Not, I suspect, Sir Nicholas Winton's either. He's the man who, at the age of 105, was honoured in Prague this week for having arranged the escape from the Nazis of more than 600 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1938. What did he say as he received the Order of the White Lion from the Czech president? "I thank the British people for making room for them."

That was then. This is now. With a government that blithely announces it won't help to fund an operation aimed at saving migrants from death. It's in good company, by the way -- other EU governments have similarly decided that the message from Europe to those who are fleeing for their lives is: "We'll let you drown. We don't care."

The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, had the brass neck to stand in the House of Commons and argue, apparently in all seriousness, that the Italian rescue operation in the Mediterranean has had the "unintended consequence" of risking more migrants' lives as more and more desperate people try to flee to a place of safety.

Someone needs to take him to one side and explain the difference between causation and correlation. Yes, there are more people risking their lives; no, it's not because some of them are rescued when their rotting vessels sink beneath them.

Mr Brokenshire clearly can't be expected to have noticed what's been happening in places like Syria and Libya, from which many of the migrants come. The idea that perhaps the ever-worsening conditions there have caused even more people to risk their lives clearly hasn't crossed his tiny little mind.     

According to the European Border Agency, more than 180,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year. The population of the EU is 500 million.

In Jordan, there are more than 600,000 registered refugees from Syria alone  (the true figure is probably far higher.) The population of Jordan is 6.5 million.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up well over a quarter of the country's total population. So do they shoot refugees at the border -- to discourage the others? No, they do not.

Mr Cameron and his colleagues have no such scruples. There are too many people fleeing from terror and violence, they say. If we let some of them drown, others who may have been thinking of trying to flee will decide instead to stay at home to be shot, bombed, starved, tortured or raped.

As an example of cold-blooded heartlessness, it would be hard to beat. Instead, our prime minister talks of morality in terms of tax rates: “It is morally right that the rich pay their fair share in tax; and right that those who are able contribute to our public services and safety nets,” he wrote in The Times yesterday. “But what is morally wrong is government spending money like it grows on trees."

How disgusting. To dare to use the words "morally wrong" in a discussion about taxation levels within days of having admitted that you're prepared to let people drown without even trying to help them.

I'm not naïve. I know Mr Cameron has an election to win, and is terrified about UKIP snapping at his heels. I understand why politicians need to win votes -- but by deliberately letting people die? I'm not easily shocked -- but I do find that truly shocking.

It may have escaped Mr Cameron's notice, but 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?

The migration debate has now become so toxic that it will soon lead directly to avoidable deaths at sea. It is also woefully misinformed: the average British voter thinks nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of UK residents are foreign-born; the true figure is 13 per cent, which is almost exactly the same proportion as in France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium. So no, Mr Fallon, we are not being "swamped". And shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

(Funny, isn't it, how support for UKIP is highest in places with the lowest numbers of immigrants -- and lowest in places like London with the most immigrants. It's fears, not facts, that drive this debate, yet the government still, shamefully, feels the need to pander to those fears.)

I wrote last May that I was proud to be a citizen of a country that is so attractive to immigrants. I still am. But I am ashamed, deeply ashamed, of our government.

Friday 24 October 2014

Journey's end: migrants, then and now

A little over three months ago, together with a like-minded American journalist friend, I set out on a journey that we called In The Footsteps of Our Families.  The idea was to retrace the journeys made by our immigrant forebears, from eastern and central Europe to the UK and US.  This week, on the streets of New Jersey and New York, our journey came to an end.

The timing could not have been more poignant, coinciding as it did with a remarkable piece of journalism published by The Guardian, pulling together the stories of dozens of 21st century migrants. Their experiences made those of our forebears look like walks in the park.

My friend Stu Seidel traces his roots back to Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. My own family’s roots are in Germany, from which both my parents fled to escape from the Nazis. So the first stop on our journey was the small town of Pastavy in Belarus, which Stu’s grandfather left in 1914. A few days ago, we paid our respects at his graveside, in the King Solomon Memorial Park, in Clifton, New Jersey. 

Along the way, we visited Lithuania, where Stu’s grandmother was born and where mine died, shot by the Nazis in 1941, and Poland, where my mother was born, in a town that when she lived there was in Germany.

Last week, I was in Berlin with my father, who at the age of 95 wanted one more chance to visit the city of his birth. We walked the streets of his childhood, stood where his school used to be, and visited the graves of his grandparents and great grandparents.

A couple of days ago, I found the New York apartment blocks where my father’s older brother first lived when he arrived in the US in 1937. Remarkably, they seemed wholly unchanged.

I also visited Ellis Island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan, where between 1892 and 1924, 12 million immigrants were processed. So what happened in 1924? That’s when the US Congress passed tough new immigration laws, the purpose of which, according to the official government account, “was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What, after all, is the main reason people give today for not wanting to allow in more immigrants? “They’re not like us.” I dare say my parents, and Stu’s grandparents, weren’t “like us” when they first arrived – yet it didn’t take them long to adapt.

Which bring us to today’s migrants, especially those from countries like Eritrea or Syria, ravaged by war and from which most migrants washed up on the shores of Italy have come. Inevitably, I suppose, I see them as today’s version of my own forebears, escaping from danger, looking for security, hoping for an opportunity to start a new life.

Incidentally, you may wonder why the UK seems to get more than its fair share of asylum seekers. The answer is that it doesn’t. According to The Guardian’s investigation, using figures for the 12 months up to June 2014, Germany received five times as many asylum applications as the UK, Sweden and France more than twice as many, and Italy a third more.

Yes, the applicants for asylum look bedraggled and unkempt when you see pictures of them huddled outside Calais. Yes, some of them get into fights and cause problems for the police. They don't look too great when they are pulled from the Mediterranean after a ramshackle boat provided by unscrupulous people-smugglers has capsized and sunk. Nor, I venture to suggest, would you in similar circumstances.

The fact is that they are like us. Their children will grow up to be French, Swedish, German or British – and it would be a major tragedy if current concerns over a tiny handful of British-born jihadi fighters were to blind us to the potential that immigrants represent.

A hundred years ago, migrants from eastern and central Europe were sometimes portrayed as dangerous revolutionaries and bomb-throwing anarchists. (Some of them were revolutionaries, and a few of them did throw bombs.) In 1905, a British newspaper editorial (no, not the Daily Mail) insisted that “the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil … shall be forbidden to land.”

It’s a shame that the immigration debate seems not really to have moved on. The slogans of the anti-immigration lobby today exactly parallel those made a century ago. Yet there aren’t many families who can honestly claim that there are no migrants in their past, whether from Ireland, Italy, Poland or France.

No nation can survive for long by erecting high walls along its borders to keep the foreigners out – Japan tried it and ran into all sorts of trouble: an ageing population, a diminishing work force and a stagnant economy.

So I end my journey feeling even more admiring of migrants than when I began. I admire their courage, their strength and their determination, whether they come from Poland, Romania, Somalia or Syria. And I remember what I was told when my Dad and I visited the Isle of Man in August, to return to where he had been interned as an “enemy alien” in 1940.

During the First World War, apparently, thousands of Italians had been held on the island, as well as Germans. Why were there so many Italians living in Britain? They were the ice cream sellers.

Imagine a Britain with no Italians. A country with no ice cream, pizza or pasta. Or a country with no Indians, Pakistanis, Turks or Kurds. No curries, corner shops or kebabs. A poorer, duller, drabber country.

Friday 3 October 2014

Iraq and Syria: a better way

In May of last year, President Obama announced that future US air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be authorised only when there was a "near certainty" that civilians wouldn't be harmed.

The new policy was in response to growing hostility to the strikes, especially in Pakistan, where several hundred civilians are believed to have been killed by US military action. It is, after all, quite difficult to persuade people that you're trying to help them confront a terrorist threat if you end up killing them in the process.

So it is totally baffling that the "near certainty" principle apparently doesn't apply in Syria or Iraq, where US air strikes are now targetting Islamic State fighters. According to the American investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, reporting for Yahoo News, "a White House statement … confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria's Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23."

So how does the White House justify its casual acceptance that civilians in Syria and Iraq are likely to be killed by US missiles? Ah, the "near certainty" principle applies only "outside areas of active hostilities", says a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. And that's not the situation in Syria or Iraq, obviously.

So that's all right, then. Which, of course, it isn't. I can think of no policy more likely to achieve the precise opposite of what's intended than one which blithely accepts that innocent civilians will be killed. As a recruitment tool for IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL), it's hard to think of a more effective weapon.

I seem to recall that the Obama administration was "appalled" by civilian casualties during the most recent Israeli military action in Gaza -- "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible" was how it described an Israeli strike on a UN school being used as a shelter for civilians. I don't say it was wrong to speak out then; I do say it is wrong now to lower the bar for authorising air strikes against IS.

But let's be absolutely clear: IS do need to be confronted and defeated. The argument is not about the goal, but about the means. A horrific UN report published yesterday accused the group of carrying out mass executions, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and using child soldiers in what it said may amount to systematic war crimes.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein: "The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIL and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."

So instead of air strikes aimed at solitary military vehicles trundling through the desert, or apartment blocks where IS leaders may or may not be sheltering, perhaps there's another way. A way that would mean turning our attention back to Syria, which is where IS is based, where it is strongest, and where it has greatest freedom of action.

In a fascinating recent article for the New York Review of Books, two former senior US National Security Council officials, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, sketched out a very different approach, starting from the premise that the best way to defeat IS is to change the balance of forces on the ground in Syria.

"The Syrian state has already effectively collapsed," they wrote. "The country has split into pieces, is stuck in a civil war now in its fourth year, and is experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II, with almost 200,000 dead, over 3 million refugees, and 6.5 million internally displaced people. Continued intense fighting will only amplify the havoc wreaked by ISIS and other jihadist groups."

What they propose is that the UN tries to encourage locally-negotiated truces between government and rebel forces -- they say many unofficial truces are already in place, in and around cities like Damascus, Homs and Hama. "The most realistic short-term policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict, with the aim of both containing extremist violence and significantly reducing the number of non-combatant deaths.

"This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere."

It would mean acknowledging an uncomfortable new reality: that the alliance of Western and Arab forces confronting IS are now on the same side as President Assad. It may be only temporary, and it can probably never be openly admitted, but there are some signs that both sides understand that IS pose a greater threat to each of them than they do to each other.

Peace, like democracy, cannot be imposed from above, or from outside. But if the two sides in Syria's civil war can agree to at least a few temporary local truces, they may be better able to turn their attention to IS. That's certainly what would be in their best interests, and in the interests of their foreign backers, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey.

It is local people who will defeat IS, both in Syria and in Iraq. Yes, foreign powers can help, by training them and arming them. But not by bombing them and their families.