Notes From the Margins…

All Quiet on the Humanitarian Front

  • October 18, 2013
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It’s long been one of the recurring paradoxes of ‘humanitarian war’   that Western governments are willing to project military power far beyond their borders in order to save dark-skinned bodies from the dictators and regimes that oppress them, yet remain generally antipathetic to the presence of these same bodies in their own national territory.

On the contrary, the same governments that argue that they cannot stand idly by in the face of serious human rights violations will often go to extraordinary lengths to prevent such arrivals, by raising the visa threshold to limit illegal entry, and by making it as difficult as possible for ‘illegal’ refugees to reach their shores.

This is a tendency that we have seen again and again in the various ‘interventions’ of the last decade, and the UK government has been particularly prone to it.

At the height of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq,   two million Iraqis fled the country and other two million were Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), yet the UK routinely refused entry even to Iraqis who had worked with British forces, and deported Iraqi asylum seekers even when the country remained a sectarian war zone.

From the perspective of the UK government, the Iraqi refugee crisis was not politically useful and was in fact an embarrassing and irrefutable confirmation of a military misadventure and botched occupation that had gone wrong in pretty much every respect.

During the NATO humanitarian intervention in Libya, the British government, and in fact all the European governments that participated in the NATO bombing campaign – remained resolutely indifferent to the thousands of refugees pouring out of Libya, hundreds of whom drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.

At the height of the war,   William Hague called on European governments to get ‘tough’ on the refugees fleeing the conflict, on the grounds that ‘ We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that.’

The same phenomenon is now evident in regard to Syria.   On the one hand,   Syria’s disastrous refugee crisis has been one of the key components in the ‘humanitarian’ case for war.   Both Cameron and Hague have frequently cited Syria’s refugees as a justification for international intervention – a concept that until last month referred to military action.

To the UK government,   Syria’s refugees, unlike the Iraqi refugees generated by the Anglo-American occupation, were not just victims of war, but useful victims,   who are worthy of attention and photo-opportunities that have included a visit by Samantha Cameron to Syrian refugee camps, in order to mobilize support for an escalation of the war.

Even last month at the G20 Conference in Moscow, when Lord Snooty’s call for military action had just been voted down by parliament, he was pledging an additional £52 million in ‘humanitarian funds’ to help mitigate the impact of the war on Syrian civilians and send ‘ a strong message about our commitment to the Syrian people and the urgent priority to do more.’

Cameron described the Syrian refugee crisis as ‘ a moral imperative. This is the big refugee crisis of our time’ and told the Conference ‘ A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds while we sit here at this conference. That is 5,000 fleeing their homes and becoming homeless while we are at this G20 summit.’

Still groping hopefully at the possibility of missile strikes that his MPs had denied him,   His Lordship let the cat out of the bag somewhat when he also described the refugee crisis as a ‘political imperative’ that ‘will help us build international support for action by showing that our response is not just military.’

Theatrical demonstrations of concern are essential to the presentation of humanitarian warfare.   But now that the prospect of war has receded, Syria’s refugees have slipped down the list of the UK government’s priorities.     One way that Lord Snooty and his Pals might have shown their ‘commitment to the Syrian people’ would have been by granting Syrians refugee status in the UK.

17 countries have agreed to accept resettled Syrian refugees, and the Refugee Council is urging the UK to assist in their evacuation and resettlement.   So far these requests have fallen on deaf ears.     Within the last month Sweden has offered asylum to any Syrian refugee, and France has agreed to resettle 500 refugees.   The UK has accepted precisely zero.

Though the government has pledged £500 million to help Syria’s neighbors look after the refugees who have crossed their borders,   it has so far shown little interest in accepting those who want to cross ours.

According to French authorities in Calais, there are now ‘hundreds’ of Syrian refugees in Calais, who want to apply for asylum in the UK , most of whom are sleeping rough and trapped in the vicious war of attrition that the French police have been waging against migrants in the city for nearly five years.

Last week 65 Syrians blocked the entrance to the port of Calais, two of   whom climbed onto the roof of one of the terminal buildings and threatened to jump unless David Cameron or a representative of the Home Office went to meet them.   Not surprisingly, no such visit was forthcoming.

The Syrians called off their protest, after UK border officials agreed to consider the applications for asylum from Syrians with relatives in the UK on a case-by-case basis.   Given that all Syrian refugees are ‘genuine’ refugees, according to the UK government’s ‘moral imperative’, this narrowing of the bureaucratic filter might seem a little morally problematic, if not downright hypocritical.

Last week’s protesters will undoubtedly not be the last.   Syrians are coming to Europe in growing numbers, through the same dangerous and difficult routes that all asylum seekers and refugees must take, and many of them have been attracted to the UK by the same humanitarian rhetoric that has emanated from the Coalition for the last two years.

But they are unlikely to find a positive reception from the government that was once so keen to save them.     This partly because, unlike the wealthy Chinese businessmen and tourists who Osborne has been so keen to attract to the UK, Syria’s refugees are no longer useful.

But even when they were, their usefulness was dependent on their staying put or in refugee camps in neighboring countries, where they could provide television imagery that could then be used to reinforce the drive to war.

And now the bombs are no longer going to fall – at least for the time being.   But the refugees are still coming, and it seems that our moral obligation to help them doesn’t even extend across the Channel.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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