Notes From the Margins…

The UK and Syrian Refugees: from political pawns to political tokenism

  • January 29, 2014
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After weeks of vacillation, the UK government has finally agreed to resettle 500 of the ‘most vulnerable’ Syrian refugees.   Lord Snooty appears to have overruled Theresa May, who was reluctant to enter an ‘open-ended commitment’ to UNHCR’s call for European governments to resettle 30,000 refugees that might have undermined the Coalition’s ‘tens of thousands’ migration pledge.

500 is not a large figure, when you are talking about more than 2.3 million people, but Nick Clegg has hailed the government’s willingness ‘ to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria’ as proof that ‘We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world.’     And that isn’t all, says the Deputy PM:

‘On top of that, we’ll continue to support the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva, because only a political resolution between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition will provide a permanent end to the suffering.   Britain has a long and proud tradition of provided refuge at times of crisis. This coalition government will ensure it lives on.’

Well excuse me if I don’t applaud.       Clegg is certainly right to claim that the UK government has a ‘moral responsibility’ to help Syrian refugees.   His government was,   until recently, one of the leading advocates of military intervention in Syria, and part of the group of countries that included   United States, France, Turkey and the Gulf States, which saw the 2011 crisis as an opportunity to destabilize Syria and reshape it in their own interests.

Until last year, all these countries were using their political, diplomatic and economic clout   to build an armed opposition that would overthrow the Assad regime, even if it meant fomenting civil war.   Throughout those years these countries did everything possible to undermine a ‘political resolution’ in Syria and presented the crisis as an ‘either/or’ conflict between an evil Assad versus good rebels.

Those who argued that the crisis would have to be resolved politically, not militarily, or suggested that military intervention would make things worse were called ‘Assad apologists’ and accused of moral complicity in atrocities, repression and war crimes.

When Russia and China argued that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis, they were routinely represented as cynical practitioners of geopolitics and self-interested realpolitik, who were blocking the altruistic humanitarian concern for ‘the Syrian people’ which supposedly motivated Western governments and their Gulf allies.

Throughout these years, Lord Snooty and the UK government frequently drew attention to Syria’s refugee crisis as a justification for military action.     There were visits to refugee camps by SamCam, and also by William Hague, who went to a refugee camp in Jordan last July.

Surrounded by refugees and reporters and exuding moral gravitas, Hague declared that   the refugee crisis ‘underlines the need to act at the United Nations security council.   We are negotiating there at the moment for a Chapter 7 resolution threatening consequences over non-compliance with the Annan plan.’

A ‘ Chapter 7’ resolution was a trigger for war, and this was why Hague was so keen to point out that the UK government and the ‘international community’ were providing aid to refugee camps, that ‘the horrors of the Assad regime are clearly on display when you talk to people here just over the border.’

For Hague and his government, Syria’s refugees were only worthy of attention when they could used to provide a humanitarian veneer to military intervention.   Then all that changed last August, when Cameron’s crude attempt to railroad the British parliament and public into war was rejected.     Only days afterwards Hague was still tweeting:.

[stextbox id=”alert”]“One year ago: 230,000 Syrian refugees. Today: 2,000,000. 1/2 children. If we don”t end the conflict, think what the figure could be next year.”[/stextbox]

By ‘end the conflict’ Hague meant military action, even if he had no idea how or if it would actually end the conflict at all,   let alone stop the flow of refugees.   At the G20 Summit in St Petersburg last September, a humiliated and marginalized Cameron was still calling for a global response to what he called ‘the worst refugee crisis of this century’ and telling the world ‘to do more to help the innocent victims of this conflict who dreamt of a democratic and peaceful future but who are now living a nightmare far from their homes and struggling to feed their families and keep them safe.’

Less than a week before Lord Snooty had been trying to get his own country to ‘ do more’ by bombing Syria, regardless of whether such action might have forced even more Syrians to become refugees.

But then it became clear that the United States was not going to intervene after all, and the UK naturally followed suit.       Only now, as the West realizes that it cannot overthrow Assad, and that its efforts had helped wreck Syria and empowered a collection of ’emirs’, warlords and violent jihadists, has it began to think that Russia might actually have been right in calling for a political solution to the conflict – even though it is now increasingly difficult to see what that conflict might be.

With war no longer on the cards, the refugee ‘nightmare’ that Cameron described in St Petersburg became a political problem for Lord Snooty and His Pals.   If they refused to take refugees they look like ‘villains’, as one government official put it.   If they accepted too many, then they risk looking ‘soft’ on immigration.

The government has tried to get out of this conundrum by highlighting its generosity in providing £600 million in humanitarian aid to Syria’s refugees.   But with more than two million Syrian living in dire conditions in tented camps, possibly for years, in countries with far less resources than ours, that still doesn’t make us look like the good guys.

And so it has settled on the 500 ‘ most vulnerable’ to demonstrate its humanitarian credentials – a category whose selection process is not exactly clear.     Compare this with Germany, which has agreed to take 10,000.   Or Sweden, which has agreed to grant asylum to all Syrian refugees who reach its shores (admittedly not doing anything to help them get there).

And these countries were not the ones calling for military intervention.     They were not the ones drawing up ‘red lines’ and ‘Chapter 7s’, who saw civil war as a geopolitical opportunity and used refugees as political pawns.

Our government did that.       And the fact that it is now willing to grant asylum to 500 people does not make it generous or ‘open-hearted’.


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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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