Responses to the refugee crisis

Politics is a funny world. The 2015 election saw some of the most flagrant bashing of immigrants that this country has seen in a long time. UKIP rose to widespread popularity on a strongly anti-immigration platform, and both the Conservatives and Labour clamoured to follow their lead. The national press continued to out-scaremonger each other about migration, with The Sun calling to “halt the asylum tide now” and the Express and the Mail continuously pushing the Government to be tougher and tougher. As a result of this thinking, the UK and the rest of the EU abandoned search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, deciding that, if the Italian Government just let refugees drown, other people would learn not to attempt the journey.

That sort of rhetoric seems a million miles away now. One tragic picture of young Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the beach in Turkey, and the whole crisis is being looked at in a different light. The public are now putting enormous pressure on the Government to accept more refugees, a sudden sense of humanity having awoken in public thinking. The press swiftly followed suit – abandoning their earlier fear mongering and joining the cries for more refugees to be rescued. And finally, the Government has inevitably buckled to the pressure of public opinion, and has announced that we will be accepting thousands more refugees. After ignoring the issue for so long, he is now visiting refugee camps in Lebanon, donating £100m in financial aid to refugee camps around Syria, and saying we will act with “hand and heart” to help those most in need. This is the same government that has been keen to 'keep them out' at all costs just a month ago. How fast things can change.

So what can we learn from this? Well it shows yet again how quickly public opinion can be changed by one image or story. The press vilified refugees for months, but one picture circulating around social media, and the subsequent reporting of it, has turned everything on its head. Similar photos could have been printed each day for the last six months. Nothing actually changed to spark this public reaction. It was only a change in reporting. The other, and more disturbing lesson, is that the Government proved unwilling to help these people in crisis until it became politically popular to do so. Between June 2014 and June 2015 the UK took in 166 Syrian refugees, many times less than most other countries in Europe. The Government showed no sign of wanting to change this approach until public opinion encouraged him to do so. This shows the importance of protests, petitions and pressure groups continuing to raise humanitarian issues even when there seems to be no response. These things can change very quickly.

But while public opinion on Syrian refugees has turned on its head, other rhetoric on immigration has remained more or less unchanged. There are plenty of refugees from other areas, Iraq and Libya most notably, but the press are giving scarce coverage of their struggles compared to the Syrians. And there has been a determination to try and distinguish between the Syrian refugees we are supposed to welcome, and the other migrants who we are still supposed to fear and turn away. In reality though, this line is very difficult to draw. Just because someone is classed as an “economic migrant” rather than a “refugee” doesn’t mean that they aren’t fleeing from struggles in their home nation. A northern Nigerian, for example, might leave and head to the UK because his only other option is to join Boko Haram. He is not being actively persecuted, so may not be classed as a refugee, but are we really saying we should therefore have no sympathy with his desire not to work for Boko Haram? Besides, the displaced people who are journeying through Europe do not have stacks of documentation showing that they are “refugees” rather than merely “migrants”. There is no way of making this distinction, and the current political discourse which acts like there is clear blue water between the two categories, is misleading.

The change in approach to the refugee crisis is undoubtedly a great thing, and whether the government is acting cynically or not, the most important thing is that Europe seems to be being more proactive in dealing with the situation for now. Discourse around immigration remains confused and volatile though, and it’s not certain that the current softening of public opinion won’t change again in the near future.