In Response to Refugee Crisis, Britain Betrays Its Own History

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Migrants wave their train tickets outside Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary.
Migrants wave their train tickets outside Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary.

If Britain’s stance appears especially shabby, it is because the UK has contributed hugely to the displacement of people, through its involvement in the destabilization of two Arab countries, Iraq and Libya, and its protracted military engagement in Afghanistan

NEIL BERRY | Special to Caravan Daily

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he evasive initial response of UK Prime Minister David Cameron to Europe’s refugee crisis has evoked particular outrage among British Jews. Many believe that Britain is betraying its history as the civilized country that embraced Jewish refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe.

After the poignant image of the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, went round the world, Cameron faced more general odium. Seeking to renegotiate British membership of the European Union, he has been anxious not to alienate anti-European members of his Conservative Party and sections of the public in whose eyes the EU has robbed Britain of control over its own borders.

Yet even before pictures circulated of the dead boy no small number of British people were shocked by Cameron’s talk of a “swarm” of migrants. Belatedly, he is pledging that Britain will take more refugees, while insisting that it is leading the provision of “on-the-spot” aid. Hitherto, Britain has accepted one refugee for every five accepted by Germany.

Media commentary has portrayed the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as shaming fellow European leaders with the scale of Germany’s hospitality toward refugees from Syria and elsewhere. It is true that with its aging population Germany has a pragmatic need for immigrants.

Even so, it has displayed far more charity than Britain, the country that has long vaunted its role in saving western civilization from German fascism. At the same time, it has to be said that the refugee crisis is dividing the entire European Union and its constituent peoples. With East European politicians loud in their hostility to open borders, the very freedom of movement that has distinguished the European Union threatens to pull it apart.

If Britain’s stance appears especially shabby, it is because the UK has contributed hugely to the displacement of people, through its involvement in the destabilization of two Arab countries, Iraq and Libya, and its protracted military engagement in Afghanistan. It can also be said that the Iraq war did more than a little to spawn the chaos in Syria and that as the war’s chief protagonists the United States and the UK alike bear a heavy responsibility for the disorder that has engulfed the Middle East.

Against this background, it may appear bizarre that David Cameron will soon put before the British Parliament the case for direct British military action in Syria. It is worth remembering that when possible British intervention was debated — and rejected — by parliament in 2013, the stated objective was to fight the forces of President Bashar Assad, whereas now it is to join the US in seeking to extirpate Daesh, with toppling Assad a secondary priority, if a priority at all. Consider, too, that the turmoil in Syria has assumed such mind-boggling complexity that any kind of intervention is fraught with uncertainty.

It seems eminently possible that further military action in the Middle East by the UK could exacerbate the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, a sizable body of hawkish opinion believes the vote against intervention in Syria was a mistake that must be remedied at the earliest opportunity. Some nurse a special contempt for the former leader of the Labor Party, Ed Miliband, who voted against airstrikes in Syria, mindful of the Iraq debacle. Nobody was more dismayed by Miliband’s stance than the former Labor Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Endlessly eager to champion bombing campaigns, Blair, perhaps needless to say, is distinctly less voluble on the subject of the refugee crisis.

Nations are said to get the politicians they deserve. Yet the response of many British people to the refugee crisis — like the mass protests in 2003 against Blair’s personal zeal to wage war against Iraq — belies this. Not, to be sure, that poverty of leadership is peculiar to the United Kingdom. A hundred years ago, in the face of geopolitical cataclysm, the far-sighted British author, H.G. Wells, warned that only an enlightened world government could save mankind from disaster.

A century on, with the nations of a single continent struggling to co-ordinate a coherent response to an epoch-making crisis, Wells’ alarm about the human future appears newly topical. His impassioned advocacy of large thinking and grand initiatives has seldom been more urgently needed.

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All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan Daily

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