Although it depressingly seems to have fallen off the news agenda, the Syrian refugee crisis remains one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies of our time. Over 5 million Syrians have fled the country's civil war, yet the European response has been pitiful. Drew Haughey muses on this and considers the best route for Scotland and the UK going forward...
Six years into the Syrian Civil War, there remains an international stalemate over those who have fled. The largest movement of people since the Second World War has simultaneously been described – depending on the newspaper and often the country – as a “flood” and a “trickle”.
The largest number of refugees – estimated to be just over three million – are currently in Turkey, but it is Lebanon that has seen its population change the most rapidly, with at least one million registered in the Middle East’s smallest country.
In Europe, Germany and Sweden have notably attempted to set humanitarian examples for others to follow. By offering a wider definition of what constitutes a refugee, providing access to social programmes such as education, and most importantly, offering a genuine rather than reluctant welcome, these two countries have dwarfed the rest of Europe in terms of sheer numbers.
But these beacons may be fading. They have become Patient Zero for a rapidly growing (and worrying) movement that attempts to tie economic injustices to a sense of cultural invasion. Often, the boundaries between what makes a refugee or economic migrant are deliberately blurred. However, it must be said that the attempts to maintain a wider definition, in good faith, have played directly into the hands of this ideological wave that has gained traction in some European nations.
Due to this blurring, even countries that have taken in a relatively small proportion of Syrians, such as the UK, have seen the boosting of home-grown versions of the 'our people first' strain of thought. Frankly, some of them make UKIP look relatively benign, as exemplified by the new xenophobic party For Britain set up by Anne Marie Waters.
There’s myriad others: Golden Dawn, Alternative for Germany, True Finns, Front National, Viktor Orban, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer… Without the uniformly punishing response to the 2007 financial crash that ordinary citizens were saddled with, perhaps these names would not be giving European leaders uniformly restless dreams today.
Closer to home, the Scottish islands received considerable publicity for their efforts to combat depopulation, namely by welcoming those who had arrived from Syria to live and work there. Bonnie Scotland is not immune to the strain of thought above, however.
Articles in some right wing newspapers predictably stoked discontent. One comment warns: “As far as I can hear from people who I still know on [the Isle of Bute], the locals are becoming a little bit unwelcoming, with the amount of money they are receiving”.
The delicate balance of being merciful, while fighting against a fear of being portrayed as allowing refugees to 'jump the queue' in every sense, has been a common theme in both the UK and mainland Europe.
The issue facing the continent flared up in North Lanarkshire when former Housing Convener Sam Love made a statement urging the council not to prioritise Syrians for housing. These comments eventually led to the Scottish Defence League planning a protest in Wishaw. (It's important to note that Love did describe the group as 'fascist').
His comments differ greatly from those made by Yvette Cooper about poor treatment of asylum seekers in other parts of the UK. This leads to an important point: whether between countries, or within a country, uneven distribution of new people into communities will generate resentment.
COSLA's opening line in their Resettlement Briefing hints to the solution: “Local authorities in Scotland have provided excellent leadership in the resettlement of Syrian refugees to Scotland.” Despite the tensions mentioned above, their presence is minimal compared to other areas of the UK, even though Scotland has now taken 25% of the UK's Syrian refugees.
Compare this to the mixed response in England, where some local authorities (usually Conservative run) have point blank refused to resettle a single person under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme, leaving a patchwork of areas to take on an additional strain. It could be said that overstretched areas then become the story, providing a perverse feedback loop that allows the refusing local authorities to just point at particular newspapers to justify their decision.
We should consider the English response a microcosm of the wider European response. Sweden's Foreign Minister remarked in 2015 that 'in the long run our system will collapse', referring to the lacklustre EU co-ordination with their refugee programme.
However, Sweden and Germany are not a lesson for the ages of why not to reach out a helping hand. Rather, they are an example of why difficult tasks must be shared. A co-operative commitment to full funding of the UNHCR would be a good place to start.