AT THE end of one of Harold Wilson’s long weeks in politics, the attitude of the public in Western Europe and those fleeing persecution in Syria and beyond has changed dramatically. Triggered by the photograph of the drowned Syrian three-year-old, Alan Kurdi, there has been an outpouring of help of a remarkably sacrificial kind. Public opinion in Britain, which, it must be acknowledged, encouraged Mr Cameron to harden his heart against the entry of any more migrants, has now forced him to soften it. The question “Who is my neighbour?” has been answered more imaginatively — at last.
The world is awash with refugees and internally displaced people. The Syrian crisis mirrors many others, where outside help is needed to protect and sustain life, and where adjoining countries are often the least able to help. It is different in scale, however, in that the population has been squeezed between the implacable brutality of the Assad regime and the arbitrary violence of the Islamic State militias. The life of an internally displaced citizen, always fragile, is consequently less sustainable than in other war-zones. Early on, refugees fleeing Syria conformed to type, remaining in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey. It is only as this primary level of care started to fail that the quest for a safer haven in Europe and elsewhere became widespread — with the tragic consequences we have seen.
It is entirely right and sensible for the Government to attempt to manage the public’s sudden willingness to help. Orphans have to be safeguarded; refugee families and individuals need access to a decent support network if they are to adapt to a different culture and an uncertain future. There is a danger, though, that the UK Government’s precautionary approach will discourage those who are offering to open their homes — rather like the seed that fell on stony ground and withered shortly after germination. Processing asylum applications in refugee camps that border Syria makes a great deal of sense, but to spurn those who have travelled into Europe is to be out of step with the sympathies of those offering help — as other European governments are realising. Also, the figure of 20,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted over five years seems arbitrary and mean-spirited. It certainly has no bearing on the numbers in the camps. Nor does it take account of the many families who have left the camps in search of a safer environment elsewhere. Nor does it appear to have been arrived at in co-ordination with European partners.
The problem of Syria and the Middle East is both very complicated and very simple. As the example of Afghanistan has shown, restoring Syria as a secure place to live will require vast resources and a good deal of time, and even then the outcome is dubious. On the other hand, the needs of the Syrian people are immediate and basic. The British public recognises this, and can help. As winter approaches, the Government needs to find a way to harness this good will, and assist people to come to the aid of their newly acquired neighbours.