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Closed borders

04 March 2016

IN A week or two, the number of refugees entering Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq since the start of 2015 will stand at one million. These are, of course, the refugees who have been logged officially. Of the 130,000 to have made a Mediterranean crossing in 2016, all but 10,000 have arrived in Greece. Until now, most have passed through the country on their way to the Balkans and the West. Even so, a country that was in financial straits before the migrant crisis has struggled to look after its migratory visitors. In the past fortnight, as Macedonia has joined the growing number of countries determined to stem the flow of refugees into the West, and matters have worsened. Watching the clashes between migrants and Macedonian border guards, it is hard to think who might be the more desperate: the migrants or the politicians in Greece who now face the prospect of providing for them for what may be a long time.

Our first-hand report from Lebanon and Jordan (News, 4 March) shows what a challenge this will be. When photographs of the young boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned making the Mediterranean crossing, circulated round Europe, there was a spontaneous offering of hospitality from thousands of individuals. The Government argued that refugees required more than the use of a spare room for a month or two, and politely ignored the offers. In one sense, it was right to do so: to thrive after the assorted traumas that many have experienced, a refugee family needs a degree of permanence and a high level of support, which includes housing, schooling, language teaching, counselling, and employment. The Government was wrong in another sense, however. Many thousands of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon have eschewed the camps set up for them in favour of a life of hardship in overcrowded urban slums — but life that has an element of independence and self-determination. Lodging people with volunteers may provide that freedom without reproducing the squalor in which many refugees live at present.

Britain is privileged in still being able to make these decisions for itself, but that is not the same as acting as if it had no obligation to play its part in providing for these refugees. While it remains a member of the European Union, it has a legal and structural duty to help the EU member states that are most under pressure. Were it to remove itself after the referendum in June, that duty might eventually become more moral than legal, but no less pressing. It is alarming to hear Brexit-leaning politicians talking about the refugee crisis as a “European” problem and meaning “not a British one”. The media are currently showing disturbing scenes from the Jungle camp in ,and the Idomeni border-crossing between Greece and Macedonia. It is hard, then, for politicians in Britain to say: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?”

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