UK bombs Syria while denying its people asylum

UK bombs Syria while denying its people asylum
Comment: Interventions are often masked as humanitarian endeavours, and the government's rejection of the Dubs amendment betrays the self-interested, political motives behind its actions, says Usaid Saddiqui
6 min read
05 May, 2016
According to Oxfam, the UK has not taken its fair share of refugees [Getty]

"The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it" once said the late UK parliamentarian and activist, Tony Benn.

On April 26th 2016, the British public arguably got its answer.

An amendment proposed to the immigration bill by Labour peer Alf Dubs, a former refugee himself, to grant asylum in the UK to 3,000 child refugees across Europe, was voted down 294-276, with all but five Tory MPs voting against the bill. Prime Minister David Cameron who also voted against the amendment argued those refugees were in "safe" countries such as Greece.

This move came off as especially egregious given the Tory led government is currently involved in a bombing campaign in Syria that it sanctioned only five months ago in the wake of the Paris attacks, intended to prevent IS from inflicting further terror on civilians in Syria and in Europe.

However, in the face of mounting pressure, the PM seems to be reneging on his earlier position.

While Cameron never misses an opportunity to partake in an air raid or illegal intervention (he voted for the war in Iraq in 2003), providing shelter for one of the most desperate groups of people is seemingly not a priority for him, or many in his party.

Humanitarian interventions

Since it came to power in 2010, the Tory led UK government has shown little reluctance in authorising military campaigns in the Arab world, all in the name of saving countless lives that would otherwise be lost.

When the Arab Spring broke across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attacked dissenters, and the UK and France declared an urgent intervention was necessary in order to prevent a massacre. Within weeks of Gaddafi's assault, a no-fly zone was implemented by British and French forces.

"…coalition forces have helped to avert what could have been a bloody massacre in Benghazi. In my view they did so just in the nick of time." Cameron said to the House of Commons in March 2011, justifying his decision in favour of military intervention in Libya. In the same speech he added: "Tough action is needed now to ensure that people in Libya can lead their lives without fear and with access to the basic needs of life."

A few months later, Gaddafi was deposed and the West declared a resounding victory. Cameron, standing next to Sarkozy in Benghazi heralded the Libyan people's "courage", citing them as an "inspiration" for the world.

"It is great to be here in free Benghazi, and free Libya" he said.

The Australian approach the PM touts as a model has been steeped in controversy, including the deaths of hundreds of migrants at sea after they were denied entry

Fast forward five years and Cameron probably now wishes he could take those words back. Caught between the western-backed government, rebel groups and IS, thousands are fleeing the North African nation making their way to Europe as the civil war intensifies.

The case made for intervention in Syria was no different. After the chemical attacks in August 2013 that the UK government claimed were carried out by the Syrian leader, the PM was adamant that intervention was necessary to overthrow Assad.

The same logic followed; the mission was to be a purely humanitarian effort focused on saving lives. Nevertheless, his efforts were in vain as the Commons rejected a poorly crafted plan to intervene.

However, after the Paris attacks in November of last year, Cameron once again rushed to advocate another military adventure, only this time he was successful. He convinced parliament to authorise a bombing campaign in Syria against IS, despite weak evidence that it might succeed or avoid civilian death on a massive scale.

Reluctance to accept refugees

Unfortunately for Libyans and Syrians fleeing wars in their respective nations, Cameron's earlier concern for their well-being seems to have long vanished.

In March this year, the PM pressured fellow EU leaders to do more to stop Libyan refugees reaching European shores, in a move apparently intended to prevent human traffickers from exploiting individuals escaping the war ravaged North African nation.

Cameron suggested that European nations adopt an approach similar to Australia's, which over the years has sent back boats carrying migrants back to their place of origin.

In advocating such a shameful position, Cameron's hypocrisy is laid bare. Surely if the agenda to intervene and carry out airstrikes was a response to ensuing massacres, then providing the same people with a safe haven in his or her own country should self-evident.

The Australian approach the PM touts as a model has been steeped in controversy, including the deaths of hundreds of migrants at sea after they were denied entry. In September of last year, a New York Times editorial said European leaders planning to adopt the Australian approach would be "unconscionable".

The editorial goes on to describe Australia's policy as "inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country's tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war".

Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for International Organization of Migration (IMO) told The New York Times that "The Australian model may seem attractive to politicians... Politicians love fences, but what fences do is create a market for smugglers and major humanitarian problems." he added.

In a statement discussing the plea of migrants fleeing to Europe, IMO director Lacy Swing said "It is unacceptable that in the 21st century people fleeing from conflict, persecutions, misery... must endure such terrible experiences in their home countries, not to mention en route, and then die on Europe's doorstep."

Since 2014, over 3,000 migrants fleeing war and persecution have perished at sea as they desperately look for an exit into safer territories in Europe.

The world's wealthiest nations host just 2% of all Syrian refugees

In this latest attempt to block accommodating Syrian children, the PM was adamant that those residing in safe place such as Lesbos in Greece or Calais in France need not be relocated, and that a more useful task would be to bring refugees directly from Syria.

Though Cameron's government has hardly been enthusiastic about resettling refugees, as demonstrated by their decidedly lackluster efforts.

According to Oxfam, the UK has not taken in its fair share of refugees. Based on economic indicators, the organisation said the UK has only taken in a quarter of its quota. Furthermore, the world's wealthiest nations host just 2% of all Syrian refugees.

"Rich nations should be doing more to share the responsibility and offer refuge to some of the most vulnerable women and children affected by this crisis" said Mark Goldring, VP of Oxfam.

In contrast, refugees make up around a staggering 10% and 20% of the Jordanian and Lebanese populations respectively.

Child refugees in "safe" places such as Calais - as the PM refers to them - have been described as extremely dangerous for children without parents. The EU criminal agency Europol has estimated that around 10,000 child refugees have gone missing in Europe, often falling prey to the hands of criminal gangs.

Politics over humanity

Modern interventions are often masked as humanitarian endeavours, when in reality acting out of self-interest, political ambition and economic opportunism is perhaps a more accurate description.

In an interview with The Atlantic, US President Barack Obama blamed European leaders, in particular Sarkozy and Cameron for the situation in Libya calling it a "mess". Obama suggested Cameron was "distracted by a range of other things" and was responsible for creating a "shit show", clearly implying the PM was not really interested in any meaningful post-reconstruction for the Libyan people.

With this in mind, it is perhaps foolish to express surprise that the government continues to deny the most vulnerable a second chance at a life free of conflict.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.