Cameron's stance on refugees a stain on Britain's historical record

Britain should take in more refugees to honour its historical migration efforts. 

Michael Walker
10 September 2015

Flickr/Darren Johnson. Some rights reserved.

One of the most famous characters in literature was a refugee living in England. Dapper, egg—headed and with a very high opinion of his abilities, he came to the United Kingdom following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. His name was Hercule Poirot.

Like the fictional Poirot, roughly a quarter of a million Belgians found refuge in Britain during the First World War. It is an episode that we can be proud of. ‘Prodigious efforts were made on behalf of those refugees’, writes Terry Charman in his book The First World War on the Home Front. They were sheltered throughout this island, from Kent to Strathaven, in villages, seaside resorts and mining towns. People took them into their homes. Even the likes of The Daily Express ran adverts imploring readers to donate money to the hapless Belgians.

 How times have changed, and not for the better.  Now, faced with a displacement crisis of catastrophic proportions in the Middle East, our prime minister is barely willing to lift a finger to help the tide of miserable humanity. According to Mr Cameron, ‘I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.’ Further, ‘we think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world’.

Two observations spring to mind in response to the prime minister’s words. First, let us be thankful we did not have a leader like Mr Cameron in 1914, otherwise hundreds of thousands of Belgians would have found the door to Britain firmly shut. Second, he is apparently living in a fantasy land where ‘peace and stability’ in the Middle East are just around the corner. Surely, as someone who has served as the head of government for five years, he must be aware of the state of never-ending crisis in that region. Indeed, he has contributed to it himself, with his ill-considered bombing campaign against Libya in 2011, which has left that country in a state of utter anarchy.

The Conservatives’ feeble response is even harder to stomach when compared to the burden assumed by Syria’s neighbours. There are, for instance, over 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered in the poor and tiny nation of Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The population of Lebanon is about 6 million, so an equivalent assistance programme in the U.K. would see an unimaginable 10 million displaced people here.

Labour leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper has been commended for suggesting that Britain should accept 10,000 refugees, in line with ‘our history of helping those who fled conflict’. She is on the right track, but given that the U.K. is one of the world’s richest states, such a gesture is still embarrassingly inadequate, at least when compared to the contributions of Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.

Can I therefore suggest that we emulate the magnificent actions of our forebears in World War One and take in two hundred thousand refugees from the Middle East?  That would be in keeping with Britain’s status as the ‘moral nation’ which the prime minister had proclaimed us to be.

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