Theresa May has rejected the new EU scheme that seeks to distribute refugees fairly across the EU. Much like the UNHCR scheme to resettle Syrian refugees, the UK will not take part. However, unlike the UN scheme, the EU scheme is addressing a situation caused by their own policy. According to the Dublin Regulation, refugees must seek refuge in the first safe country they land in, unless they come under other considerations such as strong family connections in another country. This means that areas such as Italy and Greece have seen a massive influx of refugees from Africa, while Britain, with its closest neighbours being Ireland and France, has been relatively shielded from the increasing numbers of desperate refugees risking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean in search of safety.
This year has seen record numbers of people undertaking journeys to seek refuge in Europe. These journeys have been conducted by human smugglers and, while there are no reliable statistics on how many have drowned due to the nature of the business, it is doubtlessly a significant figure. Many of those who survive have been rescued from sinking vessels, a task made all the harder by the decision to stop funding Mare Nostrum rescue missions. The majority of these boats make their way to Greece and Italy, who are struggling to cope with the influx, particularly given their own economic instability. The EU has begun to tackle this crisis, having committed to significantly increasing funding for Mare Nostrum’s replacement, Triton, and supporting UN operations in areas such as Libya, so that fewer people need to seek refuge at all. Most recently, they have proposed a programme to settle refugees across the EU, with quotas taking into account various factors including population, economy and the amount of refugees already accepted by each country.
May has argued against the scheme, suggesting that people should be repatriated to their country of origin immediately, and suggests that some people who risk their lives to reach Europe are ‘economic migrants’. Many of the refugees come from places like Syria, Libya and Somalia. While undoubtedly they will have more opportunities in Europe, they are seeking refuge from violence and suffering, not just looking for a better job. She also argues that if the people aren’t returned, it will encourage human smugglers. However, human smugglers receive payment before refugees set off and there is no evidence to show that they have much regard for what happens to their passengers once they land, or indeed, in many situations, whilst travelling.
The UK obviously cannot take all the refugees fleeing conflicts around the world. However, it can, and should be proud to, share the burden of allowing some of the refugees who have fled to Europe to find safety here. The UK already has a good history of accepting refugees and should use this to negotiate the number of refugees that it is willing to accept, which should be reviewed on an annual basis to take into account any changes in situation, such as the economy. The UK should also insist that any quotas they accept should be matched by the EU assisting either foreign governments or the UN with the aim to stop the human smuggling operations that have resulted in thousands of deaths at sea. There is already a plan in place for this but the UK must ensure that the two are inextricably linked and that the plan to fight smugglers has all the resources needed to be effective. It must also ensure that those fighting smugglers seek them out as their first priority, rather than just the destruction of their assets. Destroying boats is unlikely to stop smugglers – not least given how often their boats sink at sea already.
The Tories may have a small majority in government but the opposition must stop reeling from defeat and hold Theresa May to account. Economic migrants are not refugees and have nothing to do with this scheme. People fleeing war and persecution are refugees and the UK should be proud to do what it can to help them.