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Should the UK be doing more to help the world refugee crisis?

Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive on the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos; AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris - Credit: Associated Press

To get to grips with the issue, all sides must engage more constructively, says JAMES BALL

Even before the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate devastated its capital city at the start of this month, Lebanon was a country in crisis: its government was mired in scandal and corruption, unemployment was soaring, power cuts happened daily, and the country was facing hyperinflation.

Yet among all of those domestic problems, Lebanon hosted more than one million refugees from neighbouring countries facing even worse hardships of their own.

The UK, by contrast, the fifth richest country in the world, accepted fewer than 40,000 asylum seekers last year.

Against that backdrop, absolutely no-one should ever be able to claim the UK is doing enough. The horrors of global conflict have left people fleeing genocide, rape and murder. In total, there are some 30 million refugees around the world.

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Around one in every hundred people on Earth live in the UK. Around one dollar in every 40 in the world’s economy are generated in this country. These figures suggest we have an ability to pull our weight to help refugees.

Instead, we are spending our summer obsessing over a trickle of people desperately trying to get to the UK across the Channel in search of the meagre ‘charity’ we actually offer. While Lebanon copes with a million souls, our home secretary focuses on how to keep a few hundred desperate people in dinghies out.

No-one should ever have to risk their own or their child’s life to be able to claim asylum. But the UK has systematically removed or blocked so-called ‘legitimate’ channels to do so, and is now villainising those desperate enough to use the dangerous ones that remain.

Misunderstanding and misinformation is rife in how asylum seekers arriving on these boats are described, not just from ministers, but also from supposedly neutral and impartial journalists.

There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘illegitimate’ asylum seeker. The term asylum seeker covers anyone whose claim of refugee status is yet to be decided. If they are declined (which does not necessarily mean they lied in their claim) then they are deported. If they succeed they gain refugee status and a right to remain. People have a legal right under international law to claim and be considered for asylum.

Contrary to what is often suggested in this debate, those fleeing are under no obligation to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they reach. They are entirely within their rights to continue to a particular country, for whatever reasons they wish.

Why, some ask, if you’re just trying to flee persecution, would you be picky about where you go? Answering this is much easier if you think about your own life. For me, I have terrible language skills (I only speak English), am gay (and so might face violence in some ‘safe’ countries) and have longstanding friends in some countries (others might have family).

Some ‘safe’ countries would require me to rebuild my life from scratch, using an entirely new language. Others would give me much more to build from, and a support network to do so with.

Efforts to paint the crossings themselves as ‘illegal’ are similarly meaningless: it is established UK and international law that evasions of border controls and other tactics used to travel to their chosen safe country cannot be held against asylum seekers. Those pretending otherwise are spreading false information. What does exist across the EU is an unpleasant and unfair agreement known as the Dublin Mechanism, which lets EU member states transfer would-be refugees across the bloc.

This rule doesn’t affect asylum seekers themselves, but allows member states to check their fingerprints and transfer them to the first EU country in which they were fingerprinted by authorities.

This is done for the convenience and politics of EU member states – not some principle to help the asylum seekers themselves. It is obviously a hugely convenient rule for a country like the UK, at the bloc’s northern and western edge, and less so for countries like Greece or Italy.

As a result of Brexit, the UK loses access to the Dublin Mechanism at the end of this year. But this fact should not be used by Remainers to taunt the government or Brexiteers. There are many good arguments for EU membership. That it makes it easier to keep refugees out of the country should never be among them.

There has been a recent increase in the use of dinghies by asylum seekers to cross the Channel – but it’s a relatively small increase from a low base, and it’s something that happens every year. We are paying more attention this year because Nigel Farage pointed his followers at it and – yet again – we have taken the bait.

If this summer must be dominated by this discussion, then we must at least remember that it can be made incredibly simple.

Anyone who genuinely cares about the people on the boats will talk about ways to make it easier to come to the UK and to claim asylum.

Anyone else, however they frame their words, is stoking up sentiment against those individuals, for their own petty purposes. Let’s all try to be in that first group.

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