There could not have been a more baffling decision by the British government than to ditch a scheme to grant asylum to child refugees from Europe. Equally, the move betrays a shocking reluctance to demonstrate moral leadership in the face of the unprecedented challenge triggered by mass migrations from the world’s bloody conflict zones.
All the same, the step to discontinue the asylum scheme is consistent with the U.K.’s consistent yet controversial refrain right from the beginning of the refugee crisis. It has been London’s view that providing shelter to those who have already entered the shores of Europe would amount to a perverse incentive to many more millions in West Asia to undertake the risky journey. Such an assumption explains in large part London’s response to the plight of hundreds of children stranded in the so-called Calais ‘Jungle’ camp across the border with France and other refugee camps in Europe. Accordingly, the U.K. has restricted itself to extend financial aid to displaced Syrians, besides reuniting children who have families living in the U.K.
Conversely, the rest of the European Union has pursued a range of pro-active and at times controversial policies to stem the flow of migrants into the bloc, even if this has betrayed a lack of a coherent and consistent approach. A case in point is the launch of search and rescue operations in the high seas and the relocation of refugees in the wake of the horrific deaths of hundreds of migrants off the Libyan coast in 2015 and in the Mediterranean Sea last year. London’s 2016 decision to accept some 3,000 unaccompanied children into the country out of an estimated 90,000 stranded in migrant camps signalled a slight relaxation in the government’s rigid position on the refugee crisis. The humane stance was the outcome of a sustained campaign cutting across party lines spearheaded by a Labour peer, Alf Dubs, who was himself rescued from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s.
Conversely, former Prime Minister David Cameron’s principal concern ahead of the EU referendum last year was to defend the bloc’s so-called Dublin rules that until recently allowed people with asylum claims to be returned to the first state of entry. After all, Britain had exploited these rules to deport 12,000 asylum-seekers over the past 15 years; it was but natural that the U.K. should refuse to cooperate with the EU’s strategy to resettle refugees. On the contrary, their revision was warranted by the need to redress the unfair burden imposed on southern European countries by the surge in the flow of migrants. As London enjoys an opt-out from EU home affairs policies, it is under no obligation to join the bloc’s current quota system to receive refugees.
The move to abandon the Dubs scheme is perhaps no surprise after Prime Minister Theresa May spelt out her government’s red lines on immigration, even if that means the U.K. must leave the cherished single market it once championed.