Why a distinction between Ukrainian and Syrian refugees?

Before politics gets any more cynical, we need to be clearer on the reasons why the country should grant refugee status to anyone in need of protection, argues Don Flynn

The relationship between far-right activism and the political stance of a centre-right government has come under scrutiny in the wake of the anti-refugee riot in Knowsley, a district of Liverpool, in early February.   

Home secretary Suella Braverman made a clumsy attempt to put distance between her own provocative posture on issues connected with immigration, deploring the violence of the rioters outside a hotel accommodating asylum seekers but still managing to allude to a possible trigger for the action that did not reflect well on the hotel dwellers.   

In a response posted on Twitter shortly after the incident, she wrote: “alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation.” Groups supporting the refugees condemned her phrasing, describing the foregrounding of the riot as a response to “alleged behaviour” as thinly disguised victim blaming. 

Braverman has been pulled up for her language on other occasions. Her description of efforts on the part of the asylum seekers to cross the Channel on small boats as an “invasion” led to a recent confrontation with 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Joan Salter who asked the home secretary why she felt the need to use words such as “swarms” and “invasion” when talking about immigration. Braverman responded by saying she wouldn’t say sorry for “the language that I’ve used” to “demonstrate the scale of the problem”.  

On the increase 

Accounting for the fact of immigration presents problems for a government with the complexion of Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. The movement of people across national frontiers has accelerated under the awning of a global and economic system which his political current has championed for decades. Global markets have made labour mobile and flexible and, at the same time, have destabilised states in developing regions, promoting authoritarianism and increasing the sorts of social tension which triggers refugee flight. Welcome to neoliberal global capitalism. 

When the structure of global power relations requires the appropriate concession, governments will enact policies which facilitate the movement of people even when their core ideology proclaims this to be undesirable. We have examples of this today in the establishment of channels which facilitate the provision of safe havens for some groups of people – the Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and, to a lesser extent, Afghans being cases in point. But if the individual in need of humanitarian protection comes from a country or region where the conflict does not register as a matter of critical concern to the UK state, then they will be condemned to hardship on the scale we have been used to seeing on the shores of the Mediterranean, the Balkan refugee trails or the ‘jungle’ encampments dotted along the Channel coast. 

In these circumstances refugee and other aspects of immigration policy have to be considered as pre-eminently political projects rather than matters of humanitarian response as presented in the ideals of international law. As such, they are replete with contradictions, with politicians being required to justify one response with reasons that make no sense when considered against another group. Appeals made for generosity on the part of the public towards Ukrainians are the opposite of what is said about Syrians or Somalis, who are condemned as being unworthy of sympathetic consideration. If flight from the perils of war and persecution are what gets one group recognition as refugees, then it is perverse to withhold that from others in the same situation. 

The root problem behind all this is the fact that successive governments, both Labour, between 1997 and 2010, and the Conservatives since, have pulled back from refugee protection as the response of a bloc of nations which have agreed to adhere to common standards of human rights and have instead tried to reinvent this as a set of policies that function as a subset of measures which aim to project national interest onto the agenda. Sunak’s government, with its residual commitment to a specifically British set of human rights, is an extreme example of this approach.    

Labour, if it had any gumption, would be working hard to develop a position which recovers the central idea that we give safe haven to people who need it – not because there’s an instrumental benefit to the country from doing so, but because the world will remain a safe place for tyrants and a dangerous place for human beings if we don’t buckle down and meet our moral obligations on these matters.  

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