Government reaction to the refugee crisis: humanitarian response or political opportunism?

Ann Singleton, Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol and consultant to the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC), Berlin

Ann Singleton, Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol and currently on secondment to the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC), Berlin

Dr Monish Bhatia, Abertay University

Dr Monish Bhatia, Abertay University

Recently the public and media became aware, through one image across Europe (and the world) of the plight of people fleeing for their lives. Within the UK this image produced an awakening after months and years of warnings about the consequences of policy failures, wars and discrimination against migrants. Evidence of the catastrophic failures of UK and EU migration policies, which are based solely on immigration control, borders and ‘security’, have been disbelieved or treated with scepticism by policy makers, officials and many academics.

Repeated reports of deaths in the Mediterranean were ignored or seen as someone else’s problem, the public having been fed a relentless ‘diet’ of poisonous ‘news‘ and rhetoric about migration in general. Institutional racism and discrimination was further embedded as asylum seekers (including children) in the UK were detained, portrayed as troublesome, instead of being welcomed and offered protection. Furthermore, the consequences of austerity are continuously blamed on migrants.

There is a crisis of democracy, as well as policy and a humanitarian crisis, which has been fuelled by the action and inaction of our government.

What can be done? NGOs and activists, lawyers, local volunteers have been working hard for years to raise these questions, to defend people’s human rights, as successive governments have constructed a hostile environment both for migrants and all people excluded within the UK through poverty, disability, social and economic exclusion. It has seemed until now that things could only get worse and we faced a future of ever-declining democracy, an increasingly cruel and unjust society.

However there has now been an overwhelmingly negative reaction, not towards migrants, refugees, but towards governments, for not choosing to act compassionately, humanely and responsibly in solving the humanitarian crises. This has resulted in (a rather politically opportunistic) response from elected leaders, including the British prime minister, who was ‘deeply moved’ by the images of dead Aylan. Certainly, they were shocking and painful images to glimpse, but then one must pose the question: why are political leaders across most of the EU states not moved by images of children who are still alive, suffering and needing protection? Chancellor Merkel in Germany has shifted the approach of Germany, dramatically; the Prime Minister of Finland has offered his home to refugees, but there is a resounding silence from most other leaders.

Over the past few months, a distinction has been fostered, between refugees and migrants, the former deserving of sympathy and the latter of hate and disgust. Instead of offering protection to highly vulnerable human beings, politicians and certain sections of media have done exactly the opposite and been rather busy deploying exclusionary politics and creating misleading and criminalising labels, such as, ‘genuine refugees’, ‘illegal migrants’, ‘bogus’ and ‘real’ asylum seekers (whatever any of that means). ‘Migrant’ has now become a pejorative term and encompasses these negative labels. Desperate individuals who use clandestine routes to enter the EU for safety are by default considered as bad and trouble-making migrants, and consequently dehumanised. Their deaths are increasingly considered as the collateral damage of border control regimes.

The British PM has spoken about the moral responsibility to help refugees (not migrants) and also said that we are already providing sanctuary and will continue to do so. After great deliberation, Britain has decided to take only Syrian refugees directly from the refugee camps, not from those outside camps and not anyone from within the EU. This figure is miniscule compared to the scale of protection that resource-scarce developing countries are offering, while also playing a leading role in solving the humanitarian crisis. Despite the fact that Britain has the capacity and resources to accept more people, it continues to project itself as a small isolated island that is perpetually ‘full’ and closed for humans in need. The latest death toll of people suffocating in locked and abandoned vehicles inside the EU includes Syrians trying to reach countries that will offer them immediate protection.

The UK government needs to step-up, take urgent and courageous measures to stabilize the situation, accept more refugees (people outside camps as well) and share responsibility. The “only this, only that and only so many” logic is faulty and shows how fictitious the refugee-migrant distinction has been used. People in camps and also those who have made treacherous journeys to seek safety and security in the EU, both, are in real, genuine and urgent need of protection.

In March this year the UNHCR issued guidelines for dealing with Europe’s refugee crises. The EU must put in place immediate and adequate emergency reception and assistance capacity, so that refugee families that disembark in Europe after having lost everything are welcomed into a safe and caring environment. Within the EU, Angela Merkel (as well as most German citizens) has taken a moral lead in key moves to address the current situation. Immediate action and a long-term policy is needed from the EU as a whole and from each of the individual Member States. All EU member states must participate in a mass relocation programme, as solidarity cannot be the responsibility of only a few states (such as, Germany).

And we as individuals need to unite and say “No more of this”. We need to demand our politicians to take progressive, tolerant and humane approach in solving this crisis and treat asylum seekers with respect, compassion and dignity. Our societies should be ones in which the happiness and safety of refugees is more persuasive than shocking images of their death, misery and suffering.

We have a real chance to turn this society round and to create a hopeful democratic future. After all, democracy and justice is in all our interests.


A longer article by Monish Bhatia and Ann Singleton was first published on openDemocracy.

There will be a documentary film screening of “Everyday Borders” (Migrants Rights Network) Wednesday 23 September 2015, 2pm-4pm, followed by a discussion with Bristol City of Sanctuary Vice Chair, Caroline Beatty “How the City of Sanctuary movement builds a welcome for asylum seekers and refugees”. Tickets are free but please be sure to register in advance via Eventbrite.

Bringing migration statistics expertise to inform global policy and public debates

Ann Singleton’s work focuses on international migration data, the production of knowledge on migration and the development of migration and asylum policy. She is currently on an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (Knowledge Exchange)  funded secondment from the School for Policy Studies (University of Bristol) to the new Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) of the International Organization for Migration (in Berlin). The GMDAC is a key actor providing data for policy, at European Member State and global levels.