Dear David Cameron: Now turn your words into action on refugees

Family arrives on Greek beach, after crossing, on an inflatable boat with 35 people
Family arrives on Greek beach, after crossing, on an inflatable boat with 35 people

By Stephen Hale

Dear Prime Minister,

Thanks for taking the time to read my memo last Friday. I know you've had a lot of advice on this since then.

I said then that the national mood was changing, that the scale of the crisis demanded a different approach, and that you would be seen as lacking in compassion unless your government changed course. This has been proved correct. Public horror over the tragic death of Aylan Kurdi, who died seeking safety alongside his mother and older brother, has reached a crescendo over the past 48 hours, with several hundred thousand people calling for the UK to do more to help refugees.


Your suggestion on Wednesday that taking more refugees was not even part of the solution led to passionate calls for a change in your position from every corner including some of your own MPs.

So thank you for changing course. I know from your words this morning that you now recognise Britain must act on our moral responsibility and welcome thousands more refugees.

It's been fantastic to see local councils and communities pledging to welcome refugees as part of a national programme. For over thirty years Refugee Action has supported the resettlement of refugees to the UK. We were established to assist Vietnamese refugees in 1979. We supported the resettlement of 4,000 Kosovan refugees in the late 1990s. The resettlement of Syrian refugees must be designed, funded and managed to ensure that all those involved can successfully rebuild their lives and integrate and contribute to Britain for as long as they are with us. Free English lessons are one essential element of this.

You were right on Thursday to say that we need lasting solutions. Clearly ending the conflict in Syria and repression in Eritrea would mean refugees no longer have to flee from two countries at the heart of this crisis. You were also right to highlight the fantastic contribution your government is making to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere where the vast majority of refugees continue to stay.

Now is a perfect opportunity for the UK to change course on refugees

But none of this can distract us from the fact that we need a comprehensive response to the realities of the current crisis in Greece, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. Chancellor Merkel is emphatic about this as you know. We must step up the UK's role in search and rescue, and work with our European counterparts to rapidly process those arriving and identify those that are refugees.  Justin Forsyth from Save the Children has published a good five point plan on this.

As Chancellor Merkel has said, we must find practical solutions for all those already in Europe. The most challenging issue for us is one on which Merkel is very focused - the relocation within Europe of those confirmed as refugees in assessment centres in Italy, Greece and elsewhere. You are right that we do not want to encourage more people to risk their lives. But they have no real alternative at present, and there will be no effective resolution of this crisis without grappling with relocation for people such as the father of Aylan Kurdi. But it should be done through voluntary pledges by the UK and others, not a mandatory quota system as the Commission propose.

Much of this will surely come together. Theresa May attends a vital EU meeting on 14 September that should agree a package of measures if it cannot be done sooner. But there are two critical issues for you and Home Office Ministers.

The first is the decision on the level of resettlement to the UK. It must be proportionate to the scale of the crisis, and the contribution of other European leaders. The Shadow Home Secretary has called for 10,000 a year. Former Home Secretary David Blunkett has called for 25,000 in the next six months. Newsnight reported that a government Minister wants to go further. The figure of 10,000 additional people a year would reflect public concern, but it would be wrong to set an arbitrary limit.

Our long-term policy needs to reflect the scale of the crisis. If you make a clear pledge then other countries will follow your lead. We can then rapidly assess whether our schemes should focus on Syria, or be widened to support refugees from countries like Eritrea.

We must also urgently change our wider approach to asylum and refugees in Britain. At present we're making steep cuts to their support and abolishing the independent programme to assist those who wish to return to their countries of origin. These measures have been justified as wanting to show that the streets 'are not paved with gold'. But what this week has shown is that the public realise that families like Aylan Kurdi's are not not fleeing for this reason.

This is a great opportunity to change our approach. Now is the time to put compassion and fairness back at the heart of our approach to refugees.

Stephen Hale OBE is the chief executive of Refugee Action You can follow him at @SHaleGeneva or @RefugeeAction

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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