Don’t believe the press – Britain is far from a refugee magnet

Owen Jones in The Guardian Friday 7 August 2015


The British end of the Channel Tunnel. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

There is little sympathy for the refugees languishing in inhumane conditions in Calais, either from the mainstream press or much of British public opinion. “MIGRANT RUNS 30 MILES THROUGH CHANNEL,” booms the Express, referring to a Sudanese refugee whoalmost made it through the entire Channel tunnel.

“We kept out Hitler,” offers the ever level-headed Daily Mail. “Why can’t our feeble leaders stop a few thousand exhausted migrants?”

Even among progressive-minded people, there are reservations about those who have fled horrifying circumstances in Syria, Eritrea, Darfur, Afghanistan and other countries terrorised by war or dictatorship. Why don’t they simply seek refuge in countries neighbouring their own?

What compels them to travel thousands of miles, across multiple borders, in order to make a new life on British soil? François Hollande’s France is hardly a war-torn dystopia, so why not stay there?

The first point is that the vast majority of refugees don’t come anywhere near western Europe. Indeed, as the UNHCR points out, 86% of all refugees are in developing countries. That’s a dramatic surge from 70% just a decade ago.

About one in four refugees are from Syria: 95 out of every 100 of them are in a neighbouring country. Turkey – whose GDP per capita is about four times less than that of Britain – hosts nearly 1.6 million refugees, more than any other country.

Lebanon, which has a population of less than 4.5 million, has up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Countries with far fewer resources than Britain are taking in many more refugees.

That may well be the case, but why can’t the rest of western Europe pull their weight? Here, the myth of excessive British generosity needs confronting. Earlier this year, Britain had taken in only 143 Syrian refugees: since the civil war began, Germany has taken in around 100,000.

Britain had 31,745 applications for asylum in 2014; but in Sweden – whose population is nearly seven times smaller than ours – there were 81,180 such applications. France had more than twice as many, and Germany – with 202,245 applications – had more than six times the British rate.

And Britain accepts substantially fewer than other countries: just 10,050 positive decisions last year, compared to 30,650 in Sweden, 12,550 in the Netherlands (with a population nearly four times smaller than Britain’s), 14,815 in France, 40,560 in Germany, 20,580 in crisis-ridden Italy and 15,410 in tiny Switzerland.

Those Calais migrants desperately trying to enter the British mainland are being attracted by an excessively generous British state, so the story goes. They are poor wherever they are, and unless they have children, refugees are better off in France; there are similar restrictions on work in both France and Britain; rents are substantially cheaper in Paris compared to London; and asylum seekers in both France and Britain are provided with healthcare and education for children.

Those heading for Britain are a minuscule proportion of the world’s refugee population. Disproportionately, they tend to be educated; with a grasp of English that they believe will make it easier to settle down and get in work than in a country where they don’t speak the native tongue; often a cultural link with Britain, because it used to be a former colonial power; or they have friends, family, or a settled community in the UK.

There are those who, in effect, believe the entire world’s refugee population should be settled in substantially poor countries which are already overwhelmed. There is a debate to be had about how to solve a growing global refugee crisis, sure.

But to do it properly, we need to at least have the facts right – and stop indulging the myth that Britain is the global magnet of refugees – it isn’t.


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