By the end of last year Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, was widely regarded as a great humanitarian. This was certainly an achievement, especially considering the ferocity with which she was loathed by the European left in the middle of the year, due to her behaviour during the Greek financial crisis. By the end of 2015 she had become Time Person of the Year, and was a serious candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize. She went in the public perception, in about six months, from a second Thatcher to a reincarnated Mother Theresa, due to her policy towards migrants and refugees. However, in reality, whilst her policy appeared humane, it unfortunately wasn’t. It had heart yes, but not head. David Cameron’s policy was both wiser, and despite what his critics allege, more humane.
In 2015 Germany took in around 1.1 million refugees and migrants. Other European countries, such as Austria, Finland and most prominently Sweden, also saw a sharp rise in their migrant/refugee intake. Sweden received over 160,000 asylum claims, the highest per capita in Europe. Merkel’s attitude was summed up with the phrase ‘Wir schaffen dat’, or ‘We can do this’, and initially many Germans seemed to agree. ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners fluttered across the nation, refugees were welcomed at railway stations by enthusiastic crowds, and received free tickets to high-profile football fixtures. This attitude changed over time, mainly as the influx refused to subside, and following a number of very unsavoury incidents. The Paris attacks, for which some of the terrorists used the refugee flow to infiltrate Europe, and the mass sexual assaults in Cologne and other European cities on New Year’s Eve. Border restrictions started springing up across Europe, and the political story because the increasing rise of the radical right, including in Germany with the rise of the AfD.
But before this change in attitude, for several months, pretty much anybody from certain countries (especially Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan), who could make it to Europe by boat was allowed to stay. The result, alas, was brutal. According to the International Organisation for Migration at least 3,771 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015. The geo-political consequences were also disastrous. The refugee crisis strengthened the radical right across much of Europe. It strengthened the authoritarian Government of Victor Orban, and helped Polish ultra-Conservatives come to power. It also helped support Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial leader, President Erdogan, and may even have encouraged the Russian Government to intensify its Syrian operations as a means of destabilising Europe via refugees.
David Cameron, by contrast, formulated a policy which was both decent and wise. The UK, as a result of the English Channel and her lack of Schengen membership, retained greater control over her borders. The British Government decided, in response to public pressure, to allow in 20,000 Syrian refugees by the 2020 General Election, in addition to the UK’s usual refugee intake. But these refugees would be taken directly from refugee’s camps, and not from Europe. As a result refugees and migrants wouldn’t be lured into making a dangerous Mediterranean crossing, and the UK can select the most deserving cases. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, used a visit to the Calais migrant camp in January 2016 to urge the British Government to allow all those camped out to enter the UK. This was be an unmitigated folly. It would encourage many more migrants to cross the Mediterranean, meaning many would inevitably die. It would also mean our refugee policy would be decided by physical strength and endurance, and to some extent by wealth due to smugglers prices, rather than by who is most deserving. It’s ironic that Corbyn, the radical left-winger, was advocating a policy which would benefit the Syrian rich more than the Syrian poor, but there we are.
The UK has also been very generous financially. In February of this year the British Government jointly hosted a donor conference in London, at which it pledged an additional £1.25bn in support to Syrian refugees. This was on top of the around £1.25 which the UK had already committed, since 2012, to assist Syrians. Much of this money will have been spent in Syria’s neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, helping refugees remain close to the ancestral homeland to which most surely aspire to return.
In short, Cameron’s refugee policy has been sensible and decent. It has provided a large quantity of material assistance to refugees, taken in a number of the most deserving cases and dis-incentivised dangerous sea crossings. By contrast Merkel’s policy has created chaos. A large number of refugees and migrants drowned trying to reach Europe under the belief that once they arrived, they could stay. The sheer numbers, and the chaotic way in which it was managed, has provided a strong boost to radical-right parties and authoritarian Government’s across Europe, whilst hollowing out the political centre. We can learn a lot from Cameron’s refugee policy, we should learn to avoid that of Merkel.