A letter to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on the refugee crisis

The text below is a first draft of a letter I plan to address to Philip Hammond (as foreign secretary), on the migration crisis. Comments are very welcome.

Dear Mr Hammond,

I am writing to express my deep concern at the UK’s response to the current migrant crisis in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly regarding refugees from Syria.

The civil war in Syria has caused over 3 million Syrian civilians to flee the country, and 6.5 million more are internally displaced inside Syria. Many have attempted to reach Western Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Libya or Egypt, or by travelling overland through Turkey and the Balkans. Either journey is fraught with peril; yesterday the UN estimated that so far this year, 2,500 migrants have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. On Thursday morning this week, the bodies of 71 refugees, including three children (together with a Syrian document), were found inside an abandoned lorry in Austria.

Most refugees from Syria cannot safely return to Syria, and not all of them can remain in countries bordering Syria. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan already have (respectively) about 1.8 million, 1.2 million and 600,000 Syrian refugees living there, most in temporary refugee camps, and they do not have the resources to accommodate such large numbers in the long term. These are refugees from a brutal, bloody and sectarian armed conflict (sometimes refugees from the guns and knives of IS), rather than economic migrants purely seeking a higher standard of living. Western European countries such as the UK have a moral duty to offer asylum to more of these refugees.

The UK has so far agreed to resettle only about 500 Syrian refugees. By contrast, Germany has agreed to resettle 35,000, and Sweden, with its population of only 9.6 million, has already taken around 40,000. With its population of 64 million, the UK certainly has the capability to offer asylum to at least tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, without significant changes to UK life or society. Most of them would be an asset to UK national life, as forcefully argued in a recent article in The Economist:


The UK’s ‘vulnerable persons relocation scheme’, while better than nothing, is clearly helping too small a number of the vulnerable. We can, and should, do more.

It is true that some in the UK are concerned about the possibility of militants posing as asylum seekers and thus being able to infiltrate the UK and launch attacks inside the UK. However, a careful evaluation of asylum claims will reduce this risk, and priority can be given to low-risk groups (who are also typically the most vulnerable: families with young children, and those from religious groups under attack from IS, for example). Moreover, the risk is small, and must be balanced against the large number of lives we could save by admitting more refugees, and the benefits this would bring, both economically, and also in terms of international diplomacy and goodwill. The UK’s own Muslim community might well be less vulnerable to radicalization, as a result of a policy that would alleviate the plight of many of their co-religionists.

It is therefore my firm opinion that the UK government should, firstly, increase the number of Syrian refugees it is willing to resettle, and secondly, devote more resources to receiving, evaluating and processing applications for asylum. As of 20th September 2011, the UK does not consider asylum applications made from outside the UK: this means that in order to have a chance of gaining asylum in the UK, Syrian refugees must attempt a hazardous and illegal voyage across the Mediterranean, or overland through the Balkans. To avoid further and unnecessary loss of life, I believe that the UK should consider asylum applications made from abroad, in particular from countries neighboring Syria.

In conjunction with other EU countries (or alone if necessary), the UK should establish secure ‘processing camps’ in countries near Syria from which refugees most commonly embark (principally Turkey, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt), to enable refugees to apply for asylum legally, without first having to risk their lives in the boats and trucks of people-smugglers. (In June, Matteo Renzi called for the EU to set up such processing camps, in Libya.) We should then provide a safe and legal passage to the UK, for those applicants who have been granted asylum but who cannot finance their own voyage.

If the UK pledges to re-settle at least tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, leading by example along with Sweden and Germany, other countries may well follow suit; even if they do not, it is the right thing to do.

Yours sincerely,

Dr David Ellis


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