The massive flux of people travelling toward the continent of Europe from many troubled lands has made headline news in 2015. But the first week of September has seen an apparent seismic shift in how European heads of state deal with the problem. It seems that a photo of a small child from Syria drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and washed ashore, and hundreds of people walking from Budapest to the Austrian border have been the galvanising moments in the story.
I was on holiday effectively from the 1st to the 5th of September and did not take my smart phone with me, nor did I watch the news at my hotel in Brussels. On my return home the headlines emanating from Hungary, Austria and Germany were literally “news” to me. Suddenly with the situation becoming dire in Central Europe and Hungary seemingly throwing its hands in the air in despair, the rest of the continent woke up. The problems that Italy and Greece have been dealing with on their own for months almost buckling under the pressure, and pleading for help with the situation have come home to roost so to speak. Finally an attempt at a cohesive joined up effort to deal with the issue is taking place. Or at least that’s how it seemed watching reports on Saturday 5th September, but 24 hours later the political “goodwill window of opportunity” was already being talked of being suspended soon. But in the meantime, transport is being put in place to offer safe passage from Hungary to Austria and Germany (and perhaps beyond) for the thousands of displaced people seeking refuge.
Some may say that the open borders policy of the European Union enshrining freedom of movement has in part created the problem. However, the humanitarian effort today is only possible because of those same laws that bind the European Union nations. I don’t think the necessary diplomatic dialogue channels would be in place otherwise.
Germany looks to be prepared to take several hundred thousand displaced people, whilst early speculation has suggested that David Cameron may take in about 15,000 to the United Kingdom. I’m not overly enthused by the Prime Minister’s stand on this issue, as he only seems to have reacted because he has been backed into a corner. Looking bad in the eyes of other European leaders is no strange notion to the UK political leader, after all our demands for European renegotiation and rebates etc doesn’t make us popular. But if the UK appears to be not “pulling its weight” in this matter then why should our “bleating” be given a fair hearing. Yet if the UK doesn’t get some kind of rebate/new membership terms from Europe as Cameron has promised his electorate he will strive to do, he loses face with the very people who got him into power.
The brief amount of news coverage I watched on Saturday night included seeing Germans applaud the arrival of people disembarking from trains in Munich, and a chat with a Syrian family recently settled in a small German community of 1200 in size. The woman of the family spoke of gifts being given to them within days of arrival (TV, bikes for the children) and the warm welcome received. I was glad they felt safe and secure but couldn’t help wonder how different their story may have been here.
Germany as a nation has a general policy of wide scale social housing availability, home ownership not being the norm. Unsurprisingly then the Syrian family had a fair chance of being offered a roof over their heads once their asylum paperwork had been processed. The United Kingdom on the other hand has wide scale home ownership, has given away for sale most of its social housing in the last thirty years, and not replaced anywhere near the same amount lost. There are large waiting lists for social housing and many have become homeless due to the lack of suitable affordable homes. So when the news triumphantly reported that “many in the UK have volunteered to take refugees in” my views were a little less charitable I’m afraid. Home owners with room to spare are about the only ones able to offer an instant “roof over the head” solution. Local councils have to juggle their waiting lists with available housing stock, and anyone in housing authority properties or private tenants would be in violation of their tenancy agreements, to take anyone unauthorised into their home. Under those circumstances I think any refugee family housed by the council would probably be viewed with suspicion and could face having their windows put in! Not a very nice welcome.
Austerity measures in the UK have seen many basic services funding being cut back to a minimum. We hear reports of NHS difficulties in providing comprehensive cover at weekends, some areas with not enough school places, council subsidies for local transport being reduced, to name but a few. These issues show what a potent mix of “general disgruntlement” we have in this country at the moment, and that is without even mentioning “benefits” to provide a social income for displaced people.
Of course the UK should help people in need, but that does rather depend on our infrastructure being robust enough to provide them with all they require for a decent life. Looking at our society today I’m not all together convinced we are doing a decent enough job looking after those who are already here!
Throughout 2015 news reports have shown hundreds of thousands of people arriving on the European continent mainly through Italy and Greece. I can only assume that the bottleneck of people in Hungary occurred as a direct result of the natural travelling progression of those early 2015 arrivals. Something had to be done quickly to deal with the issue and this humanitarian intervention was the outcome. But if the “goodwill” is short lived the problem could well occur again because many more thousands are arriving on a daily basis in the southern Mediterranean states. Hopefully this wake-up call will result in a more long term cohesive plan being put into action