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Why the UK has a special responsibility to protect its share of refugees

Migrants reaching out for help. MOAS.EU/EPA

The EU’s latest response to the migrant crisis – as put forward in the European Agenda on Migration – marks a significant change in direction. Of course, it still outlines measures to prevent the arrival of immigrants. But it also argues for a permanent system to share the responsibility for large numbers of refugees among member states, and proposes an EU-wide resettlement scheme, offering 20,000 places to refugees.

Unlike the proposals to attack and destroy smugglers’ boats, give extra funding to the EU’s border security programme, and return migrants who do arrive, these measures would be far more in line with the idea that the EU’s member states, such as the UK, have “a proud history of offering asylum to those who need it most”.

Shirking a duty

This makes UK home secretary Theresa May’s refusal to take part in the scheme very disappointing (though not entirely unsurprising). Instead, May has insisted that the scheme would act as a dangerous “pull factor”.

Not keen. Will Oliver/EPA

Under international refugee law, the UK government is not obliged to share the “burden” of resettling refugees. Refugee law means that the UK must protect refugees who reach its territory, but creates only a weak obligation towards refugees at Europe’s southern border, or elsewhere. The UK also has a special exemption in the EU, which means it has the right to opt-out of the proposed scheme.

Yet, while the UK’s response might be to the letter of refugee and EU law, there are at least two powerful moral reasons why it should take its share of the refugees arriving in Europe.

A responsibility to protect

Ten years ago, the UK committed itself to the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) framework at the United Nations. R2P lays down a responsibility to protect populations from the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Many of the refugees fleeing conflict and persecution from groups such as Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and Libya are at great risk from these four crimes. The UK can partly fulfil this responsibility to protect by taking its share of refugees.

Linking the UK’s R2P with its refugee policies might seem odd since states, policy-makers and academics have generally viewed it as a foreign policy issue: in Jennifer Welsh’s words, as “something we do ‘outside’ our borders”. R2P is also sometimes confused with military intervention designed to protect human rights. The idea that it might have consequences for the UK’s refugee policy has barely been considered.

This is despite the fact that taking refugees is one of the most obvious and effective ways in which the UK – and indeed all other states – can protect individuals from the threat of atrocities. After all, military intervention may be neither desirable nor possible. For one thing, it is risky. As interventions in Libya and Iraq have shown, it can trigger a fresh cycle of death, destruction and displacement of exactly the sort that it is supposed to stop. It may not be politically possible, either: as the response to the crisis in Syria has shown, military action can be vetoed by permanent members of the UN Security Council, or voted against in national parliaments.

Armed forces prepare for intervention in Libya. Arnaud Roine/ECPAD/HO

Unlike military intervention, asylum and resettlement can provide immediate protection to significant numbers of individuals at risk, without the difficulties of using force. When military intervention is off the table in any case, asylum becomes an even more obvious alternative. Yet, faced with hostile public opinion towards asylum-seekers, the UK and other states prefer to keep refugee policy artificially separated from R2P.

Clearly not all refugees trying to enter Europe are fleeing the four crimes covered by the R2P framework, and asylum should by no means be restricted to those who are. Yet this idea needs to be brought home if it is to be fully realised: it is not the sole preserve of foreign ministries, but should also concern immigration departments and asylum decision-makers. Otherwise, the UK’s commitment will ring hollow.

A special moral duty

States and academics generally view R2P as a general responsibility, shared among all states in the international community. In this way, the UK can claim that it is “doing its bit” by, for instance, contributing to air-strikes against Islamic State in Iraq. But this ignores the fact that the UK has a special responsibility to protect certain refugees, especially when it contributed to the situation which caused them to flee.

This is the case for many, although not all, of the refugees trying to enter Europe. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 left the country in an extremely vulnerable position, which ultimately allowed for the rise of the brutal Islamic State. Likewise, NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 – which led to the fall of Colonel Gaddafi – left a power vacuum, which has resulted in civil war.

In these cases, the UK has a moral obligation to offer asylum as reparation to many of those refugees trying to enter Europe. Anything less means that we are prepared to bomb other countries and create refugees, deny them any legal route to safety, fail to commit the resources necessary to rescue them as they try to enter illegally, and then propose – as the EU has done – to literally bomb boats out of the water.

Taking resettlement seriously

States generally protect refugees in one of two ways: either by granting asylum to refugees who arrive in their territory, or by agreeing to accept refugees who are in other states, through resettlement. Given the UK’s special responsibility to protect certain refugees, it has a moral obligation to use both of these tools.

Fenced out. Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

Despite having granted asylum to around 4,000 Syrian refugees who arrived under their own steam, the UK is reluctant to resettle refugees: it resettles only around 750 refugees per year, and has accepted only 174 of the 200 Syrian refugees it pledged to take in early 2014. This is against the stark backdrop of 3 million Syrian refugees, among a total of 9 million displaced Syrians.

There is a real danger that the moral case for the UK taking its share of refugees will become muddied by the politics of euro-scepticism, which is now high on the agenda, given the prospect of a referendum on EU membership. Whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the newly elected government must cooperate with other European states to fulfil its special responsibility to protect refugees.

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