Western governments have mishandled refugee crisis for decades

Syrian refugee children play at a camp in Jordan. Picture by Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press
Syrian refugee children play at a camp in Jordan. Picture by Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press Syrian refugee children play at a camp in Jordan. Picture by Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press

IT was near midnight on October 6, 1998 when the dilapidated 40-foot clinker pushed off from northern Lebanon into the eastern Mediterranean.

There were 75 passengers on board, including 10 adult women and 24 children (one born just two days earlier). Each person had been charged $2,000 per head.

People traffickers promised them safe passage and refuge in Italy. Their mode of transportation was later described as “barely a floating coffin”.

It’s difficult to imagine the thoughts of those wretched souls as they secretly left Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia and Syria.

It’s impossible to know the dark fears they felt, the fragile hopes they held. Like the Irish of old, sailing for sight of Lady Liberty and Ellis Island, and the promise of a new beginning. Escaping a painful past.

When the boat’s engine broke down two days later, the traffickers hurriedly fled on a motorised dinghy.

The passengers were left adrift, but managed to restart the engine and steer towards the foot of some visible rocky cliffs. It happened to be the south-west coast of Cyprus.

Fortunately they were rescued by RAF personnel and air-lifted to the nearby Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area (SBA).

Two SBAs, covering 256 square kilometres, exist on Cyprus. They’re a legacy of Cyprus gaining independence after Britain’s colonial withdrawal in 1960.

Whitehall kept jurisdictional sovereignty over both military areas for strategic national security reasons.

After they reached the British base on Cyprus, six of the rescued families were subsequently granted refugee status in the “spirit” of the international refugee convention (and related law).

Almost 18 years later, their refugee journey has still not reached a destination.

Throughout their ordeal, they have endured consistent contortionist bureaucracy from an array of British government departments - the ministry of defence, the home office, and the foreign office.

Permanent SBA residency is recognised by everyone as an unsatisfactory option, because the bases don’t have developing economies, welfare systems or adequate education systems.

Ongoing British efforts have focused on pushing the refugees to move formally into the Republic of Cyprus – but without cast-iron guarantees of their future refugee status.

From the very start, the refugees simply asked to be moved, and formally accepted, into the UK.

“HM Government policy”, however, was (and remains) that “there can be no question of granting refuge in the UK… not least for fear of creating an apparently easy back-door route into the UK”.

Officials called this a “question of precedent”,the “pull effect”, and described it as “politically untenable given continuing public concern at the number of asylum seekers entering the UK”. That was 15 years ago.

Two weeks ago, the refugees’ efforts to assert their rights – known as the ‘Bashir case’ - finally reached the High Court in London. Mr Justice Foskett found that the British government had acted unlawfully in 2014 by finally refusing them entry to the UK without considering concerns raised by the United Nations about their future opportunities in Cyprus.

The British government must now reconsider its decision-making in the case, taking account of all relevant, up-to-date factors.

It’s unlikely that the Bashir case will even register a blip on the world radar as the United Nations gathers in Turkey (of all places) to host the World Humanitarian Summit on Monday.

Much of the focus will be on the crisis of refugee movements and intense migration patterns into Europe, particularly over recent years. In 2015 alone, over one million refugees entered Europe. Most of them originated in war-torn former European colonies.

Talk of remedies will no doubt focus on crisis management. But strategic success in truly addressing refugee issues will only be achieved by honestly recognising long-term historical causes and bending international policy for long-term future change.

Our domestic and international laws currently create minimum ‘must do’ requirements: these are baselines, not ceilings. But they don’t preclude maximum ‘can do’ responsibilities: particularly when motivated by humanitarian and moral considerations.

Pope Francis eloquently made that point by recently bringing twelve Syrian refugees to safety in the Vatican. In the north we've also welcomed some. 

In coming weeks, as the Brexit referendum debate intensifies, refugees will once again be highlighted as Britain’s big ‘red scare’ - pawns to fill empty arguments, ‘precedents’ in a cheap political game.

Those who want us to close all the borders, abandon human rights frameworks, and exit from European cooperation, will claim Brexit as the magic solution.

The truth however - as the Bashir case shows – is that refugee issues have been caused and mishandled for decades by western governments. Most refugees now spend 20 years displaced. A lifetime of homelessness. And helplessness.

There are 60 million today across the world. Another 1,000 were rescued from boats in the Mediterranean just last week. They’re our fellow citizens on this planet. And unlike Stormont's nonsense over neck-ties and seating plans, they actually matter.