Refugee crisis: why the UK bears a double responsibility

4 September 2015 - 9:00am

John Hilary, Executive Director, War on Want

I was one of the 2,000 passengers stuck on the Eurostar outside Calais on Tuesday night, as the refugee crisis forced its way onto Europe’s front pages. Contrary to media reports of passengers being prepared to smash windows in anger, the people in my carriage remained quiet throughout the five hours we were held in the dark outside the tunnel.

Many had young families with them, and I listened as parents tried to explain to their children just why we were being prevented from getting home. In all the words I heard spoken, there was a quiet acknowledgement that any temporary inconvenience facing people on the train could never compare with the desperate situation of those outside it.

It is heartening that this basic sense of human compassion now seems to be the dominant public reaction in Britain as a whole. More and more people are condemning David Cameron’s shameful response to the crisis, and it is important to underline just how appalling the official UK reaction has been in comparison to that of other countries around Europe. Yet there is as yet little recognition that Britain has a deeper responsibility towards refugees fleeing the expanding conflict in the Middle East, given that successive UK governments have been the ones to cause it.

The crisis that has led four million people to flee the fighting in Syria, and ten million to leave their homes in Iraq, is a direct result of Britain’s interventions in that region over the past 15 years. Once the occupation of Iraq had run into the ground and local resistance began to intensify, the coalition authorities whipped up a storm of sectarian violence in order to turn the Iraqi people against one another. The forces of what is now Islamic State moved in to take advantage of the chaos, and then expanded into Syria once that country had imploded in turn. Their advance is what drove the family of Alan Kurdi to flee as refugees from Kobane, costing his life as well as the lives of countless others.

Islamic State now boasts thousands of trained fighters in the field, and jihadist forces from West Africa to Indonesia have pledged their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate. The crisis our strategists created has become an ever-expanding nightmare for those communities living with its consequences. The genie is out of the bottle, and the West is powerless to put it back in.

Nor has this come out of the blue. The CIA warned from the outset that the strategy being followed in Iraq would lead to a ‘blowback’ far greater than that caused by the West’s support of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The Arab mujahideen who returned home after their victory over the Soviet occupation devoted the next decade to bloody campaigns in Egypt and Algeria, where tens of thousands died in the ‘dirty war’ between Islamist and state forces. Al Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the USA, and the subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, were ripples from that same wave.

And it is not just Iraq and Syria where UK intervention has resulted in humanitarian crisis. UK and US aircraft began their bombing of Libya on 19 March 2011, eight years to the day from the first bombardment of Iraq. Now that country is also condemned to the horrors of civil war, and refugees from Libya are adding to the numbers fleeing to Europe.

Palestinians still make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world, prevented from returning to their homes by an Israeli state that refuses even to acknowledge their existence. Yet the UK government continues to provide political and military support for Israel’s ongoing policy of ethnic cleansing in Palestine, and next week will see David Cameron welcome his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, to London as if nothing was amiss.

We have an absolute duty to provide safe haven to refugees fleeing the horrors of war, and War on Want is proud to be one of the organisations supporting the Refugees Welcome Here rally on 12 September.

But we have an even greater responsibility towards those refugees who are fleeing from conflict situations which our own government caused in the first place. Beyond our duty to provide safe haven, we must put an end to the UK’s imperialist interference in the lives of people around the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world. Only this will provide the basis for a proper resolution of the refugee crisis into the future.

An edited version of this article appeared in the New Internationalist blog.

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