On reading of the recent death of Nicholas Winton, who brought a number of Jewish children to safety from Nazi Germany in England in the 1930s, a large number of compassionate Britons will have felt guilt and sadness that more could not have been done to save significant numbers from the clutches of Hitler.
A comparable refugee situation is unfolding in Europe under our noses, yet the British Government is reluctant to intervene, knowing that further immigration to our shores on a large scale is an electoral no-no. A number of European countries are shouldering the burden and we shall probably be shamed in the end, through force of circumstances, into taking on our fair share of the problem but on the back foot. Non-European countries properly distinguish refugees from migrants and class refugees as not only those fleeing persecution but also those fleeing conflict.
How much better it would be to act proactively, selecting deserving cases of displaced persons from the hardest hit countries, bringing them to Britain, looking after them so that they can return home at the end of the emergency in a fit state to form the backbone of their native country? At the moment, migrants who make it to Britain tend to be the young and extremely fit who can cling onto the underside of a lorry through the Channel Tunnel; this is no way to decide who should be let in.
Once sufficient resources have been put in place to secure our borders from the European mainland, Home Office officials could visit Calais, Macedonia or Turkey to interview displaced persons from war-torn countries like Syria, weeding out economic migrants and making clear to selected candidates that they would be issued with temporary permits only and would not qualify for British citizenship. The emphasis should be on families with young children and people with qualifications who could help run camps and who would be of use in their native countries when they return home. The chosen refugees would be carefully checked and flown to England, by-passing the people traffickers.
The country which brought us the Olympics and the Glastonbury Festival should have no difficulty in setting up semi-permanent camps in rural parts of Britain, just like we did for the influx of East African Asians in the early 1970s and for refugees from Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s. The refugees should be encouraged to run these camps themselves, with doctors, teachers and administrators among those selected. These camps need to be scattered round the country so as not to put undue burden on hospitals and local services. As well as living accommodation, water, drainage and electricity, the refugees would need to be provided with food, clothing, medical and educational supplies. Charity shops are awash with donated clothing and supermarkets throw away vast quantities of edible food every day – the people of Britain who have so much would surely rise to the challenge of diverting resources to those in need on their doorstep. Refugees would be able to seek temporary work and further education should be offered to improve the prospects on their return home.
The financial burden for all this should not fall on our already overburdened local authorities but should come from the Government. Why not use our generous Overseas Aid budget to look after these overseas guests and help improve the future of these countries? We could also use Lottery money. This is an unusual emergency and diverting funds temporarily from vanity projects would be a responsible decision and a worthwhile sacrifice for the British public to make. It is an opportunity for the Conservative Government to take decisive action and do something future generations will be proud of.
We would also need a lot of manpower to run this project. By scattering the camps in the countryside, such as on disused airfields, they would be in reach of an army of retirees and the unemployed could be found work as well. Those who volunteer their services could lend their weight to this even bigger Big Society project. Expertise and resource could also be sought from organisations who have worked with resettling refugees in other parts of the world.
Whether we would offer to house 20,000 or 100,000 refugees, this project would enable the British to make a positive contribution to an enormous problem: we could look ourselves in the eye once more and would feel in years to come , when this crisis is but a memory, that we pulled our weight when the chips were down.