Last Saturday my wife, our sons and I joined 90,000 others snaking through central London with placards aloft and cries of protest, the warm atmosphere created by a celebration of a shared idea, summed up in the slogan 'refugees welcome'. The next day in our local swimming pool my son chatted with a boy recently arrived from Syria, the idea of welcoming a refugee no longer abstract but very real. After years of charity campaigns enjoining us to 'Save Darfur' or 'Stop Joseph Kony' it is rare for a campaign slogan to feel as personal and immediate as the simple 'refugees welcome'.
The shocking pictures of Alan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach galvanised public opinion which has remained several steps ahead of the government's ability and willingness to respond to the refugee crisis. The offers British people have made to share their homes with refugees and take supplies to Calais is driven by a truly genuine desire to help. Yet few welcomes in life are unconditional. While the British Isles can regulate the numbers of people arriving at our natural borders, this is not possible for mainland Europe. What does it mean to welcome not a just a handful but hundreds of thousands, with the prospect of many more coming? For Germany and other central European countries the welcome extended by government and people is under severe strain.
Official EU negotiations have fixed on the resettlement of a mere 160,000 refugees; a fraction of those refugees estimated to already to have arrived in mainland Europe. The 8 million internally displaced people in Syria and 4 million refugees in neighbouring countries are in an increasingly desperate situation with restrictions on working rights and cuts to food aid. For example, Plan is working in Egypt, where an estimated 300,000 refugees have arrived. We are helping Syrian refugee children and their families with child protection and education, including plans to renovate and furnish 40 schools. This is needed because life is far from easy after escaping from Syria; accessing services can be a challenge. Children are particularly vulnerable and are often traumatised and afraid.
With real challenges remaining in the countries where the majority of refugees have settled, it is hard to imagine that the flow of refugees will decrease any time soon. Aided by the globalisation of communications, refugees are able to communicate with friends and family members in Western Europe in real time and to travel across continents, albeit through dangerous routes. We are facing a new paradigm in population movement that cannot be arrested by building higher fences. Yet this response is the default policy of many governments.
On Saturday the German government announced the closure of its southern borders with Hungary and Hungary proceeded to close its border with Serbia. Europe is facing the choice between accepting huge numbers of refugees or watching the humanitarian crisis in Syria and its neighbours simply being displaced to other locations in North Africa and Southern Europe. If we do not enable refugees to proceed through safe and legal routes to find refuge we are accepting watching them die and living in destitution.
With events overtaking official discussions, policy makers must change gears and move on from this static discussion of conservative numbers of refugees and acknowledge the scale and potential of this crisis and need for a paradigm shift in how we understand Europe's population.
The systems to manage the current influx humanely are not in place, though the EU has both the space and the resources to accommodate more refugees than it has so far. Some 1.3 million Vietnamese people were absorbed by the 'West' without society breaking down several decades ago, and, still, refugees currently represent just 0.11 per cent of the EU's total population. But let's be honest about the challenge.
To make millions of refugees truly welcome, these 'host' communities must be supported and this will have a cost. The Refugees Welcome march last week showed that many British people acknowledge and accept that cost. It is not enough for governments to say they will take in an arbitrary number of refugees. Governments must respond according to the scale of the problem as it presents itself and there must be a clear costed plan to help support them once they have arrived, to ensure these people feel they have arrived somewhere truly safe and welcoming, and also to ensure the ongoing support of Europe's existing population.
There are no easy answers. Yet for Europe's welcome to remain sincere and feasible we need to confront the scale the challenge ahead and do it now.