What The Parties Are, Or Rather Aren't, Saying About Refugees

22/05/2017 17:16 BST | Updated 22/05/2017 17:16 BST
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Less than two years ago, the issue of asylum was inextricable from that of Britain's membership of the European Union. Headlines decrying the "influx" of refugees onto the continent dominated the newsstands. Brexit campaigners claimed that the UK was at "breaking point". Yet somehow, despite negotiations for Britain's exiting of the EU underway and a General Election imminent, refugee policy has fallen off the political radar almost completely.

This is certainly not because the refugee crisis has ceased to exist. Poorly-crafted boats of men, women and children continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean every day- just two weeks ago twenty people were feared to be dead off the coast of Sicily. But an analysis of the main parties' manifestos, or a glimpse at politicians' rhetoric in the run-up to the election, would not betray this at all.

Let's examine this in more detail. The Conservatives make little mention of the refugee crisis in their manifesto. Indeed, the section of their manifesto dedicated to their approach to Brexit does not mention asylum arrangements whatsoever- perhaps surprising, since European co-operation on refugees is governed through various legal agreements such as the Dublin Regulations and the Asylum Procedures Directive, all of which will have to be renegotiated during the Brexit process.

What the Conservatives do promise, however, is of questionable legal validity. The party pledges to "reform asylum" by offering asylum to people who are displaced and fleeing conflict, but not to those who have fled conflict and made it to the UK. Presumably, this means that refugees that do undertake the life-threatening and traumatic journey to the UK will simply be repatriated upon their arrival. Given that the 1951 Convention on refugees, which they seem to have no intention of un-signing, explicitly prohibits expulsion of refugees at borders, this pledge is at best illegal, and at worst, utterly inhumane.

So what about the alternatives on offer? The Labour manifesto, to its credit, does acknowledge at various points that there is a problem with the current management of refugees, and says "we will review these arrangements" (it is not stated how these will be reviewed, and whether it will improve the situation). It also accepts that there is some kind of moral duty towards the world's most vulnerable people. But despite the promising preamble, the only pledge that follow is a commitment to "taking our fair share of refugees". The inclusion of the word "fair" renders the pledge so vague as to be completely devoid of any commitment. This is rather disappointing given the statements that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has previously made about refugee resettlement.

The only main UK-wide party that makes a measurable commitment to refugees is the Liberal Democrats, who promise to resettle 50,000 Syrian refugees over the lifetime of the next Parliament. Upon first glance, this seems impressive- until it's remembered that, according to UNHCR, 33,972 people are forced to flee homes every day, and that Germany had 441,800 first time asylum-seekers registering in 2015 alone. Through this lens, offering to resettle 10,000 a year is hardly ambitious.

Unfortunately for those fleeing persecution, our humanitarian responsibilities are not a popular political topic. For a politician navigating a hazardous political climate, making a real commitment to resettling refugees is like opening a Pandora's box, which offers very few electoral returns. Party strategists are aware of this, and do everything they can to avoid the issue becoming front and centre of any campaign.

But with a crucial period in the UK's foreign policy approaching, it is more important than ever that refugees stay on the political agenda. This General Election and the subsequent Brexit deal will set the tone of Britain's international relations possibly for generations to come. All sides need to do better if the UK is to honour its international, and moral, responsibilities.