THE BLOG
03/09/2015 13:54 BST | Updated 03/09/2016 06:59 BST

Europe Is Facing a Clear and Undeniable Refugee Crisis

On the humanitarian side, there's inspiring, exciting leadership, not mostly from governments or even charitable bodies, but individuals, people getting together and saying that they're not going to tolerate desperation, suffering and want, but are going to take individual action to provide refuge... Sadly, if predictably, the British government falls into the other pole of reaction to the crisis, with those who'd deny the reality of the need for refuge, who pull up the drawbridge of a peaceful, prosperous country and turn their back on desperation, fear and need, leaving the children to drown.

Europe faces a refugee crisis. A humanitarian crisis of desperate people with no choice but to flee war, political repression and state breakdown and it is now clear and undeniable.

As European Green Reinhard Butikofer reported from the Macedonian-Serbian border, the majority are from Syria, but they're also from Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. At other sites Eritreans, fleeing a repressive, rights-abusing regime, are also present in significant numbers.

These are people who are clearly, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, drawn up in response to the European crisis of World War II, in need of, and entitled to, refuge.

What's also becoming clearer, is that responses are polarising at two extremes.

On the humanitarian side, there's inspiring, exciting leadership, not mostly from governments or even charitable bodies, but individuals, people getting together and saying that they're not going to tolerate desperation, suffering and want, but are going to take individual action to provide refuge.

The people of Iceland deserve particular credit, 10,000 of their 300,000 total numbers stepping forward to say they'd personally provide a home for refugees - putting to total, overwhelming, shame their government, which had initially said it could provide refuge for a paltry 50.

There's what's known as, in terms that would have seemed strange indeed in the 1940s, an 'Airbnb' for refugees, Refugees Welcome, based in Berlin.

And in Britain, there's fragmented but passionate efforts scattered around the country, communities organising to say "we'll host refugees". I'm proud that in many places, from Brighton and Hove to Stroud, Camden to St Albans and in many other places; local Green parties and our councillors have been at the forefront of pushes to host Syrian refugees.

Many ordinary people across Europe are drawing on their family's experiences over generations - for exile and flight from war and conflict has been the fate of many Europeans for many recent centuries - and saying: "we will not abandon these refugees".

Green MEP Molly Scott Cato's article for the New Statesman last week draws parallels between the fate of today's refugees and the Jews denied sanctuary, or forced to hunt desperately for it, before the start of the World War II, has received considerable attention, understandably. The parallel is immensely powerful - and apt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't an unproblematic figure in humanitarian contexts (the case of the Palestinian girl Reemcomes to mind), but she deserves credit for declaring that all Syrians who make it to Germany will automatically be given refugee status. The message has already got through, with packed trains of refugees heading for Germany.

It's said some refugees are calling her 'Mama Merkel'. There's no chance, however, on current evidence, of any refugee talking about Mama May, or Papa Cameron.

For sadly, if predictably, the British government falls into the other pole of reaction to the crisis, with those who'd deny the reality of the need for refuge, who pull up the drawbridge of a peaceful, prosperous country and turn their back on desperation, fear and need, leaving the children to drown.

David Cameron, as he did in response to a direct challenge from me in the Leaders' Debates on his failure to join the UN programme to rehouse the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, has fallen back on the defence that we've provided significant funding to states neighbouring Syria to help deal with the refugee crisis. That's true, and commendable, but it clear isn't enough. Not providing a new home for those who need it is shirking our responsibilities.

So what should we do now?

First, we have to acknowledge that this is a crisis that needs a European - indeed eventually a global - response. We're in a situation like that in the 1970s, with the refugees from IndoChina, for whom the world found 2.5million new homes. It happened imperfectly, slowly, not entirely adequately, but it happened. The grandchildren of those refugees are now established, secure, valued members of societies around the globe.

In Britain, we should abandon the fiction of our own utterly risible "vulnerable Syrians" programme (at last count helping 216 refugees) and sign up to the UN scheme to take our fair share of the most vulnerable.

And in terms of a Europe-wide response, we should not be the foot-draggers, not be the resistors, but instead join Merkel's leadership in demanding a programme to ensure that those refugees who reach European soil are fairly distributed among European states - with Britain taking its reasonable share considering both our population and relative wealth.

That programme should be particularly focused on those with family and community ties already here, and the language skills that make them want to come to the UK. That's what would end the crisis and disruption at Calais.

More, we need to work with European states and the countries, particularly those neighbouring Syria, who have borne the great brunt of the refugee responsibility to set up an orderly resettlement programme that doesn't force refugees into the arms of smugglers and criminals to reach European shores. We can't take all of them, but we can take a significant number, which will help take the pressure off states like Lebanon, where one in four inhabitants is now a Syrian refugee.

And really, Cameron and allies, let's stop talking about tackling the smugglers and criminals as if they're a cause of the problem. They're not, they're a response to it - a response that's produced a many-headed Hydra. Even if you cut off one smuggling gang, there'll be another poor fisherman with a rotting hulk, another 'man with a van' ready to take their place.

We can't guarantee that we won't see yet one more tragic, pathetic figure of the dragging body of a drowned child in the arms of another tormented rescuer, but an orderly resettlement programme, combined with a safe, organised redistribution of refugees across the continent, would certainly drastically reduce the number of such photos and the number of hideous, almost unimaginable deaths like those of the refugees suffocated in a container lorry in Austria.