“Our values of compassion, fairness, and tolerance must define us most of all in times of crisis”
By Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross
Last Wednesday sadly saw the death of a young Sudanese man who drowned trying to reach our shores, the first reported death of a migrant in the English Channel this year. He and a friend had got into a tiny boat and set off from France in an attempt to find safety in our country, a journey that ended in the most tragic way.
Later the same day, I watched as reports came in that 45 people had been killed when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean, a stark reminder that what we witness in the seas close to us is repeated around the world, many times over.
A wake-up call for governments and humanitarian organisations
Often, a fatal final event is just one in a series of unimaginable dangers migrants face over months or even years as they search for safety and a chance to rebuild their lives.
These events should still be a wake-up call for governments and humanitarian organisations across Europe and around the world. We cannot allow ourselves to be daunted by the complexity of the issues. Every person who feels compelled to risk their lives in a desperate bid to reach a safer place is a person we have failed.
We need to move beyond current debates, which speak too little about the humanity of those who are risking and losing their lives. We must resist choosing easier narratives, avoid focusing solely on the criminal actions of the smugglers and traffickers who cruelly exploit vulnerable people, and restrain ourselves from batting responsibility back and forth between nations and agencies.
EVERY PERSON WHO FEELS COMPELLED TO RISK THEIR LIVES IN A DESPERATE BID TO REACH A SAFER PLACE IS A PERSON WE HAVE FAILED.
At a time when 1% of the world’s population have been forced to flee their homes in search of protection, real solutions can only be based on co-operation between countries.
The UK Government has been quick to set out what its global response has been in recent years. British people can be rightly proud of the many billions of pounds that we have given in development aid and humanitarian assistance, especially to those countries in regions that are hosting the vast majority of refugees and where it has doubtless helped to save many, many lives.
Providing protection and life-changing opportunities
I have visited countries in regions around the world dealing with huge refugee populations. Countries like Lebanon, in which around a third of people are refugees, and which is now dealing with the impact of coronavirus, as well as the devastating aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion. I have seen first-hand how nine out of ten people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution, disaster and discrimination, are supported in countries with far more challenged health systems and economies than in Europe.
I commend these nations for the humanitarian role that they play as well as the international support that makes that role possible. They are doing all they can; it’s only right that we do too.
Government ministers are right to speak positively about the Syrian Resettlement Scheme that has given 20,000 people displaced by the Syrian conflict a route to safety in the UK in the last five years. As the UK’s largest provider of support to refugees, the British Red Cross works with communities up and down the country, and we have seen first-hand the protection and life-changing opportunities the scheme has given to some of the most vulnerable refugee families.
A turning point for our country
And yet, we must continue to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing by people who are seeking asylum closer to home? How humanitarian as a nation are we really?
The number of people reaching the UK’s shores is small compared to the rest of Europe. Over the same five years that the Syrian Resettlement Scheme has been running, Germany has had 1.8 million asylum applications - nine times as many as the UK - and over half a million people claimed asylum in France, with a further 439,000 in Italy. Sweden, Greece, Spain and even Hungary have all had more asylum applications than the UK.
Some individuals and families want to seek asylum in the UK because we live in a multi-cultural country with a proud history of welcoming others, because English is the language they know, or because they have family or friendship connections dating back generations. It is their choice and it is understandable. But they are far from the majority.
The UK is at a turning point as it sets out its ambition for our future place in the world under the Government’s banner of a ‘Global Britain’. Last September, the Foreign Secretary wrote that “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”.
THE UK CAN AND SHOULD BE A DRIVING FORCE IN BRINGING COUNTRIES TOGETHER TO CREATE RESPONSES THAT HAVE SAVING LIVES AT THEIR HEART.
We share this vision of Britain as a responsible, global citizen and force for good. Our values of compassion, fairness, and tolerance must define us most of all at times of crisis.
The UK can and should be a driving force in bringing countries together to create sustainable and humanitarian responses that have saving lives at their heart.
Being a global leader in line with our values means helping to provide support and safety for people wherever they are in the world, be it near or far. If our humanity is to define us as a nation, then this needs to be true in both our words and our actions.
Chief executive of the British Red Cross
Mike Adamson has been chief executive of the British Red Cross since 2014.
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