Britain has a Minister for Refugees and Not Much Else

Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, where David Cameron visited this week.

Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, where David Cameron visited this week.

On the 14th September, while on his first official visit to Lebanon, David Cameron appointed MP for Watford Richard Harrington as a new Minister for Refugees. Harrington’s remit is to ensure the 20,000 Syrian refugees which Britain has committed to accepting over the next five years are  given a ‘warm welcome’. Harrington will Chair the ministerial group on Syrian refugees and report to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. While the announcement has been greeted favourably, if a little warily, on social media, much remains to be seen regarding whether Harrington will be able to deliver the cornerstone of Cameron’s policy.

Harrington’s appointment from the backbenches is not due to any expertise on refugees or the Middle East. Despite an apparent interest in the region, he does not seem to have written or spoken publicly on the subject of the refugee crisis at all. Indeed, until a week ago his sole interaction with foreign policy regarding the Middle East in the past year was to vote for airstrikes against ISIL. More worryingly, last week he voted against taking in any more refugees than already mandated. In so doing, he towed the party line, which he has done for every vote of the current parliament. More than 24 hours after the appointment, he has made no official recognition of his new role.

He will not, then, bring specialist knowledge to the refugee crisis. Nor, it seems, will he challenge the UK to develop a more developed, multi-faceted and robust policy.

The appointment is a step in the right direction, but Britain’s current policy is inadequate and incomplete. Cameron’s pledge to accommodate 20,000 over the course of the current parliament – just 4,000 a year – pales in comparison to Lebanon’s refugee crisis, where approximately a quarter of the population is now a refugee. David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, has called for ‘far greater political and diplomatic muscle’ in order to alleviate the suffering of thousands of individuals and aid organisations have called on Cameron to accommodate more refugees. Similarly, a more robust policy must be developed that would take into account Caroline Lucas’ prescient argument that the profitable British arms trade facilitates conflict in the first place. The refugee crisis and the Syrian war are interlinked, and Britain desperately needs a policy for them both.

The failure of European leaders to reach a unanimous commitment to resettlement on the 14th September reveals the the complexities of resettling refugees. Britain, however, had already ‘opted out’ of any agreement. Opting out of working together to find a solution does not constitute a policy. Cameron’s call for other European countries to donate more money to refugee camps in Jordan will fall on deaf ears as long as Britain continues to isolate itself from both Europe and the Middle East.

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