After what I’ve seen in Greece, I think we must take refugees

A migrant boat from Turkey arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos.  By Ben Lowry
A migrant boat from Turkey arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos. By Ben Lowry

For most of this month, I have been in Lesbos, the Greek island that has been overwhelmed with migrants.

It has been unreal.

A migrant boat in the sea halfway between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. By Ben Lowry

A migrant boat in the sea halfway between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. By Ben Lowry

The prosperous island with a population of 85,000 people has become a transit camp through which more than 100,000 migrant-refugees have this year passed (en route to the Greek mainland, and then northern Europe).

The pictures on this web page, which I took on my phone within an hour of each other, give a glimpse of the scale of the problem. The photograph of the boat at sea (above) was taken midway between Turkey and northern Lesbos, which are six miles apart.

Minutes after that engine-powered dinghy had been guided (by the Greek skipper of the boat I was in) to safety in Molyvos Port, away from dangerous and rocky parts of the coast, another inflatable boat (at the top this web page) landed on just such a rocky beach, near the harbour. Boats arrive with a frequency of about one an hour.

Most of what you have heard about this bewildering crisis is true, both the sympathetic and less sympathetic stuff.

Ben Lowry News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry News Letter deputy editor

There are families and children at risk as they cross dangerous waters in overladen dinghies (the boat above emerged from such a small speck in the distance that a passing Greek coast guard vessel seemed to miss it. If it had capsized, it might have been an hour or more before it was spotted, if at all).

There is a large preponderance of young men.

Most of them have smart phones, so they are not poor by the standards of the societies they are leaving.

There are people who are fleeing war (one young man showed me a picture — on his smart phone — of the demolished top floor of his home in Aleppo) but there are also economic migrants.

One thing that you might have heard is not true, however. They are not heading to the UK. I talked to scores of migrants-refugees (most of whom have some English, which is the main language of communication in all the countries through which they pass), not one of whom cited Britain as their destination.

Why not I asked some of them? “It is like castle,” said a Syrian man (as in a fortress).

The tough immigration message sent out by the UK and bolstering defences at Calais has worked as a deterrent.

The destination of choice is Germany, but Sweden, Holland and Belgium are cited. Such attitudes show why David Cameron is right to try to send a signal by taking people from Middle Eastern camps.

But this has become one of the most troubling dilemmas I have witnessed. It is plain on humanitarian grounds that we must help these mostly desperate people who have been badly ripped off by traffickers in Turkey ($1,200 per person per crossing) and are often walking tens of miles in heat, for example across Lesbos. 
Even the most affluent of the Syrians are in a horrendous bind. They are fleeing chaos that Britain played some part in fanning, with the Iraq and Libya interventions (which, incidentally, I supported but I now accept were disastrous).

But it is also plain that kindness will worsen the situation (such as Angela Merkel’s pledge that Germany would take 800,000 migrants). Even so, I became increasingly convinced that Northern Ireland is right to take 2,000 Syrians. Could we take 20,000?

Let’s start with 2,000. Even that will be significantly more per capita than the EU as a whole, which is distributing 120,000 people among a bloc of nations with a population of 500 million.

The EU is accommodating one refugee for every 4,000 of its citizens. We would be taking one for every 900.

My views on immigration have been hawkish for 20+ years. In 1993 Winston Churchill MP (grandson of the war leader) was mocked for expressing justified concerns that Britain was taking in 50,000 people a year, 500,000 people a decade. At that pace, the UK population would have risen 1.1 million since his remarks.

But immigration rates have soared since then and far more people than that have come in. England is Europe’s most densely populated country, and its southeast struggles to cope with the number of people who want to live there.

But our Province has a much lower population density. I would gamble — and it is a gamble — that we could benefit from the resourcefulness of the fine people I saw.

It has long been clear that there are problems in unintegrated multicultural societies, as illustrated by the British jihadists. After the Paris massacre, I wrote about the West’s weak failure to denounce murderous Islamists.

But the migrants in Lesbos were impressive and dignified. I met a Syrian vet, an Iraqi professor of French, an Afghan engineer, among many others. It is a fresh tragedy for these countries to lose such people. The Afghans were poorer than Syrians, but stoical in a grim situation.

One reason the people of Lesbos were relatively calm about the waves of new people was that incomers were observing key social rules. They did not steal or even beg (although their litter upset locals).

Given the numbers entering Europe, there will be some terrorists and criminals among them, but I think these are overwhelmingly people who are fleeing terror and despise it.

Accepting many refugees in Northern Ireland ideally would happen in certain circumstances, including significant welfare reform that makes work more attractive and rules out any ‘benefit tourism’ incentive.

There would need to be acceptance from migrants that they might be housed for long spells in temporary accommodation such as disused barracks.

There would ideally be Stormont support for integration programmes, such as citizenship and intensive English language classes.

Also, cross-party support for the intelligence services and swift removal of anyone involved in hate preaching or extremism.

Their movement within the UK would initially be restricted, painful though this sounds to unionists.

Such conditions, if even legal, would be hard to agree (we cannot even share schools as it is).

When it comes to accepting migrants (as opposed to refugees) I also wonder if it is entirely unreasonable for some weight to be paid to cultural background, such as the Syrian Christians.

We accept that countries can discriminate on other grounds (I would be barred from Australia both due to my age and being in a trade they don’t need).

That is a question of immigration policy, and migrants are treated differently to refugees (separarting the two fairly is an almost impossible task).

But even if we are more lenient with refugees, there will — regardless of how generous we are — come a stage when, sadly, we have to say “no entry” to hundreds of thousands of people.

Longer term I would spend some of the billions saved from welfare on increasing — yes, increasing — the UK 0.7 per cent of GDP foreign aid budget (on the pragmatic grounds of trying to stabilise impoverished and failed states and the moral grounds of helping those who really cannot help themselves).

But for now we can, to some degree, accommodate people in a catastrophe.

And we should.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor