How David Cameron learned about refugees

What difference a day makes…

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Two days ago, I watched the UK Prime Minister speak on national television explaining why the UK could not accept any more Syrian refugees. He looked uncomfortable when saying it, not making eye contact with the camera.

Like many British people, I got a little angry about this. My grandmother had taken in a destitute Hungarian refugee in 1956, she had little but had taken him into her home. Surely if the government was not willing to do anything itself, it could at least get out of the way and let the British people step in, as they had in 1956.

So I wrote this letter to The (London) Times newspaper. Surprisingly it was published, perhaps signalling that even conservative newspapers such as The Times were sensing that the government needed a powerful message – a reminder of some moral sense.

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The front page of the Times yesterday, and most other UK newspapers that day, was the shocking image of the little drowned boy Aylan Kurdi. One of those historic images that changes the tide of events.

Partly because of what my grandmother did and other refugees I knew in my early life, I spent most of my 20s and early 30s working on refugee settlement issues in Europe before moving into other areas of human rights.  By lunchtime yesterday, I was with two colleagues reflecting that, as with John Major on Bosnia in 1993, something would need to change quickly in government thinking. At 6pm yesterday, there were the first television reports of some announcement from 10 Downing Street which came this morning.

Most of the details about how the UK will respond have yet to be released. It will be in the single digit thousands (at least initially), refugees for resettlement nominated by UNHCR from the immediate vicinity of Syria itself. There are many unknown answers to complex questions still ahead, but the outpouring of letters and social media throughout the UK today reminds us that there is still a basic humanity underpinning the social contract that all democratic governments must service. They do indeed need social licence.

I end with two of today’s letters in The Times responding to my own and reflecting why ordinary British people  feel compelled to act. I hope that when it matters, a British Prime Minister will not forget this again. My deepest respects to the father of the Kurdi family and all asylum-seekers and refugees wherever they may be – the dispossessed and the desperate but also those closest to the dignity of life itself.

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