Hague made a visit to a Congolese Refugee camp alongside celebrity Angelina Jolie
“William Hague on Thursday urged world powers to help end the war in Syria after the "horrifying" sight of a dead Syrian toddler on a Turkish shore. “I am not in a position to say if it is a good or a bad thing to use ground forces” to intervene in the Syrian conflict, Hague said. speaking to BBC Radio's Today Program. Millions of people have fled Syria to escape its civil war, according to the UN. In the latest shocking sign of the migrants' plight, photographs of a small Syrian boy washed up dead made front pages around Europe. “The photograph is truly tragic. It is horrifying,” Hague said. “And it is a sign of something that is happening often. Many women and children have died in the Mediterranean”. Hague has faced demands for the United Kingdom to host a greater number of refugees, but he did not shift his position on Thursday.”
- Hague “horrified” by drowned toddler image, BBC News Bulletin (2015)
As Syria and Iraq collapsed Europe faced down it’s worst ever migrant crisis, the response from EU member states was decidedly mixed. Germany won international acclaim for welcoming Syrian refugees unconditionally, whilst countries like Austria and Hungary shut their borders and unleashed water cannons on migrants. Chaotic scenes erupted in Budapest as authorities closed the city's main train station, preventing refugees moving on to Germany. The Merkel administration processed over 800,000 asylum applications in 2015, quadruple the number of applicants in previous years - more than the rest of the EU combined. In an attempt to balance the refugee crisis, Berlin called on a European wide migrant quota, so EU member states would accept refugees in proportion to their population.
A showdown would quickly develop between allies of Germany, and newer Eastern European states suspicious of migrant quotas including Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. These states threatened to reintroduce border measures in violation of Shengen or even deploy soldiers to keep migrants out. Britain found itself in the middle of this debate. Being over 2,500 miles from Syria and with a massive unemployment rate Britain would not be an attractive location for Syrian refugees anyway. Without a quota Britain would likely be unaffected by the crisis. Thus the Hague administration had a choice, join with the Eastern rebels and let Germany shoulder the burden, or step up as a true European partner.
As the EU’s fourth most populous member state the Commission sought to assign Britain 21,000 Syrian refugees, around 18% of the 120,000 people the commission hoped to resettle. The Hague administration, especially Home Secretary Steven Woolfe, were resistant to the quota push, arguing Britain was already overwhelmed by the 4,000 asylum applications they had already received. Hague, a natural eurosceptic himself with one eye on the election, was also reluctant to join the quota scheme. This was until the image of Alan Kurdi, a three year old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean was published across the globe.
Many older Brits had experience of being refugees themselves
Kurdi’s death sparked a wave of sympathy for migrants across Europe, especially hitting the heart-strings of British voters - many of whom had lived as exiles or refugees themselves. At protests in London and across the country 230,000 people turned out under the banner “our home is your home” as marches began at Park Lane and proceeded to Downing Street. The protests were joined by leading politicians like Bell Ribiero-Addy and Owen Jones but also well known celebrities including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly and Colin Firth. The People’s Party wrapped itself in pro-migrant protests as Ribiero-Addy hailed a “remarkable turn” in public opinion.
“Few could have predicted, some months ago, such a response. The fact that in less than 24 hours more than 100,000 people signed a petition to welcome refugees advanced by change.org is the tip of the iceberg. What explains such reactions? With one in four still unemployed, British society had all the numbers to embrace a “Thanks, but no thanks” approach to the refugee crisis. That was the policy adopted by Hague’s government initially, now Britain will be the fourth biggest recipient of refugees in Europe. Pressure from society factored in the executive's decision to overturn its initial policy. Together the 71 refugees found in a lorry abandoned on a motorway in Austria and Aylan’s lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach were a tipping point. The images of the deadly lorry and Aylan made us all fall out of our Mephistophelian beds.”
- A turning point for Britain on refugees, David Blake, Open Democracy (2015)
As the public turned the politicians followed, in a shocking u-turn speech Hague announced Britain would accept the 21,000 refugees stating there was “no limit to Britain's solidarity with refugees”. In an unusually liberal speech Hague told journalists “now is not the time to quibble over numbers”. As well as the central Westminster Government, the Scottish Government under Patrick Harvie confirmed intentions to welcome a further 2,000 Syrian refugees on top of those settled by the Westminster scheme. Provincial Governments also announced their willingness to go further in accepting asylum seekers with South Yorkshire President Rosie Winterton even pledging to open up her own home to refugees in her province.
Provincial Government were embarrassing Westminster into action
Hague also emphasised to stop migration at it’s source. He joined with Merkel and Commission President Barnier in calling for a 1.8 billion euro EU fund to help African and Middle Eastern nations better manage their borders to slow the stream of migrants moving towards Europe. Now came the question of not only accepting refugees but absorbing them, Britain did not have a strong track record of assimilating refugees. When Johnson first came to power in 2005 he hoped to show Britain's new democratic progressive side by accepting thousands of Afghani, Iraqi and Cuban refugees in what ended as a complete fiasco with refugees unable to find work and many even emigrating. Britain had come a long way from the broken country it had been in 2005 but now she had to prove herself as a reliable host country.
There were also fears of the far-right. Whilst Britain had avoided the radical right entering mainstream politics like in France, the Netherlands and now even Germany, a xenophobic movement was still underneath the surface. With a weakened housing and public welfare system many observers worried parties like the Centrists could exploit tensions between British-born voters and their new refugee cousins. Britain and Germany had been the exception to the rise of radical conservative political forces, but now even Germany was succumbing to the growing far-right AFD. If Germany couldn’t resist the anti-migrant siren call, what hope did Britain - with fascists paramilitaries marching in the streets - have?
“Britain is very much the exception in Europe: France, Germany and the Netherlands have all seen the growth of anti-immigration parties. So why not the United Kingdom? To start with, say the experts, the majority of migrants who came to the UK did so during a construction boom, and they came to work. Migrants were well received because they fed the boom. What’s more, unlike in other countries, many migrants share a language and cultural traits with Brits. Another reason is that Brits are able to identify with the immigrant’s position, much more so than say, a German or a Finn. In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of Brits went abroad in search of work, and now, the children of those men and women are repeating the process.”
- Why Britain has resisted the rise of the far right, Robert Siegel, NPR (2015)
Civil Assistance had pivoted from anti-democracy activism to anti-refugee and migrant actions