Theresa May, a migrant crisis, and lessons not learnt

Mare Nostrum is the name given to the Italian Naval operation wherein the Italians patrolled the Mediterranean, picking up migrants trapped in precariously overladen vessels. The operation is credited with saving thousands of lives. However, in this country, it was met with criticism, ans by this country I mean the Home Secretary, Theresa May. May suggested that the operation was a “pull factor” for migrants. This was in October last year. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the notion that the sensible thing for Britain to do was to turn her back on the crisis turned out to be utter nonsense. Migrants did not stop trying to cross. In fact, the numbers increased exponentially. Further, the lack of initial assistance for the Italians irrefutably resulted in the loss of lives in the Mediterranean. Theresa May was wrong. Her mistake hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was criticised in The Times, by David Aaronovitch, who quoted Shelley to emphasise her lethargic actions. Receiving flack from her own flank – the right leaning Times –  speaks to the discontent with her leadership.

How not to deal with a crisis

Theresa May, perhaps unexpectedly, has found herself in the midst of what is likely to be her career defining moment. The European Migrant Crisis was unprecedented, and has already been called the worst refugee incident since World War Two. Whilst her and other European leaders squabble about quotas and borders and aid packages, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of migrants waiting at the door. This isn’t a metaphor, it’s not creative imagery.

In Calais, there is a migrant camp for those wishing to cross to the UK, inhabited by thousands. In Southern Greece and Italy, there are Islands overflowing with migrants awaiting passage to mainland continental Europe. On the Hungarian/Serbian border, there is a race between migrants trying to crawl into Europe underneath the existing fences and the Hungarian government trying to build new ones. Instability and war, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya, has given rise to a torrent of people desperately seeking out a safer and more peaceful existence in Europe.

The refugees aren’t to blame

Who are we to absolve ourselves from the situations which led to this point? By not enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, by idly ignoring the crossing of Obama’s ‘Red Line’ (the use of chemical weapons in Syria), by responding to political whims not to decisively intervene anywhere in the Middle East after Iraq, we have allowed Syria to be decimated before our eyes, for Iraq to devolve into warring factions, for Libya to effective divide itself. We missed our opportunity to stem the tide three or four years ago. We must now deal with the consequences of our inactivity. We must act as we did after World War Two and care for and house the refugees. We must not play bureaucratic pass-the-parcel, apathetically allowing Germany to take in all the refugees. Theresa May needs now, more than ever, to flex her political muscle and lead. Britain should not cower and batten down her hatches. We should act with humanity and give dignity to those who have quite literally crossed continents to arrive here.

This won’t just be May’s defining moment. How Britain responds to these events will dictate the legacy of Cameron’s premiership too. Have we lost the humanity we found in WW2, when Britain was in a far less fit state to take migrants? Have we forgotten that the promise of the European Union is peace and prosperity for all? Have we learnt nothing from Berlin, in 1989, when we were shown definitively that the height of walls will never match the height of human hope?