Britain should copy Ireland, keep its opt-out of a common EU asylum policy, and accept more refugees

The situation in Europe has deteriorated into tragedy. The continent now faces a refugee crisis of biblical proportions as it is overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands fleeing the chaos in Syria. Failure to change British policy in the face of changing facts would imply unintelligent obstinacy. Failure to be moved by images of children washing up on the Turkish shore would imply moral blindness. It’s time for Britain to open its borders and take a far larger share of Syria’s refugees.

The bulk of the responsibility for this crisis lies, of course, with the Syrian combatants. But the West has contributed. We dithered too long over opposing the Isil because we were scared of another Iraq. But while it’s right to heed the lessons of history, that doesn’t mean we should be prisoners of it – it’s obvious that military action is now necessary not only to save Syria but to reduce the flow of people to Europe.

The European Union has handled that deluge appallingly. It operates a protectionist immigration policy that means free movement for insiders but exclusion for outsiders, a double standard bordering on racist. It insists that each member state deals with its asylum seekers by itself, via the Dublin Convention, leaving Greece and Italy to take responsibility for nearly the entire Mediterranean. It tore up the border controls between countries, which encouraged Greece and Italy to send the problem northwards to Germany and Scandinavia.

Some have walked to Calais, where they have come up against the most shameful immigration policy of all: Britain’s. In order to meet its target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands – totally unobtainable while we are in the EU – the Government has done its best to squeeze migration from outside the EU. That means taking as few asylum seekers as possible. So while our businesses have grown fat on cheap labour imported from the comparatively wealthy EU, we have blocked entry to people fleeing for their lives. We have chosen cheap plumbers over persecuted families. We have outsourced the serving of Mammon.

Alternative policies are possible. In the short term, Britain could copy Ireland, keep its opt-out of a common EU asylum policy, and accept more refugees – safeguarding sovereignty but still doing the decent thing. In the longer term, there needs to be a reckoning. Britain could leave the EU, reduce European migration and accept larger numbers of refugees instead. Or it could remain within the EU, accept that it’s not going anywhere, and push for a more integrated asylum policy. The Dublin Convention needs to be torn up and the EU has to accept that the Mediterranean is effectively one border. Schengen needs reform. Generous quotas should be accepted by nation states. Whatever Britain’s final decision, the status quo is not working.

For those worried about the impact upon controlling UK migration levels by taking more refugees, do not confuse compassion with weakness. On the contrary: it’s because Europe has waited so long to deal with its refugee problem that it also faces an economic migration problem. By asserting control over this situation, we can handle both better. As I’ve argued before, this means patrolling the Mediterranean properly, handling asylum applications offshore and making a clear distinction between refugee status and economic migration. Too often, we are told by Left and Right that immigration is either a matter of letting everyone in or locking out the world. This is nonsense. It’s about control and flexibility. A properly structured immigration policy has the capacity to be a humane one – because it can increase and reduce economic migration as the host nation requires, while being more responsive to humanitarian emergencies.

At present, Europe’s approach to immigration vacilates between doing nothing and the brutal suppression of migrants at its borders. And the consequence is human misery.

British policy should be a combination of reason and ethics. We are, lest we forget, a Christian country. Our national religion is founded on stories of exodus and flight from persecution. Moses fled the Egyptians. Jesus’s parents fled Herod. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that God is present in the persecuted and that we are rewarded for treating the weak kindly: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Hospitality is a first principle of civilisation. Righteous homes keep an open door.

It would not represent a weakening of our society to open our hearts to the Syrians. It would confirm our highest virtues. While our extremist, Islamist enemies drive people away and slaughter any opposition, we ought to welcome the needy with open arms. We have an obligation to our fellow man. We must rise to it.