(In)humanitarianism begins at home?

The UK would claim to be on the side of the angels in Syria. Who could dispute David Cameron’s claim, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Barack Obama, that he condemns the ‘horrific violence against innocent civilians’ in Syria? Yes, we ‘stand with those brave citizens across the Middle East and North Africa who are demanding their universal rights’. That is, as long as they don’t try and exercise one of those universal rights over here, and try to claim asylum.
Today, as ‘a direct response to emerging security and immigration threats to the UK’ Teresa May announced that nationals of Syria, Libya and Egypt will now be required to apply for a transit visa if they are travelling through British airports. This is, apparently, a ‘necessary measure to protect the security of our borders’. Yes, that’s right. Our security is threatened by those tanks in Homs. After all, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s asylum-seeker.
Make no mistake: this is a cynical bureaucratic ploy to ensure that no Arab Spring refugees will find their way here. Transit visas don’t grant a right of entry to the UK: they won’t even get you out of the airport. What they will do, however, is make it impossible to board the plane without one, thus nicely excluding all those brave, innocent citizens who might just have a pretty plausible claim to asylum. That is, “all” those brave, innocent citizens who can make it to an airport in Syria, acquire a plane ticket and a visa for their end destination. Amazing what “threats” we see, jumping at refugees’ shadows.
The Refugee Council’s condemnation of May’s policy makes clear its consequences: if the persecuted and those caught in civil conflict cannot obtain the necessary visa, they cannot leave. The UK border is effectively closed. Oh, we’ll talk a good talk on humanitarian assistance, but let it be delivered on the mountain-side in Turkey. Asylum – the right not to be returned to a place where your life or freedoms may be threatened – is a right we’re only prepared to defend at long-distance. Burden-sharing and international solidarity are nice words, but we’ll meet these obligations with our chequebook.
This government hypocrisy is disgraceful. But it is hardly unexpected. I spend a lot of my time these days writing about the economic of movement, and how the West has constructed new paper borders to keep out the poor and the persecuted. I wrote last year about the use of visa regime to keep Somalis and Afghans from moving legally. We did it in the 1930s. I suspect states will still be doing it in the 2030s.
So why write with such urgency and such anger? I think ultimately because this goes beyond critiquing government policy and demands all of us to ask hard questions about our own complicity in keeping suffering beyond our borders. Sure, watch Kony 2012; donate to the Red Cross; feel outraged at the television news reports. But do not believe for one instant that any of these gestures will change much. In these cases, our humanitarian instincts extend to pity, not solidarity.
Some who read this blog may argue that the proper place for humanitarianism is beyond our borders; that Syrians don’t need to come to the UK to save their lives. That is, as a bare fact, true: the vast majority of those displaced will remain in Syria, or travel by land to neighbouring states. But surely there is something deeply troubling in May’s gesture of inhumanity, that will make it more difficult for Syrians under threat to leave their persecutors, and implies that the only “real” refugees are those in camps in poor states?
We talk of universal rights: we’re on the side of the angels. Many humanitarian and human rights actors play a vital role in relieving suffering and shining a light on the worst of global inequalities. But when I read about the policies of organisations like the UKBA, inventing imagined ‘security and immigration threats’ everywhere, without much interest in the impact on those ‘innocent civilians’ who just happen to have the wrong colour passport, I can’t help but feel we’re missing the point. Perhaps we might have more power as citizens than as global activists: so while it might not be glamorous, and the injustices more bureaucratic, maybe humanitarianism actually needs to start at home.