The news that Royal Navy vessels are to be sent to the Aegean to curb the activities of people smugglers has much to commend it, but for some, it masks the fact that many of those risking their lives and savings to clamber onto leaky and overcrowded boats are refugees.
Not so long ago the word ‘refugees’ conjured up images of innocent men, women and children fleeing terror. Today, the word refugee is sometimes interpreted as alien hordes, and tear gas and razor wire fences have been used to keep would-be refugees, including young children at a distance.
This morning’s decision on agreed controls goes to the heart of the moral dilemma of deciding whether refugee applies only to those fleeing a war or whether it can also encompass those seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere, and not just in Europe.
As a Sikh, I applauded the initial welcome given to refugees fleeing from Syria. It was a welcome that resonated with Sikh teachings that, even in the height of conflict, we should never forget that we are all members of the same one human race and our highest religious duty is to look to the needs of others.
The crisis in Syria is linked to the wider turmoil in the Middle East following the second Gulf War. The pro-democracy demonstrations, cracked down on in 2011, were followed by the emergence of ISIS with its brutalities and beheadings and the horror of bombs raining down on the long-suffering people of Syria, from all directions, including Russia, ISIS, the coalition allies and President Assad himself. Who would not wish to leave? The inevitable exit of refugees has almost become an unstoppable tide.
The problem, now, in dealing with such large numbers is immense. The current tentative ceasefire in Syria is perhaps the best hope for their future, but there are very real difficulties in translating this to peace and stability.
Sikh teachings are not alone in emphasising our common responsibility to help those fleeing tyranny. I believe it’s important that any agreed system of controls on the grounds of expediency should not reduce our sense of our common humanity, or blind us to the importance of our values and ideals.