Brian Monteith: Easy decisions not always best

Germany's welcome for migrants is understandable, given the country's demographic need for workers to ensure its continued economic success, in contrast to the UK. Picture: Getty
Germany's welcome for migrants is understandable, given the country's demographic need for workers to ensure its continued economic success, in contrast to the UK. Picture: Getty
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Compassion is understandable but solving the problem is more important than curing the symptom, writes Brian Monteith

IT WAS easy to be upset by the photo of the young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach, drowned after the dinghy his family used trying to reach Greece capsized.

Aylan Kurdi, left, and his brother Galeb died after their boat sank. Picture: AP

Aylan Kurdi, left, and his brother Galeb died after their boat sank. Picture: AP

Who would not be touched by such a saddening representation of the many deaths that the Syrian civil war is causing, be they in Syria, in neighbouring lands such as Iraq, or those at sea fleeing the life of hell that pursues them whichever way they turn?

Naturally, in these times of instant communication when a photograph asks so much of our emotions, we ask can nothing be done? It takes far more time and effort to ascertain circumstances and consider the context of both the regional and international politics or personal economics before rushing off to Tweet or make demands of our governments in coruscating articles.

It is easy to be angry with authorities for allowing such scenes to happen and it is also easy for the very politicians that direct those authorities to begin grandstanding so they can show how they too are concerned just like us. So we have our leaders in the Scottish and UK governments – each with their different interpretations, but also their different political agendas – telling us how they are going to intervene.

The cynic in me looks to identify their self-interest, the optimist in me hopes their well-intentioned interventions are sincere and bear fruit, while the pessimist in me fears that like so many things politicians touch the consequences will simply worsen the situation immediately or store up greater problems further down the road. For instance Germany, with its own demographic time-bomb ticking, needs economic immigrants desperately to provide able workers for its future economic existence, while the UK does not.

It is easy to be outraged, it is easy to be sympathetic – but it is difficult to rationalise the true causes and it is even more difficult to effect any change in what causes the death of the likes of Aylan Kurdi.

There are wider issues at hand regarding how we in Scotland, the United Kingdom and, so long as we remain a member, the European Union, deal with asylum seekers or refugees – or economic migrants. For a start each term has a different meaning and therefore each group of people operate under different rules. This is no consolation to the remaining family of Aylan Kurdi, but it is only by constructing and maintaining a reliable process that more deaths and more painful anarchy can be avoided. It is also by devising such a process that the likes of future Aylan Kurdi’s can be saved from death. Aylan Kurdi’s family had been pursuing legal escape to Canada.

Even those wishing to open our doors to everyone who makes a plea for help will still require a legal process to humanitarian deliverance. We operate under international law, most notably the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees, as amended in the 1967 protocol to extend protection to anyone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

What this means is that there is a legal process that needs to be followed so that some order, and by implication as much justice, is served to the asylum seekers – so that there is equity in dealing between them. For some will have greater claims than others; most will likely be genuine cases of suffering, some will be opportunists and some may be criminals, or worse, possibly terrorists. Legal process also has to ensure equity towards those who are already here, for we must be mindful that if those we bring in are to be welcomed then everyone must believe the process is compassionate and just without creating economic advantages unavailable to the hosts. We cannot ignore that there are those who will seek to exploit such help to sow disharmony to feed their own political agendas.

So when politicians start saying – as they have across Europe – that they will take in refugees to their own household, that they will take more than their neighbours, or they will will spend more taxpayer’s money on “refugee aid” or the foreign aid budget, we need to question their motives while asking are they dealing with the real problem or worse, seeking to benefit from the public disquiet by treating the symptoms – such as the death of Aylan Kurdi?

Having worked in Tunisia immediately following the Arab Spring of January 2011, I have to draw attention to the complete failure of western foreign policy in how it has addressed the repercussions of that popular uprising. In Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya and then in Syria the failure of the west, both in intelligence and analysis, and then strategic planning, has been colossal. If there is blame to be dispensed, and there has to be a political reckoning if we are to avoid further grievous errors and countless more deaths, it must rest with the leader of the west, President Obama, and his chief adviser of that time, Hilary Clinton.

The arrival of Isis, the dominance of Putin and the new strength of Iran comes from their policies.

Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Angela Merkel lurched from one crisis to another, making up their solutions randomly. Don’t intervene in Egypt – but intervene in Libya – but don’t intervene in Syria. Or do intervene in some of these theatres, but don’t admit as much and try to hide the e-mail trail.

Opening our doors wider without due process will solve nothing, it won’t even save future Aylan Kurdi’s – devising a better foreign policy that confronts state-sponsored terror is the solution.