25 August 2015

Humanist Debate on the Refugee Crisis

I had not managed to get to a South West London Humanists discussion meeting for a few months mainly because the move from Mondays to Tuesday gave me a clash with Big Ideas but that had gone dormant (or had finished) so the SWLH meetings came into the reckoning again. That did not mean that I was certain to go, it needed a reasonable topic too.

The refugee/migrant crisis was a topic I was keen to discuss having done so many times on Twitter while listening to Any Questions on Radio 4. It's a subject I feel passionate about for the same reason that I am a Humanist. These are real people dying and suffering severe hardship and they have as much right to a decent life as anybody else. They are not numbers and being foreign does not make them less important.

The logistics should have been good as Richmond is easy to get to from home and easy to get back to from working in London or Reading. Unfortunately on the day I was working in Leatherhead which means a long walk to the station to catch a train to Clapham Junction and then another one out again to Richmond. I got to The Cricketers soon after 7pm and while the others started to troop upstairs for the socialising I stayed down to have a spicy bean burger and my first pint. Both were good.

I got myself a second pint and went upstairs to join the others. Just in time it transpired as, with fifteen minutes or so to go until the start of the discussion almost all of the chairs was taken and I gratefully grabbed one of the last ones.

The debate was kicked-off by our chairman, Jeremy Rodell, who presented a few slides of numbers taken from the ONS etc. The introduction finished with some more numbers, this time from the Radio 4 programme More or Less. The technology failed so I stepped in and found the programme using my iPad (connected to the pub's wifi) and we plugged it into the speakers to listen.

We then took to table groups to have the discussion before coming together at the end to swap our main points. What follows is a mix of my notes from the time and some subsequent comments mostly things I tweeted during Any Questions a few days later when this topic came up again.

There was consensus that governments should work together both to try and resolve the situations in Syria etc. and to address the refugee problems arising from these conflicts. We do not help these countries or their people by building barbed wire fences in Calais.

But this will take time and I suspect that some countries (ours?) are hiding behind the need for mulit-country agreement as an excuse not to act now.

There was less consensus on what we should do about the immediate problem of the boats crossing the Mediterranean and refugees walking through Turkey. The UK is taking far fewer refugees than most European countries, especially when taking into account our relative population and wealth, and we should take more immediately.

Much as we have with foreign aid, I would like us to commit to being in the top-quartile of refugee takers in Europe. That would be leadership, which is sadly lacking at the moment. We claim to be a compassionate and rich country, now is a good time to prove it.

I was a little surprised, and somewhat disappointed, that a lot of the discussion was about the impact on us and largely ignored that refugees are dying in large numbers. Even if taking in a few refugees made things a little worse for a few people here, and I am not sure that it would, then surely that is a fair exchange for saving lives and giving people a second chance at a decent lives. Surely that is what Humanism means.

The headline from all this is I am deeply ashamed that so many people in this country, including the Government, are willing to watch many people die rather than have the possibility of suffering any discomfort themselves.

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