MHK Daphne Caine made the Manx news this week by asking the Chief Minister to reconsider the island’s position on resettling Syrian refugees.
The call comes a year and a half after the government decided not to accept Syrian refugees on the basis that the island was not in a position to do so, opting instead to make a donation of £1.5 million to the UN Refugee Agency.
The issue has proven controversial and polarising on the island. Some have accused the government of taking the easy way out by making a donation rather than actively participating in the UK’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).
Others argue that the government needs to take care of its own people before taking care of others, while some went as far as to suggest that the programme might allow terrorists to infiltrate the island.
The conflict in Syria has killed over 400,000 people since it began in 2011. To put that into perspective, that’s five times the population of the Isle of Man.
Over half the Syrian population have been forced from their homes and are either displaced within the country or living in refugee camps – the majority in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
In Syria today, the regime of President Bashar al Assad has all but won the war. One final rebel stronghold remains: the north western province of Idlib. It is likely the Assad regime will launch a siege of the area over the coming weeks, which regional governments have warned would result in a “bloodbath”.
3 million civilians are currently in Idlib, half of whom have been previously displaced from other parts of Syria.
Turkey and Russia have pre-emptively attempted to broker a ceasefire, but this will likely only delay the inevitable.
In light of what’s happening in Syria and the renewed debate on the island, I think it’s time we unpacked some of the misconceptions surrounding the issue:
1. “They’re not refugees, they’re economic migrants.”
Make no mistake: these people have nowhere to go.
The internally displaced people (IDPs) in Syria and the refugees who have left cannot go home because there is simply nothing for them to go home to. Their neighbourhoods have been obliterated by regime airstrikes and fighting.
Schools, hospitals, community centres, roads – destroyed. And even if they had homes to go back to, many are terrified of revenge attacks and massacres by the regime intended to reassert control and punish those who sided with the rebels.
2. “If they’re that badly off then why do they have nice trainers and mobile phones?”
Because they’re ordinary people.
They’re ordinary people like you and me. They have families, they had jobs, they had social lives, some of them had their own businesses. Trust me, they don’t want to be living in camps and relying on the compassion of the international community any more than you do. They want to be in Syria, back in their homes with their families, earning a living and contributing to their society with dignity and pride.
Of course many Syrian refugees have mobile phones – if your house was about to be bombed and you had to leave with nothing but your family and the clothes on your back, what would be the first thing you’d take? A mobile phone is a lifeline: contact with your family, GPS to guide you to safety, possibly a way to transfer money… What would you do?
3. “We can’t tell the difference between refugees and terrorists.”
Why yes, actually, we can.
The Syrian refugees who are resettled in the UK through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) are selected from camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. The majority of those chosen have been living in the camps for over three years. They go through a rigorous vetting process before being relocated to the UK, then on arrival they are initially received and housed at resettlement centres and vetted, again.
The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme is extremely selective and only resettles – you guessed it – vulnerable persons. That means people whose lives are at risk, those who have specific additional needs and/or those with no hope of ever returning home. Many refugees who are resettled in the UK are survivors of torture or other forms of violence, predominantly women and children.
4. “They’ll be sponging off our welfare system.”
No they won’t, they’ll be contributing to our economy!
There’s a perception that resettled refugees will act as a drain on our society, living off our government welfare system and not contributing to the economy. On the Isle of Man in particular, this simply wouldn’t be the case. We’re lucky to have very little unemployment on the island. In fact, we actually have the opposite problem: a lack of skilled and able workers to fill certain jobs.
Resettling skilled, capable refugees could therefore be an excellent way to boost our workforce and our economy. These people would work in professions that we most NEED (doctors, dentists, even teachers…). AND, get this, that means they would also be paying income tax which funds – you guessed it – the welfare system!
There is no reason at all why our government shouldn’t specifically look to resettle those working in professions we need here on the island, solving an economic problem as well as a humanitarian one.
There are plenty of examples of places where resettlement has been a huge success and massively benefited the local population. Take the Scottish Isle of Bute, for example, where refugees have been welcomed into the local community. Some have set up businesses while others volunteer in a charity shop funding the local food bank.
5. “They won’t integrate into our society”
Ok, let me just stop you there…
Are you seriously trying to tell me that it’s possible to move somewhere new on the island and NOT know all of your neighbours within five minutes? It’s the Isle of Man for goodness’ sake! You can’t help but get to know everyone because it’s so blooming small.
In fact, that’s where we really have the upper hand over big cities in the UK: It’s way easier to encourage cohesion in a smaller community like the Isle of Man, because people simply don’t have the option to ‘stick to their own’ and not integrate.
6. “The island couldn’t provide the post-trauma care refugees need.”
We don’t have to.
Yes, the VPRS selects individuals and families that have suffered in ways we cannot imagine. And yes, some of our services, including our mental health services, are already stretched and there’s a good chance we’d struggle to provide some of the psychosocial care that many refugees would need. But we don’t necessarily have to. All we need to do is clarify exactly what we CAN provide, and take only those refugees we have the capacity to care for.
It’s worth mentioning though, while we may be limited in what we can offer in terms of post-trauma care, we do have a network of individuals and organisations able and willing to provide things like English language tuition and counselling, to facilitate the resettlement process and support integration into the Manx community.
Now I’m not trying to argue that it would absolutely be the right course of action to resettle refugees on the Isle of Man, though I have put forward a number of positive factors that should be considered.
What I’m really trying to achieve by writing this is to dispel some of the myths surrounding the resettlement of refugees, broaden the debate and add a little more nuance to what seems to be the usual exchange of views on the subject:
“The government should take care of its own people first!”
“Don’t be such a racist!”
Neither of the above responses is particularly helpful, insightful, or respectful of the other side’s concerns.
Whether or not resettling refugees on the island is the correct course of action, it’s important to reconsider the Isle of Man’s position on the issue on an ongoing basis as the circumstances on the island, in Syria, and relating to the VPRS continue to change. For that reason, I welcome Daphne Caine’s attempt to reopen the debate and hope we can all try to engage constructively with it.
The two most important factors the government must consider – and which WE, the Manx people, must hold them accountable for – are the following:
To what extent might the resettlement of refugees actually benefit our island in the long term – whether in terms of economic growth, enriching our community through cultural exchange, and establishing the Isle of Man as a key player on the international stage?
How can we make the greatest impact we possibly can with the resources we’ve allocated to this issue?
If the answer to that question is by making a donation to the UN Refugee Agency – fantastic! As long as the decision is made for the right reasons and not simply to avoid taking responsibility for making a difficult decision.
I firmly believe that some of the comments I’ve read over the last few days do not represent our community. The Isle of Man is kind, compassionate, welcoming, dynamic and inclusive. Let’s not forget that.
If you want to do something to help refugees, please help us collect essential supplies for a Refugee Women’s Centre in northern France!
Laura Cretney is the Director of Al Ishara Consulting, a political and regional consultancy for organisations working in the Middle East and North Africa. She is also the Editor of Middle East politics, culture and travel blog, Pink Jinn. She speaks Arabic and has lived and worked in the region, most recently managing projects in Baghdad.