No one studying Theresa May’s record as home secretary and prime minister could question her commitment to border control. She has staked everything – her reputation, her authority and, by extension, the future of the country – on this one issue. She wants Britain to admit fewer foreigners, regardless of their country of origin or their motive for making the journey. This wins few friends on the continent, where politicians accuse Mrs May of lying to make her case.
The fixation with outsiders explains the government’s decision to abandon commitments made last year to give sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees. When Mr Cameron acquiesced to the scheme – introduced as an amendment to a bill cracking down on illegal immigration – the universal expectation was that help would be provided for at least 3,000 children. To date, there have been only 350 beneficiaries of the “Dubs amendment”, named after the peer who proposed it – himself once a child refugee from the Nazis.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, told MPs on Thursday that the scheme had become “a magnet for people traffickers” and that the government must avoid “incentivising” migration. This is consistent with the prime minister’s position, repeated at an EU summit last week, that the continent should be mindful of “pull factors” encouraging people to make perilous journeys to Europe. This is a disingenuous way to frame the issue. It implies that cutting off the “pull” represented by miserly offers of sanctuary to the few can mitigate the “push” of a bloody civil war in Syria. Citing the nasty business of trafficking in this context smears innocent refugees by association with the criminals by whom they are exploited when terror drives them to flee their homes.
The government’s auxiliary argument is that other routes for asylum are available. This too is flimsy. Lord Dubs proposed his amendment because the scale of the refugee crisis vastly outweighed the volume of help being offered by Britain. Mr Cameron refused to join an EU arrangement to disperse refugees throughout the union. A charitable impulse had to be forced out of him by parliament. Mrs May has amplified her predecessor’s resistance to burden-sharing, confident that public attitudes are hardening. Xenophobic nationalists are polling well in many EU countries and one now controls the White House. The prime minister has observed the awkward predicament of Angela Merkel, whose first impulse of generosity was quickly tempered by rebukes from domestic rivals and fellow EU leaders. Donald Trump uses Europe’s angst over refugees from predominantly Muslim countries as a racist parable of Christian civilisation under threat.
Mrs May calculates that the acceptance of refugees in any numbers constitutes a political problem. She sees the provision of asylum not as a moral or legal duty but as a risk of contamination. She looks at Europe’s refugees as a continental affliction best managed by quarantine. And she will gladly suffer the opprobrium of liberal-minded MPs, charities and religious leaders – including the archbishop of Canterbury – if it means escaping wrathful tabloid headlines stoking fear of invading foreign hordes. The numbers actually involved in the Dubs scheme are tiny, the least the government could do after every effort had been made to prick ministerial consciences. Now even that ember of compassion is to be extinguished.
The manner of its snuffing out – the news buried in a statement issued on the eve of parliament’s recess – proves that the government knows what it has done is shameful. That does not mean the prime minister or home secretary are truly ashamed. They hope the moment will pass; that not enough people will care about the cold-blooded cruelty of their actions; that the political cost of callousness is negligible. For the sake of Britain’s reputation as a country that still knows some solidarity with victims of war and terror, we must hope they are wrong. Mrs May must reverse this decision or be haunted by it.