The Refugee Council’s advocacy manager, Anna Musgrave, said: “We have a proud tradition of protecting refugees. We’re not living up to it. It’s extremely disappointing. What’s needed in the U.K is real leadership on this.”
The political conversation in Germany has been markedly different. This week Angela Merkel used the language of shared European ideals and said the continent as a whole had to deal with the problem. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed,” she warned. In July the German chancellor tried to comfort a teenage Palestinian asylum seeker who burst into tears in front of her during a televised debate.
This month Merkel was widely criticised for acting too slowly in condemning anti-refugee riots in the Saxon villages of Freital and Heidenau. But after she spoke out, both centre-left and centre-right politicians have largely united around Merkel’s leadership on the issue.
For the left, accepting refugees is about solidarity with those fleeing persecution and war. For conservatives there is a pragmatic impetus too: Germany is an ageing society with a shrinking population, and might benefit from an influx of young, highly motivated workers. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, sister party to Merkel’s CDU, has been the only major party to sound a more critical note.
Downing Street is refusing to take part in a new quota system proposed by Berlin, which would see refugees fairly distributed among all 28 EU states. This strategy may entail consequences. German officials have said Cameron has made various demands of fellow EU states before the UK’s referendum on EU membership. These are unlikely to be met if he won’t do more on refugees, they have hinted.
Thousands of ordinary Germans have volunteered to help the refugees now arriving daily. Some have filled up their cars with shopping, and distributed clothes, nappies, food and cuddly bears. Others have offered German lessons, translation and babysitting. Martin Patzelt, an MP from Merkel’s CDU party, has housed two refugees from Eritrea. They are now living with him temporarily at his home in Brandenburg.
In particular, women have offered to help – 70% of those offering services to refugees are female, according to a recent survey. The response has sometimes been overwhelming. A Berlin-based group, Refugees Welcome, which matches refugees with people willing to give them a room, has been flooded with offers. More than 780 Germans have signed up. On Tuesday police at Munich station tweeted the public to stop bringing donations, saying that they had been inundated.
In Britain, the refugee crisis has been less acute. There are signs here too, however, of ordinary citizens wanting to contribute. A pro-refugee rally in central London took place on 12 September, just before the Brussels summit. helping refugees.” They added: “We can’t continue to allow thousands to die trying to reach the EU and their legal right to claim asylum.”
Groups such as City of Sanctuary and the Unity Centre in Glasgow have long offered support to asylum seekers.