Well-intentioned gestures may deprive the country of the only people who can help it long-term
Imagine a country bereft of high achievers, wealth creators and educated people. Where anyone with a profession, training or indeed any kind of get-up-and-go simply gets up and goes, to the point where no clever or talented folk are left.
No, this is not yet another apocalyptic column warning of what will happen to Britain in 2020 if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. This is the Syria of 2015, where anyone who is upwardly mobile is now also Westwardly mobile, in the hope that a rickety people-smugglers’ boat to Europe is a better gamble with one’s life than Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State.
It’s no surprise that such scenes touch people’s hearts, and at this weekend’s Solidarity With Refugees march in London, tens of thousands voiced their willingness to have more Syrians coming into Britain, even if they had to give them a bed for the night (or much longer than that).
But those same people surely also want Syria to rebuild itself once its hideous civil war eventually ends. And that’s where offering sanctuary to the country’s brightest and best — no matter how laudable it may seem — gets a little more complicated.
Indeed, it’s a problem that David Cameron grappled with on Monday when he visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, where Britain has earmarked a quarter of its £1bn Syrian aid package.
Meeting refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, he argued that rather than encouraging them to come to Britain, the solution was to make life in the camps as sustainable as possible through education and jobs.
But as I saw for myself during a visit to the Bekaa just last week, Britain’s current aid package, which includes funding 150,000 free school places in Lebanon, is nowhere near big enough to do that.
At the camp that Mr Cameron toured, one mum-of-ten was quoted as saying that she had found school places for all but one of her children. But at the camp I visited nearby — which Mr Cameron’s wife also toured two years ago — barely a single child had seen a classroom in years.
Instead, they spent all day in the local fields picking potatoes — partly to pay rent for the shacks they were living in, and partly because there were no schools to go to anyway. One parent pointed out bitterly that the first word his newest-born kid had learned was not Mummy or Daddy, but «potato».
You don’t need much schooling of any kind to see where all this leads. As it happens, most of the Syrian parents in that camp do not wish to head to Europe. They lack either the contacts or the cash to do so, or feel they’ve journeyed far enough from home already.
If one thing might change their mind, though, it’s the prospect of their kids going without school for years. The civil war is now so intractable that many adult Syrians are already resigned to their own lives having no future, but that’s all the more reason why they don’t want the same fate for their kids.
However, by the same logic, those who are motivated enough to make it across to Europe on a people smugglers’ vessel tend to be the very people Syria will need one day rebuild it. And once they settle in the West, they are unlikely to return.
That, certainly, has been the case in neighbouring Iraq, where a fifth of the population were already in exile even by the time of the 2003 invasion. I was based in Baghdad as a freelance reporter at that time, and met many expatriate Iraqis who returned, eager to help the old country get back on its feet. Most could only tough it out so long. The country was simply too rough and too dangerous to be a tempting home for anyone with options elsewhere.
The result was that the post-war Iraq project was hobbled from the start. The competent, educated middle class that might just about have helped lift it out of the post-Saddam mire just weren’t there. To put it another way, Baghdad had no equivalent of Telegraph readers, no FT readers, and, yes, no Guardian readers either.
Instead, there was a government full of people whose only qualification was that they were so-and-so’s cousin or son, or had enough guns to muscle their way into a post. So it was that the Iraqi government remained as corrupt and incompetent as it was in Saddam’s time, ultimately spawning nihilistic movements like the Islamic State.
This is likely to be Syria’s fate as well now, all the more so if so many of its people leave with little chance of ever coming back.
So what it is to be done? According to this piece by the respected Oxford economics professor Paul Collier, the real solution lies not in Europe, but in directing far more aid to the refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, turning them into havens of education, training and enterprise.
Rather than languishing on meagre handouts, the refugee population would be honed into a skilled task force ready to help with the recovery if and when the war finally ends. Nation-building by proxy, you might call it.
Given the respect that Mr Collier has in development work – his groundbreaking study on global poverty, The Bottom Billion, was a bestseller — this suggestion would surely have some appeal on the Left as well as the Right.
True, it would require the equivalent of a Marshall Plan in aid cash and commitment, of a magnitude that makes Britain’s quarter billion to Lebanon merely a very small step in the right direction.
But it would have the benefit also of providing the kind of grand moral gesture that many feel the current crisis now cries out for, not to mention refocusing attention on ending Syria’s horrific war as soon as possible.
After all, if Europe wants to deal with the problem that is now knocking every day on its doorstep, it needs to think about more than either just building more fences — or taking in the lucky few who manage to push them down.