Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — UNHCR Syrian Refugees Programme

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 29th January 2014.

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Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 3:41 pm, 29th January 2014

I welcome the chance to it put on record that we have had a genuinely informed, passionate and, rightly, occasionally emotional debate about how the House, the Government and the UK population can most effectively support those seeking refugee status here and in other countries. I also want to put on record the Opposition’s appreciation of the Government’s continuing financial support for Syrian refugees, and welcome last night’s announcement that we will enable as many as several hundred to settle in the UK.

The worst thing in government is not doing the wrong thing; it is continuing to do the wrong thing when the evidence points in a different direction. All Governments are tempted by the instinct to carry on regardless from time to time, for the fear of losing face or of an Opposition screaming loudly in the media and the Chamber that it is a U-turn. Today, the Opposition have not made that charge, and the Government have not lost face. At the end of the debate, the Government will have done the right thing.

Of course, there remains concern that the UK will not participate formally in the UN scheme, but the most important thing is that some refugees will have the right to settle here. We therefore accept the Government’s announcement without fully agreeing with their argument about the UN, so the House will not need to divide on the motion. However, we look forward to the International Development Secretary setting out in more detail the rationale for staying outside the formal UN process. The US is part of the scheme and does not accept a quota, and other countries are in a similar position.

Today’s speeches have reflected the fact that we are all trying to find the most effective way to help those who may not be able to survive in the camps. They are children who have lost both their parents, women who have been raped or those who have been victims of torture and will struggle to recover from their ordeal—the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The programme is for those who believe that they will find it hard to get through the coming weeks and months in their current predicament. They are not asylum seekers. They cannot travel to apply for asylum here or anywhere else, and they are already certified as refugees by the UN.

Let us never pretend, in the media or elsewhere, that we stand alone on this matter. The Germans are taking 10,000 refugees, and Norway 1,000. States as far away as Australia and Canada have signed up to the scheme. Spain, Sweden, Moldova and even Lichtenstein have signed up to the scheme in their own ways. Of course, not every nation is offering refuge, but the call from the UN is clear: those that can help, should help—[Interruption.] The International Development Secretary is heckling me from a sedentary position, but as I say, other countries will support the scheme in their own way. It is right that we lend a hand and do not turn our backs.

The United Kingdom, I believe, stands for much more than an amalgam of the four geographies of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also about a set of values, a way of life, and the way we act on the international stage. We have always been an outward-looking nation, and a country that takes pride in taking care. The British public are part of that spirit; they have broken new records in recent months with enormous financial contributions to the Syrian crisis, gigantic contributions to support victims of the typhoon in the Philippines, and the Comic Relief appeal.

We have heard passionate speeches from my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), Sir Richard Ottaway, and the hon. Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), for Moray (Angus Robertson), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). They all spoke about refugees, and in some ways touched on the pressures on neighbouring countries.

The UN has asked the world community to settle just 30,000 refugees. Let us think about that. Just one country—Lebanon—is currently hosting 30 times the number that the UN is asking the rest of the world to settle. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt all face enormous pressures, and there are now parts of Lebanon where refugees outnumber the indigenous population. Last week the Lebanese Prime Minister wrote in The Daily Telegraph that Lebanon can no longer cope. He said:

“If the United Kingdom faced the same humanitarian crisis it would be the equivalent of three times Scotland’s population of 5 million crossing into England and camping out in the Yorkshire dales.”

We should applaud those nations and the Governments of neighbouring states who are doing so much to absorb and support those refugees. Prince Hassan of Jordan was asked whether the people of Jordan were running out of patience with refugees, but he replied in a different way and said

“we’re running out of water.”

That gives a sense of the scale of the crisis that those neighbouring countries are faced with, and that is why, when we spoke about the humanitarian crisis, Mr Llwyd and my right hon. Friend Mr Clarke spoke with years of experience, and why Alistair Burt struggled through his yoghurt-covered peanuts—I do not know if that is the Bedfordshire equivalent of a deep-fried Mars bar, but he did well to get through it nevertheless. In that conversation everyone noted that the humanitarian crisis is not just a crisis of human struggle, but also a struggle in a crisis of humanity. On the doorstep of Europe is a nation that has been transformed, a people uprooted and a region plunged into further chaos. The sheer number—9 million people affected—paints a picture of the scale but masks a simple truth about death and suffering. One unnecessary death is a tragedy, but as we know, 130,000 people have died in Syria. That is not a statistic; it is 130,000 family tragedies, each and every one still being mourned.

Four years ago, Syrians got on with their lives: the morning commute, the monthly pay cheque, the annual holiday and the school run. These were families with hopes and fears, plans for the future and memories of the past—people just like our constituents. Today their lives have been turned upside down and no community is untouched. Where once there was prosperity there is now just loss and terror. There is death, disease, violence and hunger; there are communities under siege, and polio is emerging as hope disappears.

That is why we wish to push the Government a little further on another matter: support for children. Young Syrians are seeing their right to an education snatched away by a civil war they did not cause and cannot possibly fully understand. Ninety-seven out of 100 Syrian children used to enrol in schools, but today if Syria’s refugees were a country it would have the worst enrolment rate in the world—five times worse than sub-Saharan Africa. No one in this House wants to forget those children, and the Government have invested substantially in supporting them. However, we wish them to go further.

In Lebanon, 300,000 refugee children cannot find a place to learn. That is why the Opposition have called on the Government to step in and get behind an international plan to get Syrian children back to schools. That innovative plan is based around double-shifting schools, using available community centres and enlisting the support of displaced Syrian teachers. Much of the thinking and work on it has been carried out by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, supported by Ban Ki-moon. The US, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates have promised to support it, and I would like to know whether the Department for International Development could do so.

Time is against us in the debate. I shall end where I began. When the Government do the right thing, the correct and proper Opposition response is to recognise it. We should support them when they do the right thing and continue to cajole and encourage them when they are not fulfilling their responsibilities. I therefore thank all in DFID. In the region, DFID is helping to provide humanitarian aid. I thank all Britons working for non-governmental organisations, charities and churches that are helping to provide such aid.

I put it on record that Opposition Members, like Government Members, want the policy that has been announced in the past 24 hours to be a success. We stand ready to provide any advice and support, and input into the Government’s thinking, over the next few weeks and months, on their policy. Those who are struggling—those about whom all hon. Members have spoken and read, and whom we have seen on our television sets—expect nothing more and nothing less than politicians on both sides of the House working together to secure their lives and provide them with some semblance of a future.