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I beg to move,
That this House
recognises the funding the Government has committed to the humanitarian initiatives to provide sanctuary in camps for refugees across the Middle East;
calls for a greater international effort through the United Nations to secure the position of such displaced people;
recognises that the Government has committed to accepting 20,000 vulnerable people from camps in Syria over the next five years but calls for a Government report to be laid before the House by
further notes that refugees arriving in European Union territory also have a moral and legal right to be treated properly;
and, given the pressure on Southern European countries, further calls for the UK to play its full and proper role, in conjunction with European partners, in providing sanctuary to our fellow human beings.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to move this cross-party motion in today’s Scottish National party Opposition day debate. I urge all Members to look very closely at the Order Paper—I know that that does not always happen—to read the text of the motion and to note a very unusual sight. The motion is co-sponsored by the leaders of six parliamentary parties: the Scottish National party, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, as well as the independent Unionist MP, Lady Hermon.
Although I welcome the Secretary of State for International Development and her Government colleagues to the Treasury Bench, I am disappointed, given the cross-party nature of the motion and the seriousness of the subject, that the Prime Minister is not here. I am sure that many people who care passionately about the need to do as much as we can in this humanitarian crisis will be saddened that he did not think it important enough to attend today’s debate. That stands in sharp contrast to the all-party approach that we saw last week in Scotland, which included the leader of the Conservative party in the Scottish Parliament. That cross-party approach to making plans was chaired by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and included charities and others.
I do not want to dwell on that discordant point, because I would prefer Members, particularly Government Members, to look closely at the text of the motion. Perhaps unusually on an Opposition day, the motion is not aimed at identifying or highlighting shortcomings in the Government’s policy. Given the gravity of the humanitarian situation and the fast-moving nature of developments in recent days, we who have sponsored the motion have worked hard in formulating a text to recognise what is being proposed, which we all welcome, and to encourage what must happen next.
On Monday, we had a significant update of UK policy by the Prime Minister, with commitments made to help many more people, and we welcome that. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is immense. Millions of people have been displaced from the conflict in Syria, to neighbours such as Lebanon and Jordan. Many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been on the move are from other war-torn and oppressive countries.
Today, the European Commission has outlined its immediate plans to deal with the situation, and that does not come before time. We are told that it is the time for bold action by EU member states and institutions. I note the words “EU member states”—not just some of them: all of us, and that includes the United Kingdom. For the world, it is a matter of humanity and human dignity. For Europe, it is a matter for historical fairness.
Europe is a continent where people from nearly all countries at some point have been refugees at one time, fleeing war, dictatorship or oppression. There is a fundamental right to asylum. It is one of the most important international values, and we should not forget that. We should be proud of the fact that Europe is seen as a safe haven for those who are fleeing horrific circumstances. We should not fear this; we should be proud of it. It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery of the world—we know that—but we must put things into perspective.
How can it be that we are hearing from all sides, and justifiably so, that we should do everything to combat an insidious terrorist movement such as Daesh, but we are not prepared to accept those people who are fleeing from it? In the Mediterranean, as the European Commission pointed out today, every life lost is one too many, regardless of where those people are trying to get to. We know that efforts have been redoubled to dismantle human trafficking groups. We learn that fewer boats are under the control of smugglers on the perilous route. That is a good thing.
We must applaud the efforts of countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Those countries, which are far poorer than we are, are making huge efforts in moral and financial terms. We must recognise, however, that we—we the United Kingdom; we Europe—have clearly under-delivered in the common solidarity we have offered to refugees who have arrived on our territory. Italy, Hungary and Greece alone cannot be left to deal with this enormous challenge. This is not a defining matter of whether or not one is within the Schengen zone.
Notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has just said, does he not accept that the UK Government have put nearly £1 billion into supporting safe refuges throughout the middle east—more than virtually any other country in the world—and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development should be congratulated on her efforts in doing that?
In the spirit that I started, I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. I join him in applauding Ministers for delivering the amount of money that he notes. He could have gone on to say, of course, that other countries are providing significant amounts. I note that, this week, Chancellor Angel Merkel announced £4.4 billion to go towards refugees, and the lesson is that we must all do as much as we can.
We should be clear. The hon. Gentleman says that we cannot let these countries alone help the refugees. Britain has provided more—not just in money, but in aid in helping displaced people live—than Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, France, Italy, Finland, Belgium and Ireland together, and they are nine of the 10 EU countries in the top 20 donors in the world. Should he not accept that we should all be proud of what we have done so far and that we can build on it as well, as the Prime Minister has announced?
I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he has just come in, but obviously he has not been listening to a word I have said. I said from the beginning of this opening speech that I am not interested in a bidding war or a discordant note across the Chamber about the things we agree on, and I paid tribute—including following another prompting—to the Government for their effort, and I will continue to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman listens to what I am saying. We should ask ourselves, individually and collectively: “Are we doing everything we can?”
In May the European Commission announced emergency resettlement mechanisms that would encompass 40,000 refugees, and today it announced a second emergency mechanism that will involve the relocation of 120,000 refugees from Hungary, Greece and Italy. The Commission called on member states to come to a Commission meeting on
Our motion recognises the funding that the Government have committed to humanitarian initiatives to provide sanctuary for refugees in camps across the middle east, as that makes a real difference to people’s lives. It calls for a greater international effort through the United Nations to secure the position of displaced people, and recognises that the Government have committed—again, I stress that we welcome this—to accepting 20,000 vulnerable people from camps in Syria over the next five years. We are calling for additional action, and we hope that, in the spirit in which the motion has been drafted, Government Members will find themselves able to agree. We have called for a Government report to be laid before the House by
I do not want to detract from the reasoned tone of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but is it not important to be absolutely clear that children accepted under the vulnerable persons programme will not be kicked out of the country when they reach 18? We were told today that that would not happen, but I understand it could well happen under the programme.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct in saying that it could happen, but the fact that we have had clarification from the Prime Minister acknowledges that it would be totally unacceptable in the country for that to happen. I have not seen the official statistics, but when I last looked I think that 216 or 217 people were part of the vulnerable persons scheme. That is one reason why the Government had to look pretty quickly at updating their approach to the humanitarian crisis and its scale. We learned that there is not automaticity in vulnerable children who might come to the UK being able to remain in the UK, and we could perhaps have greater clarity in that area from the Government, and greater generosity in providing confirmation that children will not be sent back to countries such as Syria—potentially still in a civil war—when they turn 18.
Immigration is always about numbers and we all welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to accept 20,000 refugees. During yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee we questioned the Immigration Minister about whether we could have a target for the number of refugees who could come this year—the Government do have targets, such as that for net migration. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although we cannot have a precise figure, it would be extremely helpful to have a target for the number who come this year?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the motion before the House because we are calling for an action plan by the Government to be laid before Parliament. When understanding the Government’s figure of 20,000—which is, of course, significantly more than 216—many of us found difficult the fact that if that number is spread over the Parliament it equates to six refugees per constituency. I cannot speak for Members across the House, but my mailbag has been jam-packed with letters from people of good will saying “Please call on the Government to do more”, and that is what we are doing today.
People are also making concrete offers of help and assistance, which has happened here and in other countries. There is Airbnb in Germany for refugees, and the Icelandic people are suggesting that they will take masses of people to stay in that country, which is smaller than Dundee. Offers of help are being made domestically and internationally, and the UK Government should go away and work with the English Local Government Association—we heard the Prime Minister commit to that—the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the authorities in Northern Ireland, and the churches. Working with others, how do we accommodate as many of the 20,000 as we can as quickly as possible? This is literally a life and death issue for people, and we must get on with it.
I commend the hon. Gentleman and his party for the inclusive way in which he is conducting this debate and the drafting of the motion. He rightly talks about the upwelling of public concern about and the will to do more. Does he agree that local authorities should be helped with funding beyond the first year? Many local authorities across the country want to do more, but they need to know that there is more than just one year of funding.
The hon. Lady makes a sensible point, and that is in part the answer that I gave to David T. C. Davies.
This week the Government of Germany announced £4 billion—more than €6 billion—of support for local government and municipalities to do this thing. Of course, because of the scale of this issue it is perfectly understandable that one has to work in government with the civil service, other authorities and the third sector in getting it right. At this point in parliamentary proceedings we are here for only a week and a half, and we all understand that because of the scale of the challenge not everything can be sorted out and planned, and not every number can be crunched. The motion is clear in giving the Government an opportunity to bring back a plan. The Prime Minister generously said during Prime Minister’s questions that he and ministerial colleagues would be coming back to this issue, and it would be helpful if those on the Treasury Bench listened to the suggestion on how a concrete plan can be advanced and delivered.
Clearly, and unsurprisingly, the Government are already planning, because the Home Office document on the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme states:
“For planning purposes, we are working on the basis that overall the UK would take around 500 people (not cases) over the next 2-3 years - with around 150 in the first year.”
That is where they were a few weeks ago. The Government are planning, but they need to upscale that planning.
That is absolutely true, and in the emollient spirit of today’s proceedings, thank goodness that they re-examined those projections and reconsidered their paucity of ambition in helping people in need. Given the fast moving nature of developments, perhaps we will continue to see a programme of iteration and re-examination to work out exactly what can be accommodated and supported. As a first ask, it would be helpful for the Government to accept that it would be good for all of us, in government and opposition, to see a plan laid before Parliament detailing how the number can be increased to encompass refugees already in Europe, and a plan for the remainder of this year to reflect the overwhelming urgency of the humanitarian crisis. We have already had a concrete suggestion from the Scottish Government that 1,000 refugees can be accommodated this year. If the UK total, which is 20,000 over five years, is 4,000 in a year, we are talking about the possibility this year of a quarter of all refugees in the UK being housed in Scotland. Surely the rest of the United Kingdom would not wish to be left in a position where not as much is being done.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that the number will not be staggered on a year-by-year basis? It may well be based on need, which means that many more than 4,000 are accommodated across the United Kingdom. We must be careful not to make arithmetical calculations in that way.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I really hope that he is right, because we need to help people as quickly as possible. I am sure that he would wish that as many people within this 20,000 total, which we hope is not a final total, can be helped as quickly as possible. We have agreement on that point across the Chamber.
In yesterday’s emergency debate on the humanitarian crisis, a very, very strong case was made. Unusually, I am looking towards the shadow Home Secretary. For those who were not in the Chamber, I encourage them to read her speech, which was extremely powerful and convincing, as were the speeches of my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry and many hon. and right hon. Members. They talked about the urgency of the situation, the need for action and the fact that we should not discriminate between refugees.
The United Kingdom is part of Europe geographically and culturally. Regardless of our views on the European Union, we have responsibilities as Europeans and as human beings towards fellow human beings. It cannot be left to Sweden, Germany and Austria to take up disproportionate burdens. It cannot be left to Italy or, heaven help it, Greece, which is saddled with a massive austerity plan and creaking public services. Greece is having to manage disproportionate challenges simply because of geographic proximity.
May I just say on a personal note, as somebody who is half German and who lived and worked in Austria for a decade, how utterly remarkable and moving it is to watch the welcome given to refugees in those countries? It is an inspiration to people of good will elsewhere. The leadership and humanity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chancellor Werner Faymann is widely recognised and appreciated.
Today’s motion notes that refugees arriving in European Union territory have a moral and legal right to be properly treated; and that, given the pressure on southern European countries, the UK should play its full and proper role, in conjunction with European partners, in providing sanctuary to our fellow human beings. Who can possibly oppose that?
The history of these islands stands as testament to solidarity with fellow Europeans and to people from further afield. I am talking about the thousands of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, the thousands of Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of the 19th century, the thousands of Basque children fleeing the Spanish civil war and the thousands of Jewish children in the Kindertransport. Incidentally, I am not sure why people do not ask why it was just a Kindertransport. Much has been said in recent days in praise—and I am praising it—of the good will in welcoming people. We should also not turn a blind eye to some of the siren voices of past decades that, among other things, restricted adults from Austria who were fleeing the Nazis in 1938. It is right that we should praise, and be aware of, the contribution that has been made in past decades. I am not just talking about the run-up to the second world war.
After the second world war, believe it or not, the UK took in people from the largest group of displaced refugees in world history; they were German. Think about that. Their city was bombed and significantly destroyed. In 1945, 1946 and 1947, the UK accepted as refugees those who had been enemy aliens. I have much to be grateful for as my mother was among those refugees.
Since that time, there has been a commitment to refugees, and that has not stopped. There were the Hungarians and Czechs after their uprisings in the
1950s and 1960s, the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, the Vietnamese boat people, and the refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and on it goes.
It is well understood by most people of good will—and that is the overwhelming majority of people in this country—that a remarkable contribution has been made to these shores by those who originally hailed from elsewhere. If Members have not already heard the song “Scotland's Story” by the Proclaimers, I recommend that they listen to it. The chorus goes:
“In Scotland’s story I read that they came
But so did the Irishman, Jew and Ukraine
They’re all Scotland’s story and they’re all worth the same.”
I know that there are Members from other parts of the UK who can attest to similar sentiments and realities in their nations and constituencies. We celebrate refugees and their contribution and we remember the humanity of those who made past decisions, which were not always popular.
It is not that long ago that speeches were made about rivers of blood. Hopefully—I think certainly—we have moved beyond that narrow-mindedness, but we face a challenge. This is the biggest refugee crisis in Europe, if not the world, since the second world war. Just one week ago, the UK Government’s position was that 216 people on the vulnerable persons programme were acceptable. Thank goodness that is no longer the case. What was unimaginable a week ago is now imaginable. We have to rise to the challenge of playing our part.
The UK Government have done much, and they are doing more. Today we are asking that they should not close their mind to doing more. Regardless of our politics and of those things that divide us, we, as human beings, share a responsibility to refugees. I am talking about not just refugees in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but wee boys and girls and mums and dads in Greece, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany and Sweden. Wherever refugees are, we have a responsibility to work with our European neighbours and partners to help them. This is their hour of need. The motion before us today is one to build consensus to say that we are not closed to doing more. I hope that the Government will accept it, because they should.
There is no doubt that this debate comes at a time when the world is facing humanitarian emergencies of an unprecedented number, scale and complexity. Whether we talk about the Ebola epidemic that hit Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea last year, the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April, the current crisis in Yemen or the conflict that has raged in Syria for more than four years now, it is clear that these crises are not just events that go on half a world away unconnected to our own lives here in Britain. We saw that last year. The Ebola crisis that threatened to engulf west Africa was just a five-hour plane ride away from the UK.
Nobody can fail to have been struck by the tragic images of desperate people putting their lives in the hands of criminal gangs and people smugglers, risking and sometimes losing their lives for the chance of a better future. More than 360,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean this year. The flow of people has largely been driven by conflict, particularly the bloodbath in Syria that has now taken more than 220,000 lives and forced more than 11 million people from their homes. I recognise that the debate—not just here in the UK, but around Europe—shows that there are no easy answers to these questions of how to deal appropriately with these crises. Many countries, including the UK, are debating what the right response is. Indeed, many are taking and playing different roles in the overall response we need to see.
Since day one of the Syrian crisis, Britain has been at the forefront of the response. We have evolved our response—we have had to—as this incredibly complex crisis has steadily evolved. Britain has done and will continue to do a huge amount to help the Syrians who have been caught up in the crisis and, of course, our priority is to stop the senseless death of refugees and migrants making the perilous journey. Our assets, including Royal Navy ships, have played their part in the European response that has helped to rescue more than 6,700 people in the Mediterranean.
We are also working alongside other European partners to tackle the criminal gangs and trafficking networks that profit from this human misery, including by establishing an organised immigration crime taskforce that brings together officers from the National Crime Agency, immigration enforcement, Border Force and the Crown Prosecution Service into one team so that they can work collectively to address these challenging problems. Of course, we have provided sanctuary to more than 5,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began and the Prime Minister has announced that we will provide resettlement for up to 20,000 additional Syrians in need of protection over the lifetime of this Parliament.
Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to say what the British Government are going to do to assist the refugees at Calais? We have heard much about Syrian refugees and I am pleased and grateful that the Government have changed their mind and done the right thing. In my constituency, huge amounts of clothing, shoes and other goods have been donated for volunteers to take them from North Down through the Republic of Ireland to Cork and across to Calais. I know that the Northern Ireland Office is under pressure politically as we have difficult times again in Northern Ireland, but as a sign of generosity and solidarity with the rest of the UK Northern Ireland wants to do something. This is a small token gesture to help refugees in Calais.
I will follow up that point. I pay tribute to the work that the Home Secretary did over the summer with her French counterpart to try to work collaboratively to find a resolution to the problem in Calais.
I have talked about some of the challenges closer to our doorstep here in Europe in recent weeks and months, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we have also needed to and been right to help the overwhelming majority of Syrians who are still in the region. I have met many refugees from the Syrian crisis in my time in this role and I am proud that Britain has played a leading role in the humanitarian response to the crisis. We have pledged more than £1 billion to date, the largest ever response from the UK to any humanitarian crisis, which gives a sense of how complex, wide-ranging and challenging the Syrian crisis is. That is also the biggest bilateral country support for the Syrian crisis, other than that from the US.
The picture inside Syria today is unspeakably bleak. We have debated, discussed and had questions about the Syrian crisis in this Chamber many times and it seems almost impossible that it can continue to get worse, but it does. For four years the people of Syria have been bombed, starved and driven from their homes. I have met children in the Zaatari camp in a little classroom where they can play and spend time with one another, but when they hear a supply plane overhead delivering supplies to the camp they dive for cover under the table because they are used to planes that are about to bomb them. I have met children in classrooms that Britain is helping to fund, with teachers whom we are helping to do double shifts so that they can teach not only their own Jordanian and Lebanese children but find time in the school day to accommodate the Syrian children who are now living locally. I have seen the pictures those children draw when they are asked to do art, and they are pictures of their homes having been bombed, of planes with bombs and of their friends having been bombed. Those children deserve the support of the United Kingdom and they are getting that support.
I do not think that any Opposition Member is criticising what the Government are doing, but what the Government are not doing, which includes their duty as a member of the European Union in respect of migrants in Europe. May I also raise the issue of refugees from Daesh in Iraq? We have a duty in Iraq and Yazidis, Christians and Muslims have had to flee in very similar circumstances. Will the Secretary of State extend the vulnerable persons relocation scheme to refugees in Iraq who cannot be catered for by the Iraqi Government?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that Britain is playing our role in dealing with crises that go far more broadly across the middle east than the Syrian conflict. I can reassure him that we are working specifically to try to ensure that we support children who are part of the many millions of displaced people in Iraq. Let me give the House some sense of that, although I know that I need to make some progress with my speech. We are providing not only the medical assistance that they will often need but trauma counselling. That is not uncomplicated as the specialised support the children need and the language capability required of the people providing it are not easy to access, but we are part of ensuring that that is done as far as it possibly can be. We are providing and helping to fund safe areas within camps so that unaccompanied children and parents who have lost their children can easily link up with them again. More than 80% of unaccompanied children in Jordan have managed to be linked up with their families through such efforts. Out of sight, we are working incredibly hard in a range of areas, particularly to help children affected by the crisis. We will keep doing that.
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister for what they have said today and for what they have been doing. The World Food Programme is, as I discovered at a meeting in Luxembourg that I attended as Chairman of the
European Scrutiny Committee on Saturday and Sunday, the centre of gravity, and it is quite clear that we not only have our 0.7% but are the second or third largest of all the donors to the programme. Germany, for all the hype, is way behind us over the past year and over the past five years. Does she accept that we have done an amazing amount of effective work in that programme? Will she comment on the implications of my International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 and on whether it has any relevance to this matter?
I pay tribute to the World Food Programme, which is operating alongside other UN agencies in some of the most dangerous places to get vital food and often other supplies to people affected by the crisis, and I have often met and talked to Ertharin Cousin who runs it. As my hon. Friend sets out, Britain has been one of the key funders of the WFP over recent years, more broadly as well as particularly in relation to the Syrian crisis. Agencies such as the WFP are having to make impossible choices about how to help the most people with limited resources, and I shall come on to that shortly.
My hon. Friend also asked about his efforts regarding gender equality, and I pay tribute to him for them and for how they fed into the UK response. I can reassure him that alongside his Act we had the UK Call to Action summit, held at about this time in 2013, which was about ensuring that we did not lose sight of the specific needs of women and girls. In these crises, the rates of forced marriage and sexual violence rapidly rise, and we have prioritised tackling that.
I been out to the region often, visiting camps and host communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. I have been to the camp at Kilis in Turkey, which is close enough to Aleppo for people to be able to hear the bombs there. Half the Syrian population—more than 11 million people—have had to leave their homes. Only around 3% of those have sought asylum here in Europe. The vast majority of those who have been displaced are trying to stay in their home or to rebuild their life in a neighbouring country closer to home. Many still hold out the hope that they will be able to go back home and they have remained in a place more familiar to them where they may have family links.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government are right to target our help at those who are in the camps, who may be the most vulnerable people from the area, and not to do anything to encourage more people to hand money over to people traffickers and risk their lives coming to Europe in leaky boats, when we have done so much to provide them with places of safety?
I shall make progress, but my hon. Friend’s point is important. We have to think very carefully about how we can meet the dual objectives of continuing to support people in the region and helping refugees without inadvertently making the problem worse, which would be the wrong approach to take. That is why this is a complex problem to deal with. We need to think extremely carefully through those complexities to reach the right approach. I believe that that is what we have done as a Government.
I recognise that it is the hon. Gentleman’s party which has tabled the motion and I will give way to him shortly.
As we have heard, Britain has already given more aid, by some margin, than any other European country to help Syrians affected by the crisis. Our commitment to do that will continue, but we need other countries, both in Europe and internationally, to step up to the plate and do more too. As we have this debate in the Chamber today, the UN agencies involved in the Syrian appeal have looked at the scale of the need and the number of refugees, and assessed the resourcing that they would need to help provide support to those people. They totted that up and only 37% of it has been funded for 2015.
A number of leading charities in the UK have launched appeals, which are very welcome. I am sure we would all encourage as many people as possible to give. It is a mystery to me that the way in which we signal collectively the need for a significant fund-raising effort is through the Disasters Emergency Committee. It is for the DEC to decide what the criteria are to raise money for emergencies, but it seems to me that this is a pretty big emergency. Would the Minister support the Disasters Emergency Committee launching an appeal to all our constituents who want to help and support people in need?
The Disasters Emergency Committee is a fantastic way of enabling some of the most incredible NGOs, which often happen to be UK NGOs, to come together and work effectively to raise funding. I would certainly support such a move if the DEC chose to do that. In the past it has done so. At Christmas 2013 we match-funded part of a DEC appeal in order to ensure its success, and we will continue to look at how we can use that as a mechanism to share the priorities of the British people, which we are already mirroring in the amount of effort we are putting into the Syrian crisis.
The point I was making was that in the end we need a broader international response. It is worth saying that the UN appeal this year was in the region of $8 billion. Angus Robertson commented on the amount that Germany is spending on refugees who are in Germany, which, as he said, is around $6 billion. We can start to see that we need to think carefully about effective funding of the UN appeal. We have been part of a sustained lobbying effort, particularly on the part of myself and the Prime Minister, to press other countries to follow that lead. We have helped to raise around $6.9 billion for the Syrian crisis over the past two years. Last year we co-hosted a ministerial meeting at the UN General Assembly which alone raised $1 billion.
We have to understand that these humanitarian emergencies do not clear themselves up over one or two years. That is part of a funding problem that needs to be fixed. The length of time that people spend as refugees is rising. In 1980 people could expect to spend perhaps nine years as refugees. Now they may expect to spend 20 years, so a child born in the Zaatari camp now will grow to adulthood away from home. We need a step change in the way that the international community supports refugees.
The UK has a good track record in providing match-funding for good causes to help people in disaster zones. Would she consider arranging for match-funding for a new vehicle which would be available to everybody in the UK who wants to donate specifically to help Syrian refugees settle in this country?
My hon. Friend has put an interesting and brand new idea on the table. I am sure it will not be the only proposal that we hear in the debate today. I will take all of them back and look carefully at the art of the possible to see what we can do and how we can knit together, as we already do in many other humanitarian responses, the amazing generosity of the British people with the work that the UK Government are doing, often with NGOs, to provide the support that we seek to give.
We need a step change in the way that the international community supports refugees. We must recognise that the existing model for crisis funding supports short-term need but not protracted displacement. What that means in practice is that we see food, life-saving medical support and shelter understandably prioritised. What is left out of that UN work when it is only half-funded is education for children, work on helping to provide skills for young men so that they have the prospect of a successful livelihood ahead of them, and the work needed by host communities, which may see their populations double. The UK is focused on providing a lot of support in that vein. The problem is that it cannot be done at scale when UN appeals are as underfunded as the present one is. That, I am sorry to say, is symptomatic of other appeals for which the UN does not have appropriate funding.
We must look down the line at the challenges that we will face. Even today, we heard the President of the European Commission talking about the need for stepped-up EU activity to address the wider root causes of the refugee crisis by fighting poverty, improving governance and helping to support sustainable growth.
My right hon. Friend encapsulates the general thinking of the country that that requires an international response. She is right to make that point. Given her historical and contemporary interest in Syria and the policies of President Assad, can she advise the House what steps Russia is taking to alleviate the crisis?
I have set out the fact that the US and the UK, alongside other nations, have led on the humanitarian front. It is less clear what humanitarian role Russia is playing. We were pleased when we finally achieved consensus on the UN Security Council to pass a resolution on cross-border access for humanitarian supplies from countries such as Turkey into parts of
Syria. That required Russia’s co-operation. It took some time to get it, but it was absolutely vital in enabling us to make progress. The key now—my hon. Friend alluded to this—is getting a political solution. The work that my Department does tirelessly every day is aimed at dealing with the consequences of the failure to do that. Ultimately, we will need a longer-term solution to the crisis if we are ever to see an end to the kind of suffering we have seen in the region—I have seen it myself—over the past four years.
Helping anyone inside Syria is incredibly difficult, which is one of the reasons I paid tribute to the work of the World Food Programme. We have seen the kinds of risks that humanitarian workers face while trying to get on with the amazing job they do. Some of them, including from Britain, have paid the ultimate price and lost their lives. The help that we can give kicks in the minute we get to people.
We have also worked with countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which understandably have concerns about how they can cope with the huge influx of people across their borders and into their communities. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the people of Jordan and Lebanon, who have seen their communities literally double in size, but they have provided incredible generosity of spirit and support. That is why we are right to support those host communities, given the sheer number of refugees they have had to deal with in recent years.
Our response to this highly complex crisis has had to evolve. As the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, we have scaled up the UK’s support—it increased fivefold from 2012 to 2014. When it began, our planning with UN agencies related mostly to the logistics of putting in place the supply chains to get the food, water, shelter and medical support to the flow of people coming out of Syria. Then it was about ensuring that they could get through that first winter, which meant providing the kind of shelter required for moving from searing summer temperatures to very cold winter temperatures.
We then turned our attention to the challenge of educating the children affected by the crisis, for example by getting them into local schools. Over half of all registered refugees are children. In 2013, alongside the UN and the then EU Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, I launched the “No Lost Generation” initiative, which aims to provide the resources needed to help schools in Jordan and Lebanon cope with the double shifts they are having to put on. We have already allocated £111 million to help provide not only education, but protection and psychosocial support for the children affected by the crisis.
I have talked about the need, ultimately, for a political solution. I have talked about how hard the UK has worked, and will continue to work, on the UN Security Council to ensure that we can get on with delivering humanitarian support and, in time, play our role in reaching a political solution. I have talked about my visits to the region and the shocking things I have seen at first hand.
As has been noted, the evolving nature of the crisis has meant that our support closer to home has also had to change. A significant number of Syrians have now left the region. The last time I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, I met a man who only the night before had been texted images of his restaurant in Damascus, which had just been bombed. People see their prospects change in an instant and, like anyone else, reassess how to deal with the next stage of their lives.
In response to that, the Prime Minister announced on Monday that we will expand the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme and resettle up to 20,000 additional Syrians who need protection over the lifetime of this Parliament. We have been very clear that we have come up with an overall number and are working hard to ensure that it is not only effectively targeted, but measured, so that we can cope with the number of people coming here and provide the kind of support they will need.
Will the right hon. Lady tell the House how the Government arrived at the figure of 20,000? Other European Union countries are using a formula that is broadly based on GDP, population, the unemployment rate and the number of applications already processed, which seems a reasonable way of proceeding.
We have tried to arrive at a figure that means we can have an impact and ensure that we are playing our role, but also one that we have a clear sense we can deliver. Already a number of local authorities have generously come forward and said that they want to play their role, and no doubt we will have discussions with the devolved Administrations in the coming weeks, which I very much welcome. The right thing to do now is ensure that we can deliver on our level of ambition. We are getting on with that not just in the work that is being done domestically, led by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but in the work we are doing on the ground with the UNHCR. We are helping the most vulnerable and needy people still in the region, many of whom could never make the kinds of journeys that others have made. We are identifying the people who most need help and assessing what packages of support will be needed if they are to be relocated to the UK.
On Sunday the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke about the funding for refugees settled here in the first year coming out of official development assistance, so it is not something new. Can the Secretary of State clarify that the Government are not proposing any change in the existing rules with regard to the ODA applicability of refugees who resettle here?
Yes, I can. It recognises the fact that many of the host communities are in Lebanon and Jordan, and we are right to support them, but when refugees come here, there is an impact on our communities as well, so we should also use the aid budget, appropriately and within the rules—they are there precisely to enable this to happen—to provide support to communities here. I have talked about the need to work with local authorities. We should recognise that many of the refugees that our communities will be welcoming have been through very traumatic experiences, so we need an overall package of support to ensure that that works for everyone concerned. We know that the refugees will require a whole range of services, including healthcare, housing and education. We will stay within the ODA rules so that, quite sensibly, we can use the aid budget to fund such costs.
I think the House should be proud that the UK has delivered on its promise to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development assistance. We are seeing why that was the right thing to do, and why it was right that we enshrined it in law. I think that we are seeing how problems far away in another country can seem like they have nothing to do with us, but in the end they do.
For 40 years UK Governments signed up to the 0.7% pledge and missed it, and that totals about £90 billion-worth of spending that could have helped prevent many humanitarian disasters. We congratulate the Government, but they keep pressing this point, yet they have only very recently met this target, so we need to continue to see action.
As I said, I am proud that we have now met that target. I would urge the hon. Gentleman to put as much passion as he put into his intervention into going to other countries around the world and pressing them to do the same. It is incredibly important that Britain does not stand alone among the major economies of our world in meeting the 0.7% target. As he says, we need to think not only in the short term to tackle the impact of the humanitarian crisis in our midst because of the Syrian conflict, but in the long term.
The best way to protect against poverty and instability is through development—through people having countries that offer them opportunity and the potential to get on with their lives and feel like they can make a future for themselves, and their families in security and safety. That means growing up in countries that have the kinds of institutions that we have, such as our Parliament, where disagreement and debate happens in a democratic way and people have choices over their future. Alongside everything we have talked about today, the UK works on that every day of the week in very many countries. Later this month, we will sign off on the next set of global goals for the next 15 years, which we hope can eradicate extreme poverty once and for all.
We should all be proud of the UK’s work in leading that effort. Whatever our debates on the details of how we respond to complicated crises month by month, I hope that we can continue to have consensus across the House on the 0.7% target and on Britain continuing to play its role in responding to the crises that we see around the world and in driving development.
I rise to support the motion. I very much welcome the spirit in which the SNP has sought all-party support for it. Angus Robertson made a very powerful speech. Like him, I hope that the motion will win the support of the Government.
It is right that the House is debating how Britain should respond to this crisis, which, as we have heard, has been described as the largest movement of refugees since the second world war. But what is the reality? The reality is mothers and fathers and children, brothers and sisters, forced by bloody conflict, their homes and their schools destroyed, their relatives killed, to flee from the land in which they were born, to seek help from the kindness of strangers. From Syria, hundreds of thousands of people are trying to make their way to safety in Europe, taking to dangerous and overcrowded boats, climbing over fences that have been erected to keep them out, queuing outside stations and then, despite desperate exhaustion, walking mile after mile along roads and railway lines to try to reach a new life in a new country.
They do this for one simple reason: they are desperate. Everything they had and knew has been destroyed. They see no hope, no future, no life. Deep down, every single one of us in this Chamber today understands, because it is exactly what we would do if those we loved were confronted by the same horror. Human beings will brave many dangers because the human urge to survive is strong and when we see people in these circumstances, our human urge to help is just as strong. It is, after all, our moral obligation, especially when we know what others are doing; Germany and Sweden, in particular, have already been mentioned. The fact that we are not in Schengen does not mean that we should opt out of our responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with our European friends and allies in playing our part. I say this to the Secretary of State: why is a child who has made the same perilous journey that claimed little Alan Kurdi’s life and is now in Greece any less deserving of our help than a child in a Syrian refugee camp? We should help both, and it is a false choice to argue otherwise.
As always happens in war, it is the neighbouring countries that bear the greatest burden. There are nearly 2 million refugees in Turkey. Jordan has seen its population increase by 650,000. Lebanon’s population has increased by 1.2 million, or 25%. That is equivalent to the United Kingdom taking in 16 million people. Let us compare that with the number of refugees we have actually taken from Syria under the UN vulnerable persons relocation scheme thus far: 216.
Britain has given very considerable help in humanitarian aid to these countries; we are the second most generous donor in the world. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and to the Government for everything that they have done. It has been as exemplary as the Government’s initial refusal to take in a share of refugees, saying that we had done enough, was profoundly mistaken. Like my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, I genuinely welcome, as did the hon. Member for Moray, the Government’s change of heart.
But we have to turn that commitment into practical steps that will help change people’s lives, and do so now, because the crisis is now. The families here in Europe need somewhere to live, somewhere for their children to go to school, and the chance to make something of their lives now, not in four years’ time. That is why the question of how quickly we can fulfil the commitment that the Government have made is so important. Four thousand people a year, dividing 20,000 by five, is not enough. As my right hon. Friend said yesterday, there needs to be a plan for how we are going to take in those refugees, and it should include people who are already in Europe.
I confess that I fail to understand the logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. There are schools, hospitals, doctors and all the social infrastructure in the rest of the European Union; that is not a unique preserve of the United Kingdom. On what logic does he base his argument that when these people have found places across the continent of Europe, they should merely use that as a stepping-stone to come to the United Kingdom? Those European countries can provide succour just as well as we can.
I say in all honesty to the hon. Gentleman that it is about playing our part, including by taking those who have sought shelter in Europe and those who are still in the camps in the region. It is about doing our bit. It is not a competition between providing the generous help that the Government have given in humanitarian aid and providing help and succour to those, in particular, who have made such a perilous journey.
I greatly admire the Prime Minister’s attempt to help the maximum number of people in this desperate position in the fallout from the Syrian war. The amount of money that he is spending to help as many people as possible is a huge credit to our country. But I also admire the fact that he clearly understands that there are hundreds of millions of people in impoverished states in the middle east and north Africa—some, yes, in the grip of war—and realises that if we say to hundreds of millions of people, “Europe is open,” at some point Europe will have to close, and before that point we will lose thousands more people in the Mediterranean and lose the emphasis that he has put on looking after people properly in the areas where they are, which is what we have to do. It is a scandal that the international community is not doing enough to look after these people.
I shall address directly the hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider challenge of the movement of human beings around the globe, because he is right to raise it and it is important that we consider it. However, the specific question I am addressing in this part of my speech is what we do now to help those who are fleeing Syria, including those who have made the perilous journey to our shores.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that citing the possibility that hundreds of millions of people may be on the move as an argument against taking our fair share from the current migrant crisis is dishonest and an argument for doing very little, possibly nothing at all?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the point that this debate is about taking our fair share. The Government have moved to acknowledge that, which I welcome.
Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford will meet representatives of local authorities, and we now hear that the Government will meet representatives of the Local Government Association on Friday. If we are going to take on this responsibility, which we should, it is important that all of us, including Parliament and all local authorities—not just some—and charities, voluntary organisations and communities do our bit and play our part in making this happen.
Picking up on the point made by the International Development Secretary, we also need to persuade other countries to play their part in giving their share of humanitarian aid. The United Nations has warned about lack of funding for essential supplies. In July the World Food Programme—I echo every single word the International Development Secretary said about that extraordinary organisation, with which I too had the privilege of working when I held her position—announced that it had halved the value of the food vouchers being given to Syrian refugees in Lebanon because it does not have enough money to continue giving as much as before. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that ration cuts, lack of electricity and people who are sick and cannot get treatment for themselves or their children are reasons given by refugees for making the journey to Europe.
Although we are understandably focusing on Syria today, as we speak another hidden humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Yemen, where according to the International Committee of the Red Cross just under 13 million people are food-insecure and 500,000 children are severely malnourished.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am one of three Members who were born in Yemen, and as chair of the all-party group on Yemen for a number of years I have been very concerned about the situation. Does he agree that it is extremely important that none of the aid that will be spent here as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis should be diverted away from Yemen at this critical time in its history?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about that country. I am sure that is the Government’s position. The practical problem in relation to aid to Yemen is access. Concerns have been expressed that some of the aid is being used for purposes connected with the nature of the conflict. Humanitarian aid should be given to people on the basis of need, not on the basis of which side of the conflict they happen to be on or find themselves on because of where they happen to live at any particular moment.
I say to the Government that Britain’s proud record on humanitarian aid gives us particular authority, which I know the International Development Secretary uses, to speak out and urge other countries to do their bit. We cannot run the international humanitarian system on the basis of insecure and intermittent funding. That will not work.
My concern is that if we are to speak with authority and ensure that the support these families need is delivered, the process needs to be ongoing. We need sustainable, ongoing community support for people who are traumatised, who need language skills and who need school places. That is vital and all Members on both sides of the House need to support local authorities.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Government will use the international development budget, as the official development assistance rules allow, in the first year to support local authorities, but she raises the question of what will happen the following year. I have no doubt that one of the first questions local authorities will ask Ministers when they meet will be, “If you’re going to help us in the first year, how are we going to sustain that support?” Every one of us knows the extraordinary pressure that local authority budgets are under.
Turning to the cause of the crisis, the Prime Minister was right to say that it will be solved only when peace and stability return to Syria. Despite considerable efforts, no progress has been made and yesterday the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said there was no more time for a long political process, and he is right. He urged Saudi Arabia and Iran finally to start talking to each other, as Russia, the United States and other countries are doing. We need an urgent diplomatic effort, under the auspices of the United Nations, to work out a future for Syria. It is time that Syria’s neighbours started trying to solve the conflict instead of continuing to fuel it. They should also discuss—I understand that this is extremely difficult in Syria—whether it is possible to establish safe havens to help those who are fleeing violence, and they should talk about the humanitarian funding crisis that we have just discussed.
We also have a responsibility, as part of the international coalition, to defeat ISIL/Daesh, politically and militarily, and to confront its brutal ideology. We should be unashamed in proclaiming our values of openness and respect for others in direct opposition to its brutality and ignorance, which have forced so many people to flee for their lives. One of the best ways in which we can give expression to the best of British values is to welcome and take in those who have fled, because we have a long and honourable tradition as a nation of giving shelter to those fleeing further persecution.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. What really concerns me is that within Syria there are huge numbers of would-be refugees. In my experience people who have no resources whatsoever, who are traumatised and terrified and who are being beaten up and killed are stuck. It is our duty, as the shadow Secretary of State has said, to sort out what is happening on the ground in Syria as part of an international effort.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has great experience in these matters and is a true humanitarian. We need to put as much effort as possible into putting pressure on those who hold in their hands the future of this conflict and its resolution.
I want to reflect on what else this crisis and the wider points it raises tell us. It shows us that the Dublin agreement, which says that people entering Europe should seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive, and the Schengen agreement, which allows free movement but does not apply to the Untied Kingdom, are both creaking at the seams. It is unsustainable—this was the argument I made to Simon Hoare when he intervened earlier—for some countries, just because of their geographical position, to bear the full weight of responsibility for refugees when they clearly cannot cope.
It shows us that the idea that leaving the European Union would somehow make the problem go away is absolute nonsense. A refugee fleeing with her family and her children is not suddenly going to stop at Calais and say, “Ah! Britain’s not in the European Union any more. I’m not going to take another stop forward.”
It reminds us that we live in an increasingly interdependent world: what happens in one country will affect all of us who live in another country, even if we happen to be far away. In the 21st century we cannot, as human beings, shut the doors and close the curtains and wish that the rest of the world would go away.
A fleeing refugee will stop in the first place they feel safe, and the problem is that many refugees do not feel safe in the camps we are providing. We need to address the insecurity for women and girls in many of the camps. This is a short, medium and long-term problem that we are not yet solving.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Reflecting on my experience of visiting refugee camps in Darfur, that was absolutely the issue. Women were going out to collect firewood and were being attacked or raped. We must provide security. I know that the Government have done a lot of work on that issue in recent times and, again, I applaud them for that. It is more complicated than people thinking, “We are in a place where those who were killing us and who led us to flee are no longer to be found.” Insecurity is about how people feel in their minds about whether they, their family and their children are safe.
We are in this together and the way forward has to be through co-operation with our neighbours, including the rest of the European Union. We are confronted with the painful truth that the world has to be much more effective in dealing with conflicts like this before they turn into brutal and bloody civil wars. The responsibility to protect was meant to be about that, but let us be honest: in Syria, no responsibility has been taken and nobody has been protected.
We have to recognise that as well as refugees—I come to the point made by Mr Holloway—many, many other people are seeking to move across the globe to find a better life, in part because of conflict. They are coming not just from Syria, but from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and other countries where there is poverty and a lack of economic opportunity. We talk about economic migration, but that is the story of human history.
As a television reporter, I lived in the Sangatte camp in Calais and joined people who were being ethnically cleansed in the Balkans. There is an enormous difference between an economic migrant and a refugee. Surely the Prime Minister is absolutely right to focus our cash on places where we know people are refugees and on looking after them, rather than exposing our borders to hundreds of millions of people who are making the perfectly rational decision to seek a better life in Europe.
I am well aware that there is a difference; that is precisely the point I am making. However, I am trying to make a broader point about the challenge that this small and fragile planet of ours is facing and will face increasingly over the years ahead.
I am making the point that our human story is a story of economic migration. Whether anyone would describe William the Conqueror as an economic migrant, I do not know, but America, the land of my mother’s birth, certainly was built on economic migration. The story of movement within the European Union is also one of economic migration.
We must look ahead. The world’s population is 7.2 billion people. It is forecast that by the end of this century, it will be 11 billion people. Look at how the population of Nigeria is going to grow. We can already see the tensions and conflicts in countries across north Africa that are created by a lack of jobs, lack of hope and lack of opportunity. We see a generation in those countries who are looking at other parts of the world and seeing opportunity, jobs and hope for the future because of technology. This is the century in which every single one of us is having to lift our eyes to look beyond our own borders and see the lives of others.
Then there is the threat of global climate change. If people can no longer live where they were born because their houses are under water or because there is no water any more, they will do what human beings have done throughout human history: they will move to try to find a life somewhere else. The wave of economic migration we have seen in Europe these past few summers will be as nothing compared with the wave that is to come if we do not act on these issues—to tackle climate change, to fight conflict, to promote economic development and to fight poverty—so that people can build a life for themselves and their families in the land in which they were born.
All of these things are the expression of the fundamental interdependence of humankind. We will not be able to deal with them if we pull up the drawbridge, if we say that we have done enough, if we think that they are somebody else’s responsibility or if we deny entry to some people because they are supposedly of the wrong religion.
I spoke at the beginning about the reality of the mass movement of refugees, but the rest of us have to face our own painful reality. There has been unanimity of purpose and the expression of generosity so far in this debate, but let us be honest that there are other voices in Europe that are not so generous and who say, “It is too hard for us to help those in trouble.” We have a responsibility to say to them, “It is infinitely harder for those whose lives have been changed by circumstance— war, famine, disease—in the most profound way.” Our job—the Government’s job—is to tell the truth and to lead, because by doing so we have the best chance of giving full expression to that fundamental wish to help that represents the best of our character as human beings.
Clearly, this is the worst problem that faces Europe and, quite possibly, the world at the moment.
I listened carefully to the speech by Angus Robertson. There is a lot of agreement between his party and the Government. Putting compassion at the heart of our response is central. The Scottish National party wants there to be a compassionate approach and so do the Government. The disagreement is about how we implement the mechanisms to improve the situation for the Syrian people and those who live in neighbouring countries.
I think that we would all accept that there are no simple solutions to this problem, but we need to tackle the problem at source in order to deal with it effectively. We cannot tackle the problems that Syria faces exclusively from outside Syria. We have to go to the root of the problem. We will not find solutions to Syria’s problems in Europe. The downside of encouraging refugees to come into this country and processing them here is that it gives a green light to people smugglers and those who wish to exploit refugees further.
Is that not the crux of the debate about the balance between relocation and resettlement? Over the past couple of days, I have heard from a number of Government Members the idea that by taking part in EU relocation programmes, we will incentivise other people to make the journey across the Mediterranean. However, the UK has been making it clear for weeks that it will not take part in relocation schemes and it has not deterred a single person from making the crossing. Whatever the terms of the debate, this myth should not be part of it.
I would argue that if we send out a green light to people by saying that if they come over to mainland Europe, they will find sanctuary, there is a huge danger that we will inadvertently encourage people to make the perilous journey that has cost so many lives. It is clear that if we suggest to people that all will be well if they come over the Mediterranean to mainland Europe, it will encourage more people to take the journey and hundreds more people will die in the boats, as has happened before.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that was exactly the catastrophic rationale that lay at the heart of the decision in autumn 2014 to suspend Mare Nostrum? That decision was taken on the basis that rescuing people was encouraging more people on to the seas. The decision to suspend Mare Nostrum exacerbated the problem and cost many, many lives, and the folly that he is stating will do the same.
I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There will not be a long-term solution to this problem until we sort out the problems that Syria faces within Syria. If we ensure that there is a safe place to live there, the necessity to make the dangerous journey will go away. That is the positive way forward.
I understand the argument that the hon. Gentleman is making. My problem is that I cannot see how we can give people a sense of hope and a sense that remaining in Syria is their future, when what we are offering to do is either bomb Assad or bomb Daesh. Bombing either side would only strengthen the other, and in the middle there is nothing that can fill the vacuum and provide people with a sense of hope that they can have a safe future in their own land.
I argue that we can give some hope to the people of Syria by investment through the overseas aid budget and by ensuring that it continues. I am very proud of the 0.7% commitment, on which there was almost an all-party consensus. Only one major political party in this country disagreed with that, and its representative is not here in the Chamber—I refer to the UK Independence party. That party was wrong to take that approach, and this whole crisis has illustrated why it is right for this country to provide 0.7% of its GDP to help overseas countries.
That international development money is going into the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—it is not keeping people in Syria. It is impossible to put international aid into Syria, because there is no one to give aid to there.
I would argue that that money has been spent on education in Syria, on running water in Syria and on improving the quality of life of people living in that region. We have seen time and time again that with the overseas budget we are able to ensure a greater degree of stability. What I have found from refugees is that ultimately they want to go back home. The only way we can give them the hope that the hon. Lady mentioned is by ensuring that there is a chance that one day they can get back home. They will not have that hope unless we have a stable country for them to return to, and we will not get that stability without the investment we are giving.
The civil war that has been visited on the people in Syria has, apparently, knocked that country back 40 years, as cities have literally been flattened and entire populations have left. I know that this is not necessarily within the scope of this debate, but do we not need to begin thinking not only about the scale of the refugee crisis—the humanitarian crisis that we need to address—but in Marshall plan terms, to do for Syria what we failed to do in Libya, where we spent 13 times more on bombing it than we did on winning the peace, and indeed we failed to do in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the example of Iraq, because one lesson that came out of the Iraq war is that there was no plan for what would happen afterwards. He was right about that, and it shows why the investment in those countries is essential. He also rightly said that Syria is going to take years to heal itself after the evil of ISIL and President Assad, which is why it is crucial that we keep investing in the area. The Secretary of State made the point that this is the greatest investment of humanitarian aid that this country has ever made, and it is right that we recognise the importance that this Government have placed on ensuring that that investment is in place and that people are receiving it, because that is the only way, in the long term, that we will resolve this situation.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern, which I believe is held by many others, that if we take the argument of those who are supporting this afternoon’s motion, we are, in effect, giving carte blanche to Assad and to leaders of other countries to cause widespread disruption and destruction within their own countries because others will just take in the people they do not want? Keeping those Syrians close to Syria in well-run humanitarian camps means that they are a constant reminder to the international community and to Assad as to why Assad and ISIS must be defeated, so that we can then start building peace.
I think we are encouraging people by encouraging the people smugglers and human traffickers to allow people to come over to the Mediterranean and be exploited in that way.
The world response to this problem emanated from the picture that we saw. It is probably unprecedented for a picture to change the way the world sees a particular problem. That painful picture of the young boy is testament to the fact that his family, like many others, believed that the only option open to them was to take that ill-fated journey. The message we have to send out from here and from around the world is that it simply does not need to be like that. We do not need to place obligations on refugees to take a hugely dangerous journey, forcing them to pay people traffickers.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, one reason why refugees have to take this dangerous overland journey is a European aviation directive which prevents them from flying at a quarter of the cost. The directive means that the criminal gangs will grow, and these people have to cross overseas and are risking their lives. Is there an argument for suspending that directive, with the aim of saving life and ensuring that these people can get to a sanctuary, with the hope of returning to Syria some day? They have to live in order to do that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but my argument is still that the solution to this problem, if there is one, lies in Syria—it does not lie in mainland Europe.
The people who are in the worst situation are those in the camps in Syria. Those in Europe are certainly in need, but they are away from the evils of ISIL and President Assad. I come back to my central point: we have to tackle this issue from its source. I voted for military action in Syria and I would be persuaded to do so again. We have to take direct action against the fascism of ISIL, which, if left unchecked, will continue not only to destabilise the middle east but to act as a launch pad for attacks on the UK.
Let us be clear where the responsibility for this crisis lies. It lies with the actions of ISIL and President Assad, as they have created this exodus of people from Syria. They are currently the greatest threats to the security of this country, so it is right for us to take defensive, direct action against those who mean us harm. Sadly, this is how modern warfare has evolved, and we cannot just ignore people who plan to do us serious harm. We have to tackle the root causes of this problem. There will be occasions when a military approach is right, but it is also right that we do what we can to stabilise Syria and the wider region.
In conclusion, I come back to the speech made by the hon. Member for Moray at the beginning; I think this House has come together in its desire to see compassion for the people of Syria and of the wider region. The difference of opinion is on how we actually achieve that. It is on how we achieve a solution in the short, medium and long terms for the people of Syria and how we stabilise the whole region. It is essential that we ensure that the people of Syria have their future protected and we do not see the sorts of pictures that we have seen, and that we do all we can for the people who live in that region.
It is a pleasure to follow Gareth Johnson, who began and ended his speech with a call for unity, reminding Members that we have heard some powerful speeches about this desperate situation and that even though we, sitting in this Chamber today, cannot solve this problem, it is critical that we discuss it as often as we can.
I congratulate Angus Robertson on leading this debate and congratulate the Scottish National party on reminding the House over the past few months of the very slow progress that has been made on the Syrian resettlement programme. I offer a mea culpa from me and the Home Affairs Committee, because we have not monitored as we should have done, but we will do so in future, as in order to make progress on resettlement we need to know that the process is actually working. I also commend my hon. Friend Alison McGovern, because many months ago she initiated an Adjournment debate about the Mediterranean crisis.
Two years ago, the Select Committee visited the border between Turkey and Greece, where we saw for ourselves that 100,000 people were crossing the border every year. The real organisation and institution that has failed the refugees is not this House or this Government, but the European Union, and I say that as one of its great supporters. The failure of the EU to put together a strategy over the past few years to deal with an inevitable crisis is a very serious indictment of that organisation. Although we have had many speeches from Mr Juncker and others in the last few weeks, if they had acted sooner we would all have been better prepared. Greece and Italy have been asking for support for many years. Greece has been saying that it needs additional financial support. Those refugees who cross from Turkey to Faliraki in Greece were allowed to stay there for only six months. They then travelled to Athens and they headed to northern Europe. Some 92% of those who cross into Italy come from the failed state of Libya, and the Italians have been asking for support over the last year but it has never been forthcoming. Now it is a crisis for the whole of the EU.
It is right that we should congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government on announcing that we will take 20,000 refugees. I am not convinced that the timescale is appropriate to the crisis, and that is why yesterday the Home Affairs Committee—Victoria Atkins was also present—pressed the Minister for Immigration for a target for each year. He was unable to give us a target, and I think that is wrong. We need to make sure that we hold the Government to account, not because we do not trust them to deliver on the 20,000 in five years, but because Ministers’ officials will understand the seriousness of the situation only if we have constant scrutiny and a desire to make things work. If we can have a net migration target, I do not see why we cannot have a target for the number of refugees to enter this year. That can be done and is deliverable, and if the Minister puts his mind to it at his weekly meetings with his directors general he can make sure that the target is implemented. What better way to convince the House of the sincerity of the Government’s pledge—the Prime Minister has been very sincere—than to come back before the House at the end of this year and give us a figure that we can all be very proud of? It would be easy to do that, and I hope that the Government will do so.
The second issue I am concerned about is the fact that the resettlement of the Syrian refugees will be led by Cabinet Ministers who are already very busy. I welcome the committee that has been set up under the joint chairmanship of the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but what we need is a proper resettlement board. We saw that for ourselves in Leicester when Idi Amin expelled the Ugandan Asians. Without the structure of a resettlement board—independent of Whitehall but of course drawing its authority from Parliament and the Government and necessarily getting resources from the Government—to deal with the people who come here, we will have many problems in dealing with the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
On my right hon. Friend’s point about organisation, as a former council leader I know that council leaders have so much on their minds at the moment and that dumping this in their laps would be completely the wrong thing to do. We also know about the important interface with the NHS, especially with counselling services. Demand for those services is huge at the moment, and I am particularly worried about the influx of non-English speakers—in the Leicester situation, many of the arrivals spoke English. I am also worried about specialist counselling services for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We all share those worries, and that is why it is important that a proper structure is created.
My final point is about north Africa and how we deal with it. I have just come back from Tunisia, where I visited the hotel at which 38 British citizens were sadly murdered. I had meetings with Tunisian Ministers about how they were dealing with the migration crisis. They were doing well. They were showing great humanitarian support and deploying their navy to ensure that the people traffickers in their waters were dealt with, and economic migrants were returned to their countries humanely. We should compare that with Tunisia’s neighbour, Libya, where there is no control and the criminal gangs are operating.
I know that the Minister for Immigration is focused on what is happening in Europol, and we need to give it more resources. The Secretary of State for International Development talked about the taskforce that has been set up, but it has not been set up yet—it will be set up by November. It will be based in Sicily and will involve the National Crime Agency and other organisations. Europol is the only organisation that can deal with all the countries of the European Union and bring to the table expertise in dealing with criminal gangs, but it has not been given any additional resources for that task. I hope that the Minister for Immigration or the Home Secretary will make the point at the meeting next week about the importance of supporting that organisation. Unfortunately, Frontex has been a bit of a failure in dealing with those issues—we cannot of course be in Frontex formally because we are not in Schengen—and has not alerted others to the problems caused by the migration crisis.
We need to make sure that something is done to deal with the criminal gangs. The Prime Minister and others are keen not to send messages to the people traffickers by accepting people who have already arrived in the European Union, and I understand that. I understand why recruitment has to be direct from the camps, but there will be exceptional cases, such as Syrian refugees who have made it all the way to Calais—as the House knows, the mayor of Calais appeared before my Committee yesterday. To expect them to go all the way back to the camps in order to come to the United Kingdom would be unfair. I accept the general principle—once we announce we will take people from everywhere, the traffickers will take €10,000 from people to get them across the Mediterranean—but we need to be able to make exceptions for exceptional cases. We need to address that lack of flexibility.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that applies in particular to those at Calais who have family and friends in the United Kingdom? As we both know, the mayor of Calais confirmed yesterday that in her experience significant numbers of those in Calais were in that situation.
I agree absolutely. People have those links and they choose to make the journey all the way to Calais because they want to come to the United Kingdom. We should not be in a competition over which country welcomes refugees better than others. As a migrant who came from war-torn Yemen with my two sisters, I think this is the best country in the world. The support and encouragement that Leicester, which is now a mirror of the world, gives to those who come as migrants is second to none, so we do not need to take any lessons from anybody about the way in which migrants are treated, but we need to be cautious about setting our face against sensible measures just because they do not fit a particular norm.
The right hon. Gentleman perhaps embodies my point. There is often concern when we think of refugees and migrants arriving, but a short while later they become indispensable within the community and we could not imagine the place we live in without them. He typifies that point.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—[Laughter.] We take compliments when they are given. The community has gone around the whole country, whether in Putney, Leeds or the constituency that I cannot pronounce—I will say Banff and Buchan instead —as I have seen from the entries for the Tiffin cup this year, and has contributed so much.
We have a leadership role to play on this issue. The Prime Minister has played an important role. He cares about the migrant community in this country, as I have observed over the last five years—I have attended many functions of the ethnic minority communities with him in that time—but this issue will be a defining moment. Making the pledge to take 20,000 is not the same as receiving 20,000. That is why I go back to what I said at the beginning of my speech. Hard though it is for Ministers to tell officials, we need targets and we need a substantial number coming in by the end of this year, not just for our reputation, but for our conscience and for the wishes of the British people.
I am pleased to follow the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, with whom I had the pleasure of attending an oral evidence session yesterday. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement on welcoming 20,000 more refugees directly from camps in Syria and giving a further £100 million in aid to bring our financial assistance in the region to more than £1 billion.
Angus Robertson, who is not in his seat, urged us to look at the text of the motion. I have done exactly that, and I must confess that I am disappointed by its title “Humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe”. I believe that this is a worldwide humanitarian crisis that demands a worldwide humanitarian response.
Other hon. Members will no doubt focus on whether countries outside Europe are doing what they can to help people in need in Syria, but the fact is that the United Kingdom is leading the world in this. We have already invested £900 million in refugee camps, which is the second highest figure in the world and higher than that of any other European country. Frankly, that figure is unimaginable. What does it mean? It means 400 million relief packages, clean sanitation for nearly 7 million people and food rations for 18 million people. It is helping many more people in the region than any resettlement programme can hope to help in Europe. Moreover, that real, practical help in the region has been happening since February 2012.
I am pleased that the further £100 million will mean that more children and families are helped in the immediate vicinity of their home country. It is a genuinely compassionate response to help people near their homes. We must have an eye to the future. As I pointed out on Monday, when the Prime Minister made his statement, Syria will need its brightest and its best to help rebuild its future. By helping people near their homes, we are maximising the chances of that happening.
As a new Member, I am very conscious of the collaborative approach in the Chamber today, so I hope that what I am about to say is taken in the sense in which I mean it—as a genuine inquiry. Hilary Benn have focused on the number of refugees we are accepting, but we are taking the different approach of focusing on need, rather than numbers. The sobering reality is that there is no magic number. Syria has 11 million displaced people. The United Kingdom cannot possibly absorb all the people in Syria who need help; frankly, neither can the continent of Europe. That is before we begin to look at other parts of the world that are suffering from conflict.
Yesterday, under the eminent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Leicester East, the Home Affairs Committee discussed the issue of Calais with the mayor of Calais. She told us that 3,500 people in Calais are currently seeking refuge, coming not just from Syria, but from all sorts of troubled parts of the world, including Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen. To put that into perspective, the population of Eritrea is 5 million and the population of Sudan is 40 million. We cannot possibly hope to give a home to every person in places of great difficulty and trouble, no matter how much we wish we could.
I offer this response in the spirit in which the hon. Lady is speaking. It is a mathematical truth that one is more than none and that each additional life that we can make better is an improvement on what we have been doing. The problem is that the Government have been too slow and helped too few.
I will come on to the hon. Lady’s point in terms of what can be managed locally, but if I may, I will continue to talk about the text of the motion, which I hope will develop my argument and counter her point.
The text refers to refugees in Europe being absorbed as part of the humanitarian response. Given what the mayor of Calais said yesterday, how do we choose who to take out of the 3,500 people currently in Calais? How do we say to someone, “No, we’re not going to resettle you or give you a home because you are from Eritrea rather than from Syria”?
We must also take into account the very practical problems on the ground in Calais, such as the deliberate destruction of paperwork. When people are trafficked, the criminal gangs tell them, “Destroy your paperwork—then they can’t tell where you come from and send you back.” Although I understand the call to accept refugees who are already in Europe, how on earth can that be accomplished realistically, given such practicalities? Is not the much better approach to take people who we know are Syrian refugees in refugee camps in that area? They are in desperate need, because they are the most vulnerable and are often unable to make the journeys that some people in Europe have made.
My hon. Friend is making a very important and impassioned speech. She has made the important point that this is not just about Europe, but is wider than that. Does she share my pleasure that the Prime Minister said in his remarks on Monday that, as well as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, he would encourage other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to take on further responsibilities to ensure that not only countries in Europe but those in the region take greater responsibility for this very important task?
Indeed. As I have said, this is a worldwide humanitarian crisis and it demands a worldwide response. We would hope that other nations in the middle east, who are closer than we are to Syria, could begin to play their part.
We must not ignore the role that criminal gangs play in this incredibly important and emotive issue. They are profiting from this situation. In my previous life, I prosecuted serious organised crime. A couple of years ago, I worked on a case in which we prosecuted the biggest gang trafficking people from Iraq. At that time, although it may since have changed, the going rate for each person trying to get from Iraq to the UK was £15,000. Let us not do anything to help these criminals, but make it as difficult as possible for them to operate and to ply their trade. That is why I believe it is so important to focus on refugee camps, rather than on people who are already in Europe. By focusing on the camps, we can help to prevent people from making such treacherous journeys across from Syria to European soil.
What should our approach be in the UK? We must ensure that every offer of help from our local councils and charities is part of a clear-headed and realistic approach to accommodating such people and giving them the care that they need not just now, but in the years ahead. We must listen to our local areas to ensure that they are asked to help only in ways that they can manage. Frankly, some areas will be able to help more than others, because of the availability of housing stock and so on.
I am very pleased to have had many conversations with the leader of my council, East Lindsey District Council, to see what we can realistically do in the years ahead. There have been lots of conversations in the House about how we can help locally. One idea I may propose is for my council to set up a fund to which local people can donate money so that it can be used to help Syrian refugees. I would be interested to hear the ideas of other hon. Members.
Any help given locally must be manageable, not just now but in the longer term. Sadly, this issue is not going to go away. The issue of humanitarian and refugee needs will remain with us for as long as there is conflict in the world. A measured, reasoned and principled approach is therefore vital. That is why I am so pleased by the measures announced by the Prime Minister this week and the action we have taken in the past two years.
I see Conservative Members looking irritated, confused even, by the criticism from Opposition Members. I understand that. We see things a little differently. They believe they are being philanthropic, charitable even, and we believe they are simply fulfilling a moral obligation. They come from a political ideology that says individuals should be encouraged to keep as much as possible of the material goods they gather. We believe we should share those material goods when we have them with those who do not. It is shades of grey, of course. Many of us on these Benches probably do not share as much as we say we want to; and of course Government Members do believe in some wealth distribution, otherwise we would have no welfare state—such as it is—no NHS and no public schooling.
The fundamental difference, however, is that Conservative Members see a generous Government who were the first to meet the UN target on overseas aid and who on Monday offered refuge to an additional 20,000 people. Credit where credit is due, as others as have said. The former is an achievement of which they should be proud, with the caveat mentioned by my hon. Friend Patrick Grady, and the latter means that we will indeed welcome 20,000 men, women and children who, I expect, will be forever glad of that decision. It is much better than where we were a few days ago.
The trouble for those of us who offer criticism is partly the number of refugees. After all, Germany can take 800,000, which is 40 times what we are prepared to take. Germany is not 40 times our size, and, to my knowledge, it is not 40 times richer. It is more about attitude. Had it not been for the public outcry and the political pressure, the clear indication was that this Government had no intention of taking anywhere near that number.
I am not sure if the hon. Lady is aware that there will be a national day of action in London this Saturday. I am sure many colleagues will not necessarily be in London, but it will add voice. It is being organised by a constituent of mine, Ros Ereira. I hope that others will be able to join in, or at least spread the word by tweets and so on, so we can do a bit more awareness raising on the importance of this crucial issue.
I think I have tweeted about that. There is also one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh. I think they being called the same name as part of a bigger thing.
The point I was making is that the annoyance on the Opposition Benches comes from the Government appearing not to be doing this for the right reasons, but just to get the politicians and the public off their back.
Will the hon. Lady not acknowledge that the UK has been one of the largest donors on the ground in many of the countries where there are refugees? That is thanks to the actions of this Government.
That is in the wording of the motion. Of course I accept that, otherwise I would not be speaking in support of the motion. I think I have made it clear that this is not just criticism for the sake of it. I have given credit where I think it is due.
Yesterday, during the debate on refugees, some Conservative Members were constantly barracking Labour Members with the words “How many? How many?” For those Members, it seemed to be simply about scoring points. I understand why Labour Members did not want to put a figure on it, because surely it depends on need, as Victoria Atkins pointed out—although I think we are taking a slightly different tack on that one. That is not me saying no limits on numbers; I am saying let us work out a minimum, and work with other countries—again, something this Government seem loth to do—and then let us respond to the need.
It is not just in the mismatch between words and action that this Government’s rhetoric has been a disgrace. The Government and the Prime Minister have repeatedly used dehumanising rhetoric to discuss the desperate plight of these refugees. I am not going to repeat that dehumanising rhetoric.
I would like to turn to the incredible response from the people of the United Kingdom, including organisations such as Scotland Supporting Refugees, which made clear its desire for its Government to respond. I am, of course, delighted that many people new to the debate have become among the most passionate advocates for asylum seekers. The image of a three-year-old child, his body lying motionless washed up on a beach in Turkey, has awakened something in the public consciousness. I have heard those people be accused of jumping on a bandwagon—not from anyone here, it has to be said. I would not criticise people who previously took no interest. Caring is hard work. It takes up a lot of emotional energy. There are so many atrocities and there is so much pain that I do not blame people who previously chose to believe the rhetoric that suggested that many seeking refuge were simply “at it”. Sometimes it is easier to believe that than to face up to the fact that this can be a terrible, terrible world with many wicked and powerful people in it. Once you face up to it and open your eyes, however, there is no going back. You either have to harden your heart or you have to do something. And thousands of people have chosen to take action. They are now very aware of the reasons why so many people take their lives in their hands in search of a safe haven.
I appeal to all of those caught up in the wave of support for the refugees currently arriving in Europe and currently waiting in Syria for sanctuary to spare a thought for the many already living among us in the UK. I know a woman, a Kurdish woman, who lives in Glasgow. She is a lovely quiet woman. She does not have much English, but she is very friendly. She smiles a lot and nods to everyone she passes in the street. She is a quiet, unassuming woman who is content to shop every day for bits and pieces, feed her children and smile at her neighbours. Three years ago, I visited Kurdistan.
I found myself in what had been Saddam Hussein’s headquarters where many people had been held, tortured and sometimes murdered. I discovered that this lovely unassuming Glasgow woman, who appeared not to have a care in the world, had spent years in the very room in which I was standing being brutally tortured for refusing to give up her beloved husband to Saddam Hussein. The torture rooms now form part of a museum. The curators took a decision not to remove the blood stains. Some of that blood will have been hers. She is no exception. She is here as a refugee, but she is not an exception.
I had to choose, from the many people I know, whose story to highlight today. Hilary Benn talked of the horrific journeys that people go through to get sanctuary. I appeal to hon. Members and to the wider public to remember that it is not possible to see inside someone’s head. It is not possible to see the memories that they will live with forever. There is no way of knowing the terror your neighbour, colleague, school friend or even your postman has experienced. So please, keep aside a little kindness and friendship for those refugees not being featured on Facebook, who do not talk of what they have been through to get here but who are already part of our communities and trying do their best to live decent lives here in the United Kingdom.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the Prime Minister is right to also concentrate on the 11 million who have been displaced in the region, the quality of those refugee camps that Britain is paying for and to make sure that we are not saying, “Make the journey to Europe.” What we are saying is, “If possible, stay in the region, in these camps.” Is it not also right to take firm enforcement action against the people smugglers? They are the criminals responsible for the death of young Alan Kurdi. He was killed because they cast him adrift in a dinghy in the Mediterranean.
I want to support what the hon. Lady is saying. She did not say anything to disagree with that. Rather, she did something profoundly important, which is to share the lived experience of those we are here to represent. That is why we learn the lessons of this outpouring of support for the refugees, and we shape our country according to those moral values.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
My city of Glasgow is built on the back of those fleeing crisis: cleared highlanders whose houses were burned down so they could never return; Irishmen and women looking for refuge after the famine; Jewish families from the Baltic fleeing pogroms under the Tsars; and more recent refugees who have come and established themselves in Glasgow, many in my constituency.
I thank the hon. Lady for making such a passionate speech. I have not heard anyone mention—perhaps I just missed it—those countries that have not accepted any refugees, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Do countries in the region not need to accept people and take some of the pressure off everyone else?
I do not disagree. I think my hon. Friend Stewart McDonald made that point yesterday. Of course I am not saying the United Kingdom is the worst country in the world at taking asylum seekers and refugees. There are countries that are not doing anything and should be doing something.
It is always worth repeating—and I do it now—that Glasgow welcomes refugees and Scotland welcomes refugees. I am probably not going to win many fans today by admitting that for once I was not too upset to see my beloved Scotland football team being beaten on Monday evening. [Hon. Members: “What?”] If that is the response, I think my hon. Friends and the many Scots on the other Benches might feel I have gone a step too far when I admit that part of me even cheered on the team that beat us—I am sorry. In all seriousness, if we had to lose—and it seems that for a change we did—I cannot currently think of a better country to lose to than Germany. The way in which the German Federal Government and, more importantly, the ordinary people of Germany have opened their borders, their homes and their hearts to fellow human beings in desperate need has been nothing short of inspirational. And if my team wants to let them win at football by way of thanks, so be it.
The United Kingdom has the capacity to do so much more in this crisis. The people of the UK have made it clear that they want the Government to do more to save lives. I urge the Government to think about how they would like their response to this humanitarian disaster to be remembered in the history books and to act accordingly.
I am afraid I am obliged to disagree with Anne McLaughlin on a variety of points, not least Scotland’s lack of success. It might be little known on the Opposition Benches that I have Scottish heritage, Walter Smith being part of that extended family. She does well to pay tribute to Germany’s contribution, but we must be incredibly careful, as previously said, not to enter into a bidding war. We must not compare, like for like, each country’s contribution. Germany is in a distinctly different position. It has a falling birth rate, whereas ours is rising significantly. It is the same with land mass. Across Europe, each country is differently placed to provide help in the current crisis.
Yesterday, we heard many excellent contributions, and today likewise. Yesterday, the shadow Home Secretary closed with a call to each of us to remember the Kindertransport and everything it meant. There are huge parallels with that moment in history—the tyranny, persecution and crisis—but there is a further parallel to draw that has significant resonance to the matter at hand: people being driven from their homes and communities and separated from their families. That is what we are seeing today. I will return later to those particularly important themes of home and family in conjunction with what we must do.
We stepped up, back in the day. Opposition Members have been good enough to recognise the lead the Prime Minister has taken in the crisis and acknowledge that we should be proud of our contribution. What is our aid doing? It is reaching millions: we have provided 18 million food rations; 1.6 million people have access to clean water; and 2.4 million have access to medical consultation, relief packages and sanitation. These are hugely important interventions we are making. In addition, the Home Secretary did full justice to our work safeguarding and protecting the most vulnerable victims, notably women and girls.
It was asked at the start whether we were doing everything we could, and that means more than humanitarian aid. This can be no better put than in the words of Oxfam’s chief executive:
“Providing life-saving support to the millions of people affected by this devastating conflict is essential but it is not enough.”
Resettling refugees from Syria will not solve the crisis. They and we must dig in for a long-term, sustainable political solution. It will be head and heart. In that spirit, we must address the root causes of the crisis, including Assad’s tyranny of the Syrian people. We must also degrade and defeat ISIS and not pump-prime the trafficking gangs pedalling human misery. Before Syria loses too many more of its sons and daughters, we must provide lasting help—to return to the Kindertransport —and that means homeland. We must champion the millions of people left behind, as well as providing urgent care and support for those making the journey. It is right that we focus on that pressing and desperate need.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East talked of irritation on the Government Benches. I hear compassion and a difference of opinion about how best to meet the challenge, but surely we can recapture the unity with which we started this debate, because this is so much bigger than all of us—bigger than this Parliament, bigger than this country. I urge a return to that unity. I was pleased that the shadow Home Secretary talked, alongside humanitarian aid, about the need for military support to re-establish peace and stability. We will need unity around that also. Yesterday in the House, we heard of two known extremists who presented a real and present danger to people in our country, and there was question and challenge—quite properly—about that situation. In addition to compassion for those in need, we need courage in relation to the very many more who have a greater need than that.
The hon. Lady says we have to tackle the problems, but as Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday, what is the point in fighting Daesh if we are not willing to accept those fleeing Daesh?
And so we are. We have already accepted 5,000 under normal asylum-seeking processes, and we are to accept a further 20,000 more—not the 10,000 proposed by Oxfam, but 20,000 more. That is a considerable contribution, alongside our considerable humanitarian aid. With that, I end my speech.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in what I believe is one of the most important debates that has taken place here for some years. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Angus Robertson for bringing it to the Floor of the House. Before I proceed, I would also like to commend the comments of Hilary Benn, with which many on the SNP Benches will of course agree.
We are all aware of the raft of statistics that underpin this debate. At the moment, while many will have welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, what we are offering is still technically below the average among European Union members for asylum applications per head of population. As we all know, until recently, only 216 Syrian nationals were resettled in the United Kingdom through the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. If Members wish to question that, I would direct them in the first instance to the Library, where they will find the document published on
I appreciate that we are being conciliatory in this debate, but it is sometimes hard, given my nature, to do that. While the British Government seem like bystanders in this calamity, as we speak, swathes of humanity from the foot of Mount Ararat itself to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof are reaching out across the European continent seeking shelter and refuge—yet not here, not now, although perhaps by the end of what will be called, to our eternal shame, “the refugee Parliament”. I am told that I can take six in my constituency, and they are more than welcome—the more, the merrier.
I am sure that Members, or at least those of us old enough to remember—my hon. Friend the Member for Moray spoke about this earlier—have a feeling of impending déjà vu, as we have been here before. Who here could easily replace boats of Syrians and Libyans with those fleeing the collapse of the former Indo-China and the disaster of communism as it lapped across Cambodia, Laos and, of course, Vietnam, bringing Europe and the world face-to-face with the boat people?
As it did then, this Parliament—and, I am afraid, the Government—limits the ambition of the communities across all of these islands for those who even now seek to reach out beyond the limitations of this place and its perverse choices. Communities such as my own in West Dunbartonshire are even now adopting a cross-party approach through local community-led co-ordination and leadership, seeking to assist and give refuge, when and if the opportunity is afforded us, to those in peril who are fleeing aggression and, yes, even economic catastrophe. Speaking as the vice-chairman of the all-party group on civil society and volunteering, I am sure Members will agree and recognise the voluntary action that my community, along with so many others, are undertaking at this grave moment in our history, as mentioned by Lady Hermon.
In the hon. Gentleman’s role as the champion for the voluntary sector, is he aware of any other places, apart from own Hornsey and Wood Green constituency, that are making similar efforts? My constituency is going to acquire and provide aid to refugees the weekend after next. There is also a bookshop collecting goods, as well as a school where the children are spending their own pocket money to buy blankets, books and so on. Is he aware of any other constituency where there is so much of an effort to help refugees in this crisis?
I am grateful for that intervention, but I am sure that we are all aware of those types of organisations and individuals committing their time through volunteering to help those in need. I have also heard about food banks in Scotland deciding to donate food parcels to those in Calais.
I am sure that some in this Chamber could do without a history lesson, but if this House were ever in need of a history lesson, it would be now. It is a lesson in mass migration, brought about, from my perspective, by failed and inept historical foreign policy. Important choices made go as far back as the peace of Versailles, which brought about the very construction of Syria and so many other nations of the middle east. The decision was taken in 1953 to overthrow a democratically elected Government and to replace it with a truly despotic monarchy in Iran. Then there is the holding up of the regime of Assad and, of course, the invasion of Iraq. This is a hard lesson, one fraught with the disaster whose name we all know—radicalisation. It is a disaster at the expense of the poor and vulnerable—women, children, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. I hope that the Minister will recommend that the Secretary of State engages in broad discussions with charitable and voluntary groups, including LGBT community organisations across the United Kingdom, about how they can play their part in the debate, especially when some people are fleeing persecution that is based on their sexual and gender identity.
It will be a dreadful and historic failure, as recognised by many on the Opposition Benches, if our inaction is continued. I can speak for many of us on the SNP side as the children and grandchildren of the lowest of the low in this debate—economic migrants, just like so many now seeking refuge from Syria, north Africa and across the globe, as Members have mentioned.
SNP Members and those who elect us have long memories. We can smell the stench of poverty that underpins this crisis, and we at least will find some comfort that our Government in Edinburgh are seeking to accept 1,000 refugees—not as a cap or limit, but as a starting point in opening our doors to the world. We in Scotland, like so many across these islands, stand ready in the best traditions of Scotland to offer sanctuary to those desperately in need. We are, after all, “Jock Tamson’s bairns.” This is not the first time that this House has debated such a catastrophe and such appalling suffering. From the very distant past, those debates in this House should inform our debate today.
It is to those very debates that I turn to plead with the British Government on behalf of the destitute and the poor fleeing economic catastrophe and aggression. They are in your hands, and in your power. If you do not save them, they cannae save themselves. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that we predict that many will perish unless you come to their relief.
I am no Daniel O’Connell, yet his plea in 1847 in this very Chamber, prompted by the economic catastrophe that was the plight of the famine, rings as true today as it did then. Our response to him is “let them in”. My own constituency finds its heritage sullied and darkened by that great episode as it stretched across the entire isle of Ireland and across swathes of Scotland and the north of England.
This Government must act without delay. I tell the Minister that I am very much aware of the personal commitment and passion of the Secretary of State on this issue, which I hope he will take back to the Secretary of State, but we must opt into the EU relocation scheme and allow this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to play its part in the true understanding of a family of nations. The UK Government must critically fulfil their leadership in New York this month, as they sign the impending sustainable development goals. They are the rallying cry for this debate: “leave no one behind.”
It is a pleasure to follow Martin John Docherty. Let me gently mention to him that I speak as the daughter of a South African migrant nurse who left apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s and arrived here with £5 in her pocket.
The International Development Secretary is right to say that this is not a distant crisis, but one for which we bear a moral responsibility, and, moreover, one that we feel is closely connected to us. That is certainly how many people feel in my constituency, where there has been a surge of support and where offers of help have come from all sides. I agree with the motion’s call for clarification on straightforward practical fronts, because the decisions that we make in this place to take more refugees, and the offers of help that are pouring in, will need to be co-ordinated and delivered by our local authorities. They do that willingly and they do it generously, but what we are asking will be challenging, and we must be as clear as possible, as soon as possible, so that we can deliver effectively what we promise.
We have heard a great deal today about our tackling the problem at source, and about the drivers of the crisis. In 2013, two years into the Syrian crisis, I visited Lebanon and met refugees in makeshift camps in the Beka’a valley and in the Shatila camp in Beirut. Already 80,000 had died in the conflict, and already refugee numbers were reaching a fifth of the Jordanian population and a quarter of the Lebanese population. No one can question the generosity of our humanitarian response to date. As we have heard, we are the second biggest bilateral donor, and the biggest donor in the European Union. No one in the Chamber should take this lightly, for that money saves lives: it saves the lives of people who are in the greatest peril.
In Lebanon, I met schoolteachers, business owners, police officers and aid workers. Some were local, while others were experts who had been shipped in from hotspots elsewhere to troubleshoot. I was trying to get a sense of how a country copes with that kind of influx, but it is not those conversations that have stayed with me. In Shatila, I met women and girls who had fled from southern Syria. They told me that they had received warnings over the internet that their community was about to be attacked. All the women and children had left on foot that night. Four days later, their entire village was razed to the ground. They did not know what had happened to their husbands and brothers, some of whom were still in Syria fighting.
Menal, a beautiful 19-year-old, sat there silently. She was not crying, but tears were falling down her face. Eventually I asked her what was wrong, and she said that she felt in danger all the time, and that in the camp the Lebanese police had no jurisdiction. All that she wanted to do was go back home to Syria, but she now had no home to go to: it had been bombed out of existence. Her final words to me should haunt us in this Chamber, and should remind us of the despair that drives this crisis. She said, “I was going to go to university next year. What will I do now?”
Without exception, all the Syrians to whom I have spoken since the crisis want their country back. They want their lives back. The Syrians whom I met in Lebanon were anything but economic refugees looking for new lives in Europe; they wanted to stay as close to home as possible, ready to go back and rebuild their country as soon as it was safe. Since then, however, the fighting has dragged on, and the situation has deteriorated markedly.
As the International Development Secretary says, our refugee response models do not match the scale and the time frame of this crisis. Insecurity for women and girls in the camps means that we are seeing families face the terrible choice of having to marry off 11 and 12-year-old daughters to strangers just to keep them safe. In countries such as Jordan, which is trying to maintain a delicate political balance, refugees are not permitted for fear of destabilisation. Unsurprisingly, the majority of refugees in Jordan have chosen not to live in the camps, and many are trying to eke out a living illegally in the cities. As we have heard, access to primary education—let alone secondary education—can also be hard to come by.
Given that context, it is not surprising that some refugees are losing hope, putting themselves at extreme risk at the hands of people-smugglers, and coming to the European Union in search of safety and some kind of future. We must ensure that refugees who are already in the EU find sanctuary, but I, too, accept the core principle set out by the Prime Minister in his statement on Monday. As we seek to do everything we can, we must not act as recruiters for criminal gangs and people-smugglers who are preying on the most vulnerable people. However, I also accept the principle that was set out by the shadow Foreign Secretary, that our humanitarian response must be on the basis of greatest need. That is why I think the Prime Minister is right to say that we will take 20,000 refugees from UNHCR camps in the region.
There can be no doubt that those camps, where refugees face insecurity, lack of education and no job opportunities, are the point of greatest need. There can be no doubt they are entirely unsuitable for the most vulnerable refugees—victims of torture and chemical weapon attacks, and unaccompanied children. I also share the view of Keith Vaz that the principle of greatest need may well extend to exceptional cases from the EU.
Let me end by saying that if we are to have any hope of genuinely tackling the problem at source, our efforts to combat ISIL and disrupt people-smugglers will have to be matched by the delivery of a new model of humanitarian response that is fit for a crisis on this scale and with this time frame. We need camps that are safe for women and girls, we need primary and secondary education to be available to refugees in the region so that girls like Menal do not despair, and we need innovative solutions that offer job opportunities to refugees.
I completely understand why countries such as Jordan are trying to preserve a delicate political balance, and do not want refugees to enter their labour market, but de-skilling an entire generation of Syrians—the very Syrians whom we want to return and rebuild their fragile post-conflict countries—is in no one’s interests. I encourage the Minister to consider the proposal by Paul Collier, a pre-eminent development economist, for job havens. That is a solution which the EU could offer now, and which would restore hope to many.
This country has a proud history of giving sanctuary to those who are fleeing conflict, and of protecting the persecuted. In the midst of one of the worst forced migration crises in our history, it is our job to find new and better ways to respond. We must not be the generation that fails this test of humanity.
The Government are correct to emphasise what they are getting right: the 0.7% of gross national income spent on development, the £1 billion allocated to relief around Syria, and, indeed, the 20,000 refugees who will now be welcomed to Britain—although I believe that, without the public pressure, that would not have happened. However, as the motion says, it is too little, and it is misconceived to look at a five-year period when the immediate crisis is now and we do not know what the crisis will be in five years’ time.
I hope that Members will understand if I choose to concentrate on what the Government are not getting right at the moment. There is a rigidity in their approach, a desire to hold the line at the concessions that they have made so far. I do not think that that does any service either to the refugees or to our reputation internationally.
Three points particularly troubled me in the statements made in this debate and yesterday’s debate and the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday. The first—this goes to the heart of the motion—is the idea that we should opt out of the crisis in Europe and look only at the situation in the camps bordering Syria. Yesterday my hon. Friend Ms Buck referred to her experience of helping out at a refugee station in Kos earlier this summer, and the conditions she described there are at least as bad as those in the camps in Lebanon or Jordan. Some 50,000 refugees arrived in Greece in one month, and we know that Greece simply cannot cope. We are dodging our responsibility as a European nation and EU member. It is not fair to draw a line at the channel, and to be one of only three of the 27 EU countries not prepared to act collectively. I fear that this is more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative party or indeed European referendum politics. It is frankly embarrassing to hear refugees speaking in English in European countries about the German Chancellor and the people of Germany as their salvation when for centuries our country has been the leading light for Europe in providing refuge to those who are dispossessed.
Secondly, while understanding the priority given to Syria where the refugee crisis is worse than anywhere else, the Government are wrong and illogical to limit the relief simply to those who are refugees in Syria. I refer specifically here to the situation in the north of Iraq. It cannot be lost on anyone who has listened to the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary that the Government see little or no difference between the causes of the refugee crisis in Iraq and that in Syria, and in particular the role of Daesh in terrorising and persecuting anybody who does not adhere to its perverted fanaticism.
The Yazidi, Shi’a, Christian and many Sunni citizens of Mosul and the occupied areas have suffered terribly at the hands of Daesh and thousands have fled, principally to Kurdish-controlled regions. Despite the hospitality and military protection afforded by the Kurdish people, the plight of these refugees is desperate. Many countries including France—including even Australia—have recognised this; Britain has not.
In particular, the vulnerable persons relocation scheme has not been extended to Iraq. This has been a completely inadequate scheme so far—only 250-odd people have benefited from it—but I am hopeful in the light of the Prime Minister’s announcement that it will now function. It should, however, function for Iraqi refugees from Daesh as well, not least because there are a quarter of a million Syrian refugees in Iraq as well as in other surrounding countries. I hope the Prime Minister and the Minister responding today will deal with that point. The Prime Minister certainly did not do so when I asked him the question on Monday and he said that Iraq has a Government. That is perhaps literally true, but it is no comfort for those refugees, and I am afraid the Secretary of State has not answered the point either. Nor have I had a response to my letter to the Foreign Secretary on this subject of
I declare an interest thus far in that the Iraqi Catholic community in the UK is based at Holy Trinity church in Brook Green in my constituency, and it is a settled, prosperous community who would wish to welcome their relatives who are currently suffering so greatly. However, I do not make a special case for Christian refugees any more than for Muslim or those of any other religion or of none; we have a duty to refugees in Iraq as much as to those in Syria. My constituents in Hammersmith—46% of whom were, at the time of the last census, born outside the UK—absolutely understand not only our moral obligation but the wealth of experience and indeed the economic power of refugees, and that refugees have in great part made this country what it is today. This is an act of generosity, but it is also an act of self-interest. I cannot see that that is inconsistent and that is why I find the Government’s actions surprising.
The third and potentially most troubling point is the Government’s conflation of military action and the refugee crisis, which we heard in the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday. I agree with the Prime Minister that we have to address the long-term causes of the refugee crisis, and that requires a stable Government in Syria which means not only Daesh but Assad have to go. The UK can assist in that process in many ways, but the lesson of recent history is that military action by western powers is unlikely to do so. If we have not understood that from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we certainly should have done. That is why I have grave concerns about what the Prime Minister said in the second part of his statement. We are very far from establishing the legality of the drone strike that was reported, either under article 51 or indeed under the common law of self-defence. The Prime Minister certainly mentioned necessity and proportionality in his statement, but he did not mention the imminence of the threat.
Issues about the chronology of that event have come to light since. A number of former Directors of Public Prosecutions, Attorney Generals, non-governmental organisations, such as Reprieve, and leading Members of both Houses have expressed concerns. As the Prime Minister conceded in answering questions on Monday, it is a significant change of policy, so the House deserves an explanation. If we are moving to a shoot-to-kill policy and towards the tactics adopted by the Israeli and US military, the House has the right to know. At the very least, we need an investigation, either by the Foreign Affairs Committee or, indeed, by the Intelligence and Security Committee, in so far as these matters need to be confidential; but we also need the Law Officers to come to the House to explain the legal principles, to explain what their role has been, to explain what their advice has been so far, to explain what the process for that decision making has been and to say what their role would be if any further action were contemplated.
The Government do not have a mandate for military action in Syria—quite the contrary. The House made its view abundantly clear two years ago. The Prime Minister said that he got it at that point. I suspect that the reverse is true and that, in fact, he has been looking to reverse that policy ever since.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about mission creep in Syria? We have just had a drone strike, killing British citizens, but before that, we were told that British pilots were taking part in missions over Syria, again with no authority from this country, but on the basis that they were embedded with other forces, which has never happened before.
My hon. Friend, who is an expert in these matters, anticipated that my next word was going to be “embedded”. I am afraid that we have seen the hand of both public opinion and the House being forced by actions taken—first, British forces being embedded and the substantial increase in drone activity generally. Perhaps 40% of drone activity in the region is now over Syria. Now, of course, the drone strike has been reported. This is a way to pre-empt a decision that, no doubt, the House will debate in the autumn. These actions will have a direct impact on the refugee situation.
My final point is on the illogicality—this seems to be lost particularly among Government Members—of now deciding to take military action against Daesh. The main beneficiary of that will be Assad. However horrific and disgusting the actions of Daesh have been, the fact remains that the majority of abductions, torture and murders of civilians and the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure are the responsibility of the Assad regime.
In the past month, 1,600 barrel bombs were dropped by that regime. While we are attacking Daesh, we are making Assad stronger. Of course both need to be tackled. Of course a co-ordinated response is needed. That has been singularly lacking, and that is one of the roots of the refugee crisis. but I would regret seeing the Government rush to arms when they are so tardy in addressing their humanitarian duties.
Our country has a proud history of accepting the vulnerable into our society. That has not only saved lives, but enriched our culture. My family certainly owes a debt of gratitude to this country, for giving it refuge when it faced persecution. In times like these, we must live up to our international and moral obligations, but we must remember three important things when considering the crisis that faces us. First, our responsibility is not only to provide a safe haven. The task that faces us is not simply to offer a land in which the refugees can live; it is to give these people the chance of a future, and that means so much more than simply giving them the right to live here.
Let me finish the point, because I am responding to the point made by Angus Robertson when he said that each life lost is important. Equally, each person’s quality of life is important. As the motion recognises, refugees have a moral and legal right to be treated properly, and that means integrating them into our communities as soon as they arrive, giving them homes, providing access to learning the language and access to study, to work and to medical facilities. Many voluntary organisations already do a fantastic job in holding the hands of the vulnerable in times of need. But when we take 20,000 refugees, including many children and women who have suffered violence and abuse, we must bring together local communities, charities, and local and central Government so that we provide advice, homes, interpretation facilities and the kind of care that we give to our own vulnerable families.
The hon. Lady is making a very fine speech. I particularly enjoyed her earlier comments about the need to think about the future and about the importance of education and the need to build up capacity so that people can return to help build that future. In the light of that, does she agree that the one thing the Government can do in addition to what they are promising to do is encourage our universities and colleges to open their doors to the young people so that they can learn the skills to enable them to go back? That commitment could easily be made in addition to the 20,000 target.
First, it is important that we work with our local communities, which we are doing, and to use our foreign aid budget to do that. This is a very separate issue. I think what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that we should open our doors to people who are not refugees, because if we are giving people asylum or refuge, they will have access to our education facilities anyway; that is part of the process. Secondly, international co-operation is not only important, but essential. Yesterday, the shadow Home Secretary started her speech with a reference to the Kindertransport. But the challenges posed by Nazi Germany in the early 1940s were taken up not by one country, or even by Europe, but by the UN. Forty four countries signed a declaration in November 1943. An international effort on a significant scale is needed here. Britain leads the world in committing 0.7% of its budget to foreign aid.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent case for the Government to join the UN resettlement scheme, but they have refused to do so. Does she wonder why that was?
The Government have already taken people in through a UN scheme and they are committed to take more. They have already taken refugees through asylum. Of course we need to work at European and international levels, but the UN and countries around the world need to do more. We must call on other countries to live up to the commitment of 0.7%.
I will continue. We need to provide the funding that the UN bodies need to carry on their vital work on the ground. As Hilary Benn rightly recognised, people are leaving Syria simply because they do not have the basic provisions in their own country. The £1 billion that we have already provided in international aid is vital. We have provided 50% more than Germany and 14 times the contribution of France. We must also work with local partners to seek a solution to the political crisis in Libya and Syria.
Finally, although we will benefit greatly from the huge talent that the refugees offer, the longer this crisis goes on the more Syria will lose out from this incredible human potential. We must work in the UK and in the camps to provide people with the skills that they need to rebuild Syria. We cannot deprive Syria of its brightest and its best. That is not a long-term solution. I am proud to be British and to offer a home to the most vulnerable, but let us not underestimate the scale and complexity of the task ahead. I am confident that this is a challenge that Britain can live up to.
I pay tribute both to Angus Robertson, who is not in his place at the moment, for his speech and to the Scottish National party for its collegiate approach to this debate; it is massively to its credit. The language of this debate has been thoughtful and positive. We must acknowledge that over the past couple of months the language has not always been so conciliatory or so thoughtful. Only six weeks or two months ago, we heard people, including the Prime Minister, use phrases such as “migrants swarming through Europe”.
I took the opportunity at the beginning of August, during the recess, to go to the Jules Ferry camp in Calais and spend some time there. That does not make me an expert, but I discovered a number of things. First, I found that these “swarms of economic migrants” included far fewer people than the media presented. They were not economic migrants, not that there is anything disgraceful about that, but were by any sensible definition refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan—from places that meant they were fleeing war, tyranny and instability. It was clear to me that although the vast majority of the people were men there were far more women and children than appeared from what was being presented.
I took the chance to talk to about 20 or so refugees and quiz them about their desire to come to the UK. Their answer was that they wanted to come to the UK because it represents the good life—“Ah!” I hear from some on the Tory Benches, “They are coming here to sponge off us.” But no, when I drilled down about what the good life meant to those people I found that it meant stability, peace, an absence of conflict, civilisation and being able to bring their kids up and work their socks off without the fear of losing their home or their family. That is what Britain’s good life is and that is why we are an attractive place to be. Let us not decry that; let us be dead proud of the fact that we have that reputation.
Volunteers in the camp are painfully aware of where Britain stands, and of the fact that, when it comes to asylum applications, France takes more than twice the number we do every year and Germany five or six times the number. The thought that we are being targeted to be sponged off by economic migrants swarming through Europe is dishonest and not true. I came away from Calais with the overall impression that the Prime Minister, the Government and indeed others were reacting not to the reality—they have no excuse not to react to it as they have far better access to research than I do—but to the political story. That is shameful. When they react with dogs, tear gas and fences, that is a political reaction and not the way to solve the problem and make things better.
I said that language is important, but a picture is important too. A week ago, the decision by The Independent, in particular, to print the absolutely heartbreaking picture of the body of Alan Kurdi was one of the most powerful things any journalist could choose to do. There are times when we are critical of the media, but we should be dead proud that that newspaper and others chose to print the picture. It was edgy, it was appallingly hard to look at as a father—I find it hard even to imagine it now—but it changed the tone of the debate in this country. A week ago, there was no plan whatsoever from those on the Government Benches to make the kind of proposals that were made yesterday. They were made because they were led by British public opinion and I am proud of the British public and how they led that change in the debate.
We all have our own stories, but we should all be proud of the values shown in the response of the British people, whatever part of the United Kingdom we come from. In my patch, hundreds of people have offered accommodation, food, money and other things, and that is a reminder that this is not accidental, not a rare thing. It is true to our character as a nation and as a family of nations. It is 70 years since half of the children from Auschwitz arrived—where? It was on the banks of Windermere, believe it or not, in probably the least diverse constituency in the country. Between Windermere and Ambleside, on the banks of the lake, were 350 survivors from the camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere—mostly 13, 14 and 15-year-old lads, including the great Ben Helfgott, who went on to lift weights for Britain in the Olympics in the 1950s but came as a little lad from Auschwitz. The reception of the people in the south Lakeland area to those people was immense. It was true to their character then and the response to today’s refugee crisis is true to their character today. I am proud of them.
I also share a sense of admiration, and even a little envy, when I look at the German response and leadership of the response to the refugee crisis. For what it is worth, I am always up for Scotland, and that support is always repaid, I know, when Scots are so fervently up for England when we play games of various sorts.
Germany’s response to the refugee crisis has added to its standing in the world, it has made it more relevant in the world, and it will clearly be of economic value in the years to come. The Liberal Democrats welcome the plan set out by the Government yesterday to take up to 20,000 refugees, but we are bound to criticise many of the details, not least the fact that we are proposing to take up to 20,000 over five years, so over five years we will take, at best, as many people as the Germans will take in a weekend. We are also critical of the fact that no hope is offered for those in transit. Those are many of the people who are in most danger, under most threat, and for whom we should have most concern.
I am one of two people in the Chamber who would make the point that the commitment of 0.7% of GDP to international aid was achieved with the Liberal Democrats in government, with our unanimous support. Although the Secretary of State and others rightly claim credit for it too, I can point out that there was nobody on my Back Benches decrying the Government commitment to that 0.7%.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that the Conservative party claims that we tried to cut the international development budget, on the back of a report in the Daily Mail, which is hardly a supporter of the Liberal Democrats?
My right hon. Friend is correct. It is a great shame. The story of the coalition on this issue is that all the Liberal Democrats and all the Conservatives who were in Government positions supported that target, but there were dozens and dozens of Conservative Back Benchers who, if they had had their way, would have taken that money away.
The Liberals and the Government are taking credit for the 0.7%. We have all played a part—the Labour party played a part when in government. More importantly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that refugees are resettled in such a way that they fit into the community and that ghettos are not created through lack of resources? Previous Governments have used urban aid budgets to do that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It was exactly the reason why I raised the issue of the DFID funding. It is right that funds should be given to local communities to allow for that resettlement. My key concern is that we are taking from the DFID budget, and therefore taking from that 0.7%, in order to fund this work. That money should come from other sources. We ought to remember that the 0.7% commitment to international aid is about conflict prevention, to make sure that the refugee crisis does not get worse in the years to come. It is short-sighted to raid the DFID budget in order to fund refugee settlement; the money should come from other sources.
I am bound to decry the fact that this Government refuse once again to co-operate with others in the European Union on a collective approach. That affects our standing in the EU and the world. We are seen as a country that turns its back on its neighbours, that is not a good team player and that is not able to roll up its sleeves collectively to try to make a difference. The Prime Minister will spend time over the coming months in the capitals of Europe trying to build the case for concessions so that he can make the case for a yes vote in an EU referendum. What chance has he now of getting concessions from people who believe he has been such a non-team player over this most critical issue? He has damaged Britain’s standing and he has potentially put at greater risk Britain’s membership of the European Union.
I will not give way; I want to make progress.
By limiting the number of refugees we will take to a maximum of 20,000 over five years, the Prime Minister lets down many thousands of refugees. As others have said before me, we support Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposals for an EU common plan. That makes sense and would add to the UK’s stature in these matters. As was mentioned earlier, the UK’s response has been tardy and has not been good, although it is better today than it was a day or two ago. However, there are others whose contribution is utterly risible, not least Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are wealthy countries that our Government have close connections with. What moral authority do our Government have in banging those countries’ heads together to get them to play a role when they themselves have been dragged to the table so reluctantly? This is about moral authority as much as anything else.
I will not give way.
We expect our Governments to lead and not to follow, but over the past week we have found that this Government have followed. I am glad that they have, but it is a great shame that it took months, and the public outcry after that tragic photograph, to bring them to the table. In the past 24 hours or so we have seen the Government commit to what I suggest—forgive me if you think this is cynical—is the least they think they can get away with in the face of public opinion. I want to encourage us all to commit to the most we can do, for the benefit of our collective humanity, for those refugees and for our nation’s standing in the world.
Last week’s heartbreaking images united the country in horror and compassion. I have been deluged with letters and emails from constituents wishing to express their compassion, and I am sure the same is true for all hon. Members. This House has shown an unusual unity on the issue and has brought it on to our agenda for three days in a row. I welcome the tone of the motion tabled by Angus Robertson and his support for the Government’s long-term humanitarian commitment. I was rather disappointed that Tim Farron set a contrasting tone and that he feels less pride in Britain’s long-term commitment to humanitarian support for refugees.
Personally, and on behalf of many of my constituents, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to taking in 20,000 more Syrian refugees, on top of the 5,000 already here, and particularly the fact that they will be taken directly from the camps. That gives a safer route for the most vulnerable refugees, who would be unable to make the trek across Europe to Calais.
My constituency, and Kent overall, has felt the consequences of people making that trek across Europe in recent months. In particular, we have seen a large increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and they need looking after. Kent County Council has worked extremely hard to find homes for those children, but it has run out of foster homes for them and for local children. Other councils have helped, but not nearly enough. In the coming weeks and months we need the rhetoric from local authority leaders across the country to be matched with action, with them taking in more families and, in particular, more children. I hope that we will now see a nationwide response, and that response needs to be centrally co-ordinated to ensure that those children are given homes across Britain, as Keith Vaz suggested.
Although it is wonderful to welcome refugees, there is a cost. Kent County Council has estimated that there is an unfunded cost of £6 million in taking in extra asylum-seeking children this year. That financial burden needs to be shared across the country, not just in the areas that take a greater proportion of refugees. I welcome the proposal to use the foreign aid budget to help contribute to those costs.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I think that I am right in saying that the north-west of England has taken the most refugees, so I agree that our job is to ensure that all parts of the country have the resources they need to welcome refugees should they want to.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is right that we need not only to welcome refugees in what we say, but to plan how to care for them properly. As my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer said, we need to give them the chance of a good life in this country.
As the Opposition parties have recognised, the UK has made a huge contribution to helping refugees through our £1 billion aid commitment, which has not always been as popular as it is now. It is good to see that the country is rallying behind the virtues of making a contribution on that scale. However, we need to make sure that our emotional response to the images of last week does not cloud the reason in our response. I believe very strongly that we should concentrate our help where it can do most good. Most of the 12 million people displaced are still in the region, with 7.6 million in Syria, 1.9 million in Turkey, and 1.1 million in Lebanon. Being in those countries means they are more likely to return home when eventually their homes are safe, and then they will be in a position to help rebuild Syria, so we would be right to focus our aid there.
May I make a suggestion that will not cost the Government a single penny? Will the hon. Lady join me in calling on the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Ellwood, who is in his place, to get on the phone to the Saudi Arabian embassy here in the UK and ask that country to start taking some refugees, and Kuwait and Qatar too, because they do not even recognise refugees in their constitution? Many Members have mentioned Lebanon, but it is a fraction of the size of Saudi Arabia, so perhaps the Government could start to look at that side of things as well.
Indeed, the other neighbouring countries, not just Lebanon and Turkey, should be taking refugees. I understand that in fact Saudi Arabia is taking some refugees and that families have invited other families to come and live with them. There may be more happening than we are aware. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
I want to talk about how our aid could be used in the refugee camps. It is important that it is used not only to provide shelter and food but to make life in those camps bearable. As we have heard, it is far from that now; in fact, many refugees do not even feel safe in them. My hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood described this from the experience of her own visits to refugee camps. We must try to ensure that refugees have some quality of life. I recognise that the Government are doing what they can. A quarter of a million children are benefiting from having support for their education, thanks to our aid. I have read of a figure of £10 million being used specifically for building local capacity and longer-term stability in the region, but that sounds like a rather small share of £1 billion. More must be done to give refugees in the camps a chance to work, to learn and to develop their skills so that they will be able to contribute as and when Syria is safe to return to, and to give them purpose and a sense of hope.
The hon. Lady mentions £10 million. Perhaps the Government would take up the point that rather than replacing Trident on the Clyde with £500 million, they should send that money to deal with some of the refugee crisis issues that we are facing.
That is a completely separate debate and it is not appropriate to have it as part of this debate.
The battle against ISIL is ideological as much as military. We absolutely must win hearts and minds. As this is Britain’s largest ever humanitarian effort, it must not just be about providing sanctuary but must also count towards future peace and stability across the region.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on this hugely important issue.
This is the most challenging refugee crisis since the second world war. It has brought some of the most miserable and wretched images to our television screens and newspaper front pages, but it has also brought out some of the best qualities in so many people across the UK and Europe. As other hon. Members have said, it is impossible not to have been impressed—indeed, bowled over—by the efforts of local organisations, community groups and individuals. It has also been clear to many in this Chamber that how we handle the global movement of refugees, including in the Mediterranean, is one of the rare issues that will come to define the legacy of this Parliament, as my hon. Friend Martin John Docherty said. This is a test of policy and of leadership, but, more importantly, we are being tested on our humanity.
I fear that to date the Government have fallen short of pass marks, although, as the motion recognises, they do deserve credit for their support for humanitarian initiatives in the middle east. Of course, like colleagues, I give a warm but somewhat guarded welcome to the change in approach that has been signalled in the past few days—in particular, the decision to increase the number of Syrians being resettled in this country, as announced by the Prime Minister a few days ago. Nevertheless, I share the view that in many ways the Government have been too slow to respond and their response still falls short. If they listen to the arguments being made today by the united opposition and to the very clear message coming from people across the United Kingdom, they will still have a chance to salvage their position and, indeed, to help save more lives.
What more could and should the Government do? On the issue of resettlement from the middle east, I welcome the plans to increase the number of Syrians to be resettled directly in the UK. However, as many have made clear, people cannot wait until 2020 to reach safety, so we will scrutinise the Home Secretary’s forthcoming statement closely. We need to resettle more people and to resettle most of them very soon, not in five years. As Keith Vaz has said, we need a strong target for this year.
We also need to think again about the position of unaccompanied minors who will come to the UK under the Government scheme, particularly the nature of the status they will be granted and their prospects for settlement and stability, which they need immediately. It is all very well to say that it may be possible for them to apply for settlement in the future, but many children’s organisations say that they need settlement and stability immediately.
I also wish to raise the issue of “double refugees.” I understand from people working in refugee camps in Lebanon that a significant number of refugees there have previously fled from Palestine and had been protected as refugees in Syrian camps. They have had to flee again and, despite not being documented as Syrians, that is the country from which they have been forced to flee. Is there not a powerful case for including them in the resettlement scheme? Let us consider the scope of the programme very carefully.
The key question is the relocation of people who have already reached Europe. Other Members have already set out in considerable detail the conditions of squalor, tension and sometimes even violence that vulnerable people arriving in Europe too often have to endure. My own constituents have contacted me to speak about their horror on seeing such situations at first hand when visiting places such as Kos and Lesbos.
The people arriving on these islands and in the EU need our help. They need a co-ordinated EU response and the UK should play its part. For two or three countries to take on 350,000 people arriving in desperate circumstances is an impossible task. Among a union of 500 million people it is a challenge, but an eminently surmountable one, representing just 0.5% of the population.
Whatever our differences on the balance to be struck between relocation and resettlement, the one argument I cannot accept from Government Members is the claim that taking part in European Union programmes will encourage more people to take on the dangerous journey. First and foremost, that view fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the crisis. People are being driven to cross the Mediterranean through fear of persecution and human rights abuses and through desperation, not because of some distant possibility of relocation to the United Kingdom. Of course, back in May the UK shied away from the first EU attempt at agreeing 40,000 relocations. Has that stopped a single person making that trip? Of course not, so it is time for this myth peddling to stop and for the Government to step up to the plate by working with their European Union neighbours.
There are other ways in which the Government can respond to this motion’s call for them to play their full and proper role in providing sanctuary to our fellow human beings. At the very least, will they consider the call from Save the Children that the UK Government
“takes its fair share—3,000 of the most vulnerable children who are arriving in Europe—those who have arrived without family members, completely alone”?
As the charity says:
“We must ensure these children are safe and protected.”
I also hope there can be broader consensus on the need to reconsider how refugee family reunion rules apply in this particular situation. I appreciate that the Minister for Immigration will have already heard this two or three times this week, but one group of people for whom surely the UK is the most appropriate place to be is those with family members who have already been granted refugee status here. As they stand, the UK’s family reunion rules are tightly drawn. For example, a 19-year-old girl in a refugee camp in Lebanon, or who is stranded alone in Turkey, whose father has managed to make it to the United Kingdom and is recognised as a refugee will not usually be able to come here under those family reunion rules. Her family would be sorely tempted to resort to people smugglers to get her here.
Surely the Government will agree to look again at how the family reunion rules are being applied to those who are caught up in this crisis. The argument for that has been made forcefully by the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and many others. I note that Sweden and Switzerland have extended their family reunion programmes.
Additionally, we need to see what further steps can be taken to provide practical support for those who wish to make family reunion applications. Lawyers and charities that are working for families here speak of the impossible bureaucracy when people approach UK embassies in the region. Let us make it as easy as we can for people to exercise their family reunion rights.
Finally, does this situation not illustrate how outrageous it is for refugees to be included in any net migration target? The Government appear to be incentivising the rejection of refugees. Is that not the worst possible signal to send out?
This was a chance for the Prime Minister to show leadership in one of the defining moments of his time in office. I regret that he has been guilty of belatedly following, instead of leading. He still has a chance to lead and I hope, for the sake of the refugees from Syria and elsewhere, that he grasps it urgently.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to talk about an issue that defines this summer and probably a longer period.
I congratulate Angus Robertson on tabling a motion on this humanitarian issue, which is vital not just to all of us here, but to many of our constituents. I would argue that the underlying issue is broader than that laid out in his motion. Why are there so many failing states in the middle east and north Africa? How can we help to prevent those states from reaching the chaos where so many millions of people are displaced, mostly outside their own country? What is it that states such as Jordan and Morocco have that makes them so much more successful? How can a region take ownership both of its people, as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are doing so spectacularly with help from the west, and of its stability and security? Those are critical questions, but I recognise that they are for another day and I hope that it comes soon.
The hon. Member for Moray introduced his motion with moving reference to his own story about the arrival of his mother in this country, which helps to explain his commitment to helping other refugees. There is much to agree with in his motion. It recognises the Government’s huge contribution to the camps for refugees from Syria and the commitment to take on 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees from those camps. It calls for a “full and proper role” for the UK in providing sanctuary.
However, the motion is very short of detail in some ways and divisive in one critical way. It calls for
“a greater international effort through the United Nations to secure the position of such displaced people”,
but what does that mean? The hon. Gentleman did not shed any light on what he expects the United Nations to do. Does it encompass the proposal from my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell for safe havens inside Syria? Is the hon. Gentleman thinking of no-fly zones? He said nothing about what he wants from the United Nations. I offer the thought that perhaps the most successful intervention by the United Nations in a state that had been through civil war was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was run by the United Nations for a period of years before being successfully returned under democratic elections. We need to look at that more closely in the longer term.
The line that reveals the divisiveness of the motion is that which calls for the Government to report on
“how that number can be increased”.
That comes only two days after the Prime Minister’s announcement that our country would take 20,000 refugees. The hon. Member for Moray denied that this was a bidding war, but that is exactly what it looks and feels like. A cry goes up, “Something must be done.” A Labour leadership candidate agrees and says, “Yes, we should take 10,000.” The Prime Minister agrees and announces the framework and terms for taking 20,000 refugees, but the SNP, on its Opposition day, asks how that number can be increased, without mentioning a figure—neither the hon. Member for Moray, nor anybody else speaking for his party today has done so. We can be sure that if the Government did come back to raise the figure, whatever it was raised to would not be enough, and the SNP and others would ask how we could increase it further.
I am not sure whether there was a question in there, Madam Deputy Speaker, although there may be one for the Government to offer on. The important thing I was going to say is that we should not get obsessed with a particular figure. We have heard moving speeches this afternoon from Members echoing what I believe to be the core point of the motion, which we all share: the requirement on the nation and on all of us to respond with compassion to an international disaster.
Several Members, most movingly my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood, in an echo of what the hon. Member for Moray said, have told us that they are from immigrant families. I was working on aid projects in Africa almost 30 years ago, helping displaced people from neighbouring countries around there, and I was in Hong Kong when its Government, on behalf of the British Government, were trying to deal with the Vietnamese boat people. It is incredibly easy for people to be critical of situations involving refugees if they are not dealing with it themselves and do not have the responsibility at the time. We should recognise that, as many Members have said. This nation does have a strong record, and we should be pulling together and doing our best to help people in the ways that we can.
On that note, I thought the most discordant speech heard in this Chamber for a long while—it was almost a disgraceful speech—was that by Tim Farron. He seems to have entirely forgotten that his party, when in coalition government with my party, was responsible for bringing together this considerable increase in our commitment to international development, which has led to our being able to provide huge sums in funding and help hundreds of thousands of people, if not more than 1 million, in the refugee camps just outside Syria. It was extraordinary that all he could bring himself to say was that this Government “react with dogs” and barbed wire, in a reference to Calais. He made no reference to what is being achieved for the refugees from Syria. Unfortunately, a number of Members have descended into making party political points, especially Andy Slaughter, who sounded the most extraordinary, tribal note, referring to a “rush to arms”, which is not even the subject of this debate. Instead of doing that, we should be focusing today on what we all share and what we can achieve together.
On that note, I wish to make a practical suggestion that I believe would make a real difference to this nation’s handling of the refugee crisis. I touched on it earlier in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The most practical thing we can do is encourage the leading charities and non-governmental organisations, perhaps in that meeting on Friday with the Government, to come together to create a new Syrian refugee fund, perhaps administered by Save the Children in particular, although others should be involved. Such a fund would allow so many of our generous constituents around the whole country to contribute, and it should be matched pound for pound by the Government. That would enable a significant fund to be available to help the refugees when they come to this country. It could be disbursed through local government authorities or it could be done directly, but all these are issues that should be resolved. We have done this before. We did it successfully in response to the typhoon in the Philippines about 18 months ago, when many people in our constituencies contributed. St Peter’s school in my constituency raised funds and gave a lot of time towards doing so. Such an approach helps the people of Britain to realise that the Government share their sympathy and compassion, and will match what they give pound for pound. That is a practical suggestion that would help us.
Some hon. Members have intimated that we should do almost everything that Germany is doing. It seems to me extraordinary that we should feel obliged to get into some form of bidding war with Germany, of all nations. We should surely recognise that Germany is dealing not only with today’s humanitarian crisis—[Interruption.] The SNP would do well to listen—but with her own modern history. We should respect and admire that but not see German commitments as a competitive challenge.
We should recognise that each country can contribute differently. For example, the role of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean in saving more than 6,000 people who might otherwise have drowned is not something that many countries in the European Union could emulate, and certainly not Germany. We should recognise that we can all make our own separate and different contribution to the crisis. We should pull together; make sure that we get on with implementing what has already been announced by the Prime Minister, and not try to split hairs about numbers of refugees; encourage the charities to create the fund in which the Government will match what individuals donate; locally capture significant offers of help through the asylum and refugee offices in our own counties; and make it happen.
It is good to speak in this important debate. I listened carefully to the contribution from the hon. Member for Gloucester
(Richard Graham) and the remarks that he made about whether numbers matter. Of course, it is not numbers that matter, but need. If some of us are exasperated about numbers, it is because the Government are not doing enough and we are trying to encourage them in that direction.
I want to send out a message from this House that I hope everyone will agree with. It was a fine innovation when we decided that it would not just be for the Government to dictate our agenda, but for the public. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed e-petitions and the House has listened and put the issues that matter onto our agenda. One of those issues is one that the British people care about not for their own sakes, but for the sake of others. It is testimony to everybody who bothered to sign the petition that they are changing politics today.
One of the great moral puzzles is working out what we owe to others who are far away—who are not of our own family but of someone else’s family far away—and the Secretary of State answered that question in her contribution. She has met refugees and she told us about them. She has met people who have fled Syria, and she told us what she had heard from them. I ask whether anyone can hear those stories, or the contributions from the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), and not wonder if we can do a little more.
When we meet people, we realise they are just like us. I want to read out the words of Hassan, who is 14 and from Syria. He said:
“The children in Syria need help. They need help because they are being tortured, shelled, shot at. They take children and put them in front of them. They create a human shield of children. They know that the people in the town will not shoot their own children. I saw this with my own eyes.
I want children in Syria to escape. They should run away so they don’t die in the shelling.
What do I remember of Syria? I remember that whenever shelling took place we ran to a shelter. Inside, children shouted and wept a lot, they were so afraid. I remember that so many children were being tortured.
Because of what is happening in Syria we don’t play any more. I miss my house. I miss my neighbourhood. I miss playing football.”
Football, the universal language. The more we find out about the refugees, the more we realise that we are just like them, and that is why we need to help them.
The problem is that progress feels painfully slow. Back in 2014, we had a debate about whether the Government should join the UN resettlement scheme. The Government said that they would not join it, and in the end they came up with their own scheme. As Member after Member has said, that scheme has taken insufficient numbers. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz mentioned the debate I held about refugees. In June, I asked the Prime Minister whether he felt that we were doing enough to help vulnerable children from Syria. In his words, he said that he was “convinced that we are”. It took the events in August to make him realise how wrong he was. Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I am a little bit infuriated at times at such very slow progress.
I want to make two brief points and then say a final word. First, I know that the Government are capable of listening. The Secretary of State for International
Development has listened and, as evidence has come before her, she has changed her position. She is a reasonable person who has done the right thing. I know that Ministers are prepared to do the right thing, so I say this to them. Let us be a part of Europe. Let us see what is happening on the southern coast of our continent, in Greece and in Italy, and say to the people there, “We stand with you. We know that you cannot deal with this alone.” Let us in this House listen to Matteo Renzi’s call to be a part of Europe and to demonstrate our European values by saying that we believe in freedom, tolerance and respect, as well as a place to live and a decent life for each and every person. Let us show some leadership. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said that leadership has been lacking. Let us change that, because the rest of Europe is crying out for the UK to play a role, in part by offering sanctuary to some of the people who, perhaps in exceptional circumstances, are already in Europe.
My hon. Friend may recall that she questioned the Prime Minister in October 2013, following the EU Council, on precisely these issues in the Mediterranean. At that time, the Prime Minister told her that
“we should try to avoid the sense that there are…front-line states…that are under particular pressure.”—[Hansard, 28 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 664.]
He went on to use Hungary as a comparator to show that the UK was taking its fair share of the burden.
In this debate, several hon. Members have reminded me of my previous contributions, and I thank them for doing so. I will not shut up about this because these people matter. In response to what we said in 2013, 2014 and this year, the Government have demonstrated that they have the capacity to change their mind. All I ask is that they show what sensible, reasonable people they are and change their mind again.
We need to play such a role in Europe. We need to demonstrate—whether in exceptional circumstances, or under whatever definition we set—that we are prepared to help our friends in Europe. The UK needs to be
“a piece of the Continent, a part of the main”,
as John Donne, one of our country’s finest poets, said.
Secondly, we need truly to respond in policy terms to the outpouring of good will towards refugees and victims of the conflict in Syria. Never mind the numbers; let us show that we have heard what the people of Britain think and take refugees out of the migration target. I think that the Government have failed on their migration target, which was ill-conceived for loads of reasons to do with the place of universities in our economy and the needs of great businesses, such as Unilever in my patch. It was a bad idea, but they are the Government and they have a right to do it. What they do not have the right to do is to say that we should decide whether we are living up to our duty towards the people coming to our country needing our help and needing sanctuary on the basis of some arbitrary statistical target that they have set for themselves in the heat of an election.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her incredible and hugely impassioned speech. Does she agree that this is not about numbers?
We must stop talking about such people as numbers; they are human beings. This is a human tragedy, and it needs a human response. Every time somebody has to flee their country as a result of what is happening, it is a tragedy. I share her views.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. She makes my point for me perhaps more eloquently than I was able to when I said earlier that one is better than none. For each person we can help, we should be glad we have done so in the knowledge that immigrants to this country make a massive contribution and build us up to what we are today.
I ask the Government to think again. They have shown they can do it. They have shown that they are prepared to listen. I ask them to show that compassion and reason once more. It makes no sense to say on the one hand that we will decide whether somebody can claim asylum and seek sanctuary in this country based on need and based on their circumstances, while on the hand counting in refugees with a migration target that is essentially just a number that has been decided for other reasons. We should decide each case based on its merits.
I do not underestimate the size and scale of what we are asking local authority leaders to do. I do not underestimate that for a moment, and I thought Helen Whately made some serious and excellent points on that, but that is why it is all the more deeply impressive that local authority leaders, such as Richard Leese and Joe Anderson in the north-west of England, have stood up to be counted. They have said that their parts of the world will welcome refugees and will do all that is necessary to provide sanctuary for them. Of course, the Government will have to work hard to make sure there are resources and we need to empower local communities so that they feel able to welcome refugees, but working together we can do it. As it happens, DFID resources have often been spent, as necessary, on people in this country. We need to find different ways to fund this effort, but I applaud all local authority leaders who have shown that they are prepared to welcome refugees into their city, town or county.
In closing, I want to say a final word on refugee camps. I have never visited a refugee camp, but the Secretary of State has and she made an excellent case for why they are not the best idea in terms of sanctuary. They are temporary and they are unsafe. They can be good places where people can get medical care, but in the end it comes down to this: nobody’s home should be a camp. That is why we need to truly understand what it means to give sanctuary. It does not just mean, “Here’s a roof over your head for the moment,” necessary though that is. It does not just mean a way to feed somebody’s children and give them medical care, absolutely necessary though that is. It means: here is the place where you can belong. That is sanctuary, that is what we should offer refugees, and that is why we will keep asking the Government until they do more.
Thank you for allowing me to join this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the considered remarks from across the House, particularly those from the Secretary of State. I was particularly interested in the views of my hon. Friend
Richard Graham on post-war Bosnia. I visited Bosnia in 1999, after the war, and it was a fascinating place to be. Street by street, house by house, people were rebuilding their lives alongside our boys and girls, who were working so hard alongside colleagues from the UN. It was fascinating to see how things can be built fairly quickly after the breakdown of communities. My hon. Friend’s practical suggestion is very important and I hope note has been taken of it.
I am proud of my Government’s commitment to build on further international development work and take 20,000 refugees. I am sure we have all had a huge amount of correspondence on this issue—I certainly have. The question today is: are we doing everything? One of my councillors, Elizabeth Lear, personally wrote to me and the local borough council to suggest we take at least five families from the camps. She is just one person who wants to act and do the right thing. She sees the challenges in local government, as I did up until May, of housing, schools and integration—things we should be very mindful of.
People in Eastleigh and across the UK have watched the humanitarian crisis unfold this summer and over the past four years and are asking what we are doing about it and whether we, in this Chamber, are doing everything that is right to help. The Government have rightly answered them with a robust plan. Eleven million humans—as we have heard today, these are humans, people—are affected, and 3% of them have made the perilous journey to the sanctuary of Europe, often by exploitative means, but in the camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan many still suffer greatly.
The crisis is large, as are our moral and practical responsibilities. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now account for one quarter of the population. Let us just think about how to manage that day in, day out. It is therefore right that Britain is providing 18 million food rations and that 1.6 million people now have vital access to clean water. This summer, people in this country suffered from not having clean water because of bacteria in the supply, and we saw how difficult it made day-to-day life. It is right also that Britain is providing education to 250,000 children. Those children are benefiting because of this country. I believe that we, as one of the leading aid supporters in this crisis, are doing our bit. The world looked with horror at the tragedy this summer of those making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, and I am sure that the whole House rightly pays tribute to the work of our men and women in the Royal Navy rescuing the people and families desperate enough to make the journey. To date, it has rescued 6,700 people from the sea.
Like others, I want briefly to dwell on the root of the problem—the foul actions of Assad against his own people. We also need to stop Daesh, or ISIL, which enslaves, butchers and terrorises. Its people systemically rape women, commit atrocities and murder; they are callous and reprehensible. We must not forget, therefore, that many of these refugees are fleeing exactly that. However, we must not be left with a simple choice between Daesh and Assad. I believe we can help to provide a better future for Syria. It is possible. It need not be a choice between two evils; there can be a future of stability and peace such as we have seen in Bosnia and Europe. That should be our ultimate goal.
This country must help to stabilise the countries from which refugees are coming by busting the criminal gangs, seeking out new solutions and using our aid budget to alleviate the suffering. Where evil continues to flourish, we must exercise our moral and humanitarian duties, and use our influence at the emergency meeting on the 14th of this month of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers to get a comprehensive plan on refugees, on making other countries meet their aid obligations and on stopping the exploitative criminal gangs.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood about the right kind of sanctuary. We must recognise this new type of all-encompassing humanitarian crisis. The many hon. Members who have spoken about their refugee background have rightly highlighted the diversity of our history and our enduring ability as a country to do the right thing. This reminds us of when our country stands tallest, such as in the past when we have gained people their freedom, and the British people have seen wrong abroad and without consideration for national, ethic or other identifiers said, “Enough is enough.”
Our children’s safety and security depend on the actions and choices of this House, as does the future of the Syrian children. We must continue to work for a true and comprehensive approach across Europe, as highlighted by our Prime Minister. This true humanitarian nation does not merely help its own, but helps others in need, and I stand proudly behind that tradition and the actions of our Government.
Before I start, I would like to say to Richard Graham, who bemoaned the comparison between what we are doing here and what is happening in countries such as Germany and Sweden, that competition sometimes breeds excellence. If we are in a competition to be better humanitarians and to deal with the issue in a better way to be better human beings, I am glad to be in such a competition.
The overall tone of today’s debate has been very good and constructive. I thank my hon. Friend Angus Robertson for setting that tone across the Chamber today, which reflects the mood of people in the wider part of our communities across the countries of the United Kingdom.
I noticed that the Prime Minister opened his statement on Monday by continuing the rhetoric that we are “facing a migration crisis”. It still tends to come through that we are somehow still in this crisis. That is not the case, as this is a humanitarian crisis. The seminal and harrowing image of a little boy washed up on a shore in Turkey was mentioned earlier. It shocked and stunned not only the constituents whom I represent, but constituents across Scotland and across the nations of the UK. Sometimes an image of just one person brings the focus and clarity that politics simply cannot serve. The people in our communities know that this is not a migration crisis; they have seen a human image—one image that illustrates the many.
In his statement, the Prime Minister put a number on the refugees who we would welcome to these shores—20,000 people over five years. We have rehearsed the benefits or otherwise of using numbers, but the Prime
Minister said this morning that there would be “no limit” within the 20,000 for this year. In that case, let us review right now what we can do to accommodate people in desperate straits now. As we sit in this Chamber, more than 6.5 million children are fleeing bombs, persecution, devastation and despair in war zones, and over 350,000 refugees have already crossed the Mediterranean this year, risking life and limb. To provide some context for the 20,000 figure, 17,036 people is the most recent estimate of the number of refugees who have drowned trying to make it to Europe. Around 20,000 is the number of refugees welcomed to Germany—not in five years, but last weekend!
I cannot provide an exact number of my constituents who have already been in touch to offer help and to ask for my support. Why not? Because it has risen to many hundreds, and it is showing no sign of stopping. Constituents such as John and Claire from Inverness have told me that the image highlighting the tragedy of this human crisis haunts them when they close their eyes. It was that image that made them contact me, to offer not only their spare room, but their caravan, their time, their money and, most of all, their humanity. For others, it has been the reports of countless drownings of the tired and desperate or of people crushed and dead at the back of a lorry, having been prepared to do anything in the hope of escape and a chance of life. Sometimes, it is simply the scene of a smashed Syria, showing the scattered debris of life in a landscape of utter destruction—places from where any possibility of hope has been smashed by bombs—that affects people.
These isles have a history of offering children and families refuge from extreme crises, but we also have a darker history of people born and making their lives here being forced to find sanctuary on foreign shores. Although a recognition of the changing public perception is welcome, the Prime Minister’s response is not yet enough to satisfy my constituents, and I am sure that many in this Chamber and beyond will have a similar story to tell. We can find inspiration in times from these isles’ history that speak of the generosity and kindness of our people, suggesting that the numbers do not lie.
Some of those episodes were rehearsed yesterday, when Members talked of the 100,000 French Protestants who fled persecution. There were also the tens of thousands of Russian Jews, about whom we heard earlier today, and the more than 200,000 eastern European Jews who found refuge here. We offered sanctuary to 10,000 Kinder- transport children: several Members have given that great example, and we have heard many stories of personal contact today. After the conflict in Europe we welcomed 300,000 Poles, and in the 1970s, more than 42,000 Ugandan Asians. They, too, could not have waited for five years.
It is at times like these that my constituents ask me why there is such a lack of ambition, such a short call on humanity. To them, all that is required is for our ambition to match the scale of the challenge at hand. They have not lacked ambition or shirked the challenge; they have shown leadership. In my constituency, volunteers from groups such as CalAid Badenoch are out and about collecting donations for the refugees. As well as accepting deliveries to schools, churches, private businesses and village halls, volunteers are out collecting donations from people’s homes. Our communities have pulled together and shown solidarity with the refugees. They have not faltered; they have done what is needed, and what is right. I ask the Government not to hide behind the five-year window. Helping our fellow human beings in a crisis is not to be done with a drip-feed. The Prime Minister said “no limit”, so let us see that delivered.
Caroline Lucas has made a sensible point a couple of times in the Chamber when she has issued a plea for money and support for councils throughout the United Kingdom to help them prepare. Councils are already doing their bit, and others are preparing to do so. I too call for leadership, and support the hon. Lady’s call for funds to help local authorities to act.
In Germany, Angela Merkel said that the Federal Government would contribute €6 billion for new shelters, extra police and, crucially, language training in 2016. They see this humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to build for the future, to make the refugees welcome as part of the wider community, and to draw on their skills and talents as an opportunity for the future of the German economy. We should not have to look to Germany for an enlightened view or, indeed, for competition. We could have such a view here, with the right will. We need to stop lagging and dragging. This is an opportunity for us to lead.
SNP Members understand the Prime Minister’s view that we need to tackle the root causes of the crisis. We support the aim of aiding stability, and any sensible measures to attain that. However, we cannot ignore our responsibility for the thousands of refugees in Europe who are seeking sanctuary now—not over the next five years, but now. This most human of crises is not playing out over years; it is playing out over days and hours, and it is on the minds of those at the sharp end every minute of every day.
Although the bar has been set at a high level by countries like Germany and Sweden, who have imposed no restrictions on numbers, I do not expect that we will follow their lead in its entirety. However, there are things that we can and must do. The First Minister of Scotland has said that Scotland will take her share, starting with at least 1,000. That is a figure for now. Spending on aid is welcome, but it does not deal with the crisis today. We need an approach that involves a short, a medium and a long-term plan for rebuilding.
I call on the Government to stop investing in razor wire, and to think of a better way of dealing with those who are in desperation in Calais. Much has been made of the new command and control centre, but how about simply setting up a hotspot processing centre, diverting the focus from the fences and the tunnel towards the action of helping to identify those in need, and granting access to those who are victims of this humanitarian crisis?
First, may I thank Angus Robertson for the tone of his opening remarks and say what a great privilege it is to speak in a debate in which so many powerful contributions have already been made? It is important to recognise that humane and compassionate people can differ on what is the best response to a crisis of this nature. It is also worth recognising that the full consequences of the decisions that are made may not be known for many years, and therefore an element of diffidence is always appropriate.
At its heart this motion calls for steps to be taken to increase the number of refugees to be accepted into the United Kingdom; it puts no figures on that, interestingly, but that is the broad thrust. It may be that implicit in the motion is the idea that the UK should admit the 650,000-odd, let us say for the sake of argument, which pro rata would be similar to the position Germany has mentioned, but even that gesture would be dwarfed by the scale of the crisis we face, because 11 million people have been displaced from Syria alone, 4 million of whom are refugees in neighbouring countries while the remainder are internally displaced. The unpalatable truth is that there is no sensible figure that this House can settle on that will bring a complete solution to this problem. Instead, it is our duty as a humane country to do all we reasonably can to help and to do so in a way that does not make the matter worse. I believe, respectfully, that the Government’s approach meets that challenge.
While of course respecting alternative views on this topic, one reason why I think the Government are right to proceed as they have is that we have to recognise that there may be future calls on us. That poor boy found washed up on the shore last week could just as easily have been Libyan or Afghan or any other nationality. He could have fled from any other benighted country, and refugees from those nations are no less deserving. We should make sure they are not forgotten in the course of this debate. That is important, because we must make sure that in future we are in a position to help them as well. The truth is that the middle east is unstable and it is unlikely that we have seen the end of this crisis. We must bear that in mind.
Mention has already rightly been made of the support we have given to people living in the region—and it is important to say that the SNP has recognised that effort—but I want to dwell on it for a moment. We must not forget that of the 11 million displaced Syrians, just 3%—a very modest proportion—have attempted the journey to Europe and the remainder, many of whom are not as strong or are not in a position to pay the people traffickers, have remained. By making the enormous contribution we have made—far more than any other EU country; over 10 times more than France or Italy, which have similar GDP to ours—we have helped stop a humanitarian crisis become a humanitarian catastrophe. It is through the efforts of the British people that there have been 2 million medical consultations for emergency trauma and primary health care cases and 3 million relief packages have been distributed.
That support is right for the obvious reasons, but there are three other important purposes too. First, it has ensured that aid is provided to some of the most vulnerable people—the weak, the old, the tired, the ill. Secondly, it has helped protect many minorities, including Christians, who might otherwise have found an existence in border camps very difficult. Thirdly, and almost most importantly of all, it has given those who want to stay to rebuild their country the option to do so when the time is right. Whatever we think about our country and how wonderful it is—and it is a wonderful country—the overwhelming majority of Syrians want to go back to their homes once conditions allow, and the efforts of our country will help them to do that. Crucially—the House will forgive me for pointing out something that is obvious—the support also provides shelter for those who might otherwise have felt that they had no option but to press on, on that perilous journey to countries further afield.
It is the measure of a country how it behaves when the cameras are not rolling and the world is not watching. While the world’s attention of the past years has flitted from one issue to another, our country has been doggedly applying itself to the task of bringing humanitarian relief where it is most needed. I am proud of the fact that, while many countries talked a good game at the Gleneagles summit back in 2005, this country, the United Kingdom, actually delivered on its pledge to spend 0.7% of GDP on international development.
In conclusion, what we see from the UK is a compassionate response from a humane country. It is a response that, as the Prime Minister has said, shows our heart, yes, but our head, too.
I congratulate my friends in the Scottish National party on initiating this important debate. I particularly congratulate Angus Robertson on the content and tone of his excellent speech. I am proud that we are collectively spending a very large amount of money supporting people in Syria and in neighbouring countries. I am glad that we are taking in refugees. That is very praiseworthy, as far as it goes.
There is a pithy Welsh proverb: “Nid da lle gellir gwell.” My rather clunking translation is, “The good is insufficient where better can be achieved.” That is the position we are in. We are spending lots of money, but we can do better. So I say plainly that admitting 20,000 people is not enough, not least given the UK’s position and responsibilities as a world leader and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We should be taking in more people, and on a different basis.
I referred in an earlier intervention to how other European Union countries have decided on the total number of people that they will take in. They have used formulae that are dependent on GDP, population, the unemployment rate and applications already processed or considered. There are ways to do this. When I asked the Secretary of State for International Development earlier how we chose the figure of 20,000, she seemed to say that that was what we could support and afford with the resources that we had. The hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon have nearly all talked about the offers of help that have come from their constituents. I am sure that we can afford to take in more than 20,000, and I would impress that point most strongly on the Minister and the Secretary of State if she reads the report of this debate.
I am enjoying the tone of the debate this afternoon. I want to draw attention to something that we have not talked about particularly, because not only are our constituents and organisations in our constituencies doing work. I have already been approached by the housing associations in my constituency, which were doing preparatory work before the Government grudgingly came to their position on Monday. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is welcome and that constructive work is being done by organisations that have the vast majority of the responsibility to house these people in our constituencies.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Unsurprisingly, yet again, the third sector is quicker off the mark than the Government or even local government. Third sector and voluntary organisations in my constituency are already preparing. I am looking forward to the opportunity of speaking in a rally in Carnarvon on Saturday, organised by local voluntary organisations concerned with Calais and the refugee crisis that we are discussing this afternoon.
We will grant entry to 20,000 people under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, which, I understand, has already relocated 216 people. Again, I referred to this earlier in an intervention. I have three questions for the Minister. I refer to a Home Office document—the Syrian VPR scheme document—which says in respect of numbers and types of cases:
“We expect that the caseload will include families (with both parents), women and children at risk cases (i.e. single parent families—female headed) and medical cases.”
Will the same sort of criteria be applied to the 20,000? I am thinking particularly of the phrase “with both parents”. Are we expecting the 20,000 to include both men and women? The document says:
“We do not expect unaccompanied children to form part of the initial caseload”.
That was how things stood when the document was released earlier this year. Will we now take unaccompanied children? I expect that we will. The document then says:
“and if they do, these will be brought across under separate arrangements”.
What are those separate arrangements? Are those arrangements superseded by the decision that the Government have now taken on the 20,000?
If it might help, we are looking closely at the criteria that will be applied in conjunction with the UNHCR. Obviously, the criteria referred to applied to the vulnerable persons relocation scheme as was, but with significant scaling up and some of the Prime Minister’s comments on reflecting on how that is being done. This is precisely one of the issues that we will be discussing with the UNHCR.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and look forward to his response to my other questions about the VPR scheme. On Monday I asked the Prime Minister a question about that scheme, and said that at the request of many organisations and my constituents I had written to the Immigration Minister in July about the matter. In his reply the Minister referred to the VPR scheme, stating clearly that it
“was designed to focus on need rather than meeting a quota.”
I think that need is a good and humane yardstick. The need in the current circumstances is undoubtedly very large; indeed it is perhaps enormous. Applying need as a principle for action allows for a timely and measured response and for the use of discretion. However, the Prime Minister has announced that we will take 20,000 refugees. I am sure that those people will be in great need, but 20,000 seems to be a fixed number. On Monday I asked him what he will say to the 20,001st person who applies and who has a provable and legitimate need.
A UNICEF report indicates that at least a quarter of those seeking refuge in Europe are children, and in the first six months of this year more than 106,000 children claimed asylum in Europe, up 75% on last year. The Prime Minister made assurances today during Prime Minister’s questions that Syrian children will not automatically be returned when they are 18. That is a welcome instruction, but we would like assurances because the issue will remain deeply concerning for children who come to this country unaccompanied. Can the Minister provide assurances that they will also be protected?
I will pose that question to the Minister and thank the hon. Lady—in fact, she is blessed with clairvoyance because I was going to ask that question myself.
I referred to a question that I asked the Prime Minister on Monday about the 20,001st person, and his response was disappointing. Indeed, it was either dismissive or even alarming. He said merely that we should concentrate on the 20,000—that is all he said, period. I am all for concentrating on the 20,000 to the extent of offering entry to as many genuine cases as possible as soon as possible, and not over the five years that the Government intend, but 20,000 looks to me like a quota. Hon. Members will recall what I said about my answer from the Immigration Minister and the VPR scheme being based on need and not a quota. By their very nature quotas inevitably lead to artificial and possibly brutal cut-offs, and pit one person’s genuine need against that of another as they both join the queue. I do not think that is a humane way of doing it.
The Prime Minister’s reply suggests to me either that he and his colleagues have not thought the matter through, or that they have done so and are reluctant to engage with the real consequences, which are not hard to imagine. For example, one can envisage a popular campaign in the press, perhaps in favour of admitting an injured child as No. 20,001. One can imagine a campaign in favour of admitting siblings or other relatives of people already admitted, or, as Angela Crawley said, at the end of five years and the current terms of the VRP scheme, a campaign not to send a young person who has thoroughly adopted a British identity back to a strife-ridden country. One can imagine the problems that will arise with that artificial cut-off. I was glad to hear that the Prime Minister is looking at this matter because it is serious and needs considering.
This is easy for me to say, but I would not have started from this point. As many hon. Members have said, one root cause of our current predicament is the Government’s reluctance to engage earlier with the UNHRC Syrian resettlement scheme, which led to the setting up of the VPR scheme in the first place. Therefore, there are some causes that we can discern, and there are ways forward.
Briefly, let me mention a couple of points from my own party’s policy on this matter. We wish to see a Welsh migration service set up to co-ordinate migration into Wales and Wales recognised as a country of refuge.
Finally, I have a question for the Minister on the response of the Welsh Government. I hope that I will not be seen as partisan in this matter. On Monday, Chris Law asked the Prime Minister about the response of the Scottish Government. The Prime Minister said that
That is very praiseworthy indeed, and we have heard that that is a starting point and not an end point. When the Minister winds up, will he tell me—or perhaps put it in a letter—whether he has had a similar offer from the Welsh Government?
Man’s inhumanity to man is the cause of the crisis unfolding in Syria and the raison d'être for the 1951 refugee convention. It is also the legal basis of our duties to offer sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. It is the cornerstone of humanitarian protection and the source of timeless values.
We have heard many passionate speeches from all parts of the House over the past few days, but I am proud to be a member of a governing party that is delivering on its international duties in the face of such catastrophe. However, the premise of this debate and the criticism from the Opposition Benches are unjustified. This is a time not for political point scoring, but for consensus and support. Despite difficult economic conditions, this Government have stuck uncompromisingly to their 0.7% of GDP aid budget, unlike many other western countries. They are providing a threefold response, involving the Department for International Development, the Home Office and a coherent defence strategy.
What we are witnessing in all three respects is the largest ever response by this country to such a disaster. When those on the Opposition Benches argue that we are not doing our bit, or that we are not playing our part, I beg to differ. I am talking about £1 billion of aid, 18 million people fed, a Royal Navy taskforce, 6,000 people rescued from the Mediterranean and resettlement for 20,000 refugees. All those things paint a starkly different picture.
Incidentally and more widely, we can be proud of our aid record. Both the current Secretary of State for International Development and her predecessor should be recognised for their leadership. I visited Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bangladesh with international development teams and saw at first hand how our aid has been spent on vital projects to rebuild those states, involving governance, the rule of law, and health and education, and we are maintaining that philosophy in the face of this emergency.
From the legalistic perspective, I speak with professional experience. Before coming to this place, I worked as Treasury Counsel, defending the Home Secretary in asylum and immigration cases. In the UK, we have a fair system for processing asylum claims, providing housing and support for asylum seekers and refugees, mainly in the form of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Those rules are in place to ensure fairness and legitimacy and to prevent abuse of the system. Here, applicants claim refugee status under our obligations in the 1951 convention and may be granted leave to remain as a step on the path to settlement. They may also be granted humanitarian protection, which can lead to indefinite leave to remain.
From a technical perspective, I have to make it clear that this Government inherited an asylum system that was in a critical condition. The backlog of 450,000 asylum cases was worrying and considerable progress has been made in shifting that burden. That 450,000 was more than just a statistic; it meant 450,000 people with a precarious immigration status in this country, 450,000 who could not take up fixed employment and whose cases still needed to be checked. The fact is that we cannot just ride roughshod over the rules in the name of compassion. The consequence is injustice and unsustainability.
Echoing the sentiment so eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, let me refer to the story of my father, who fled to the UK in 1968 as part of the east African Asian diaspora. He was only 20 years old and he had nothing. He did not want to come to this country. He did not want to leave his family, his friends and his beloved homeland to be flung to the other side of the world with nothing to his name. He was granted a British passport in Nairobi and that was his way out from persecution. The UK was able to extend sanctuary to him and thousands of others because the system commanded confidence. He came here legitimately and with the knowledge that he went through a procedure that maintained its integrity.
We all agree that the crisis demands a compassionate response, but rigour, integrity and fairness are essential to enable kindness and humanity.
I sat through the debates yesterday and today and want to address a number of the points that have come up rather than just rely on some of the helpful and poignant briefings we have received from so many people.
One of the first things I want to do is acknowledge the tenor and content of the speech made by Angus Robertson as well as the scope of the motion. Contrary to the attempts by Richard Graham and others to misrepresent it, people need to recognise that the motion clearly listened to the points that many Government Members made in yesterday’s debate, when they said that in all the focus on the refugee crisis as it is manifesting itself in Europe we should not forget the refugee crisis in the camps in some of the countries surrounding Syria or the significant commitment that the Government are making to the efforts to support people affected by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. The motion clearly does that. It attempts to achieve consensus on some of those concerns and on the valid points made by Government Members yesterday.
The most questionable point made by the hon. Member for Gloucester was when he complained that the motion
“calls for a Government report to be laid before the House by
“encompassing refugees already in Europe and including a plan for the remainder of this year to reflect the overwhelming urgency of this humanitarian crisis”.
That is the point. If those of us who have signed the motion had been saying that we wanted to see refugees who are already in Europe admitted as part of the 20,000 the Government are looking to admit over the next few years, Government Members would say that we were trying to deny people in the camps the opportunity to be part of the that number. Our concern is not that people who are in the camps should not be admitted—we welcome the Government’s interest, although again we would welcome an increase in the numbers—but that we cannot ignore those who are already in Europe. It was the overtone of disqualification in the Prime Minister’s statement the other day that particularly concerned me.
In the debate yesterday and today, many hon. Members touched on what prompted so many of our constituents to mobilise and get in touch with us. A little over a week after the media were full of the photographs of the Prime Minister on a beach in Cornwall, a different beach photograph emerged in the media. It brought out those words of Seamus Heaney about something having the ability to
“catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
That is what that photograph of Alan Kurdi did.
We heard the response from so many of our constituents and we know what the response has been internationally, but let us be clear. That photograph stirred our constituents and in turn seemed to spur the Prime Minister into altering his tone, but let us think about another Alan who might arrive on a beach or somewhere else in Europe, having survived his perilous journey, but alone and unaccompanied. What is the message in the Government’s response to that Alan? “He is disqualified. He is outside our consideration.” We even heard from the Prime Minister today that, yes, we do have to take care as to what we do with unaccompanied children and how we treat them, but being careful is no reason not to show them care and consideration, which appears to be the Government’s position. That needs to be revised, improved and altered.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has had his attitudes to this long-running problem reconditioned. Remember, he was one of the leaders at the EU Council who went along with the idea that Operation Mare Nostrum was somehow encouraging people on to the seas. The line back then in autumn 2013 was, “If we run rescue operations, we will only be encouraging more people on to the seas.” At least now, thankfully, we have the Royal Navy, the Irish navy and others helping to rescue, but it took the disasters of April this year to force that rethink. The same caution from the Government Benches that we have heard in the past two days—that we have to be careful not to encourage people to make those perilous journeys—was exactly what was behind the disastrous decision in relation to Operation Mare Nostrum, which did nothing to discourage the perilous journeys and meant that people were not saved and too many lives were lost.
The perilous journeys would, of course, be ended if people could fly. Sadly, they cannot because an EU aviation directive prevents that, which means that at four times the cost they are taking those perilous journeys.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which is correct. We know from Amnesty and others that a cogent case has been made in relation to a number of deficiencies in the Schengen agreement and the Dublin regulation, which clearly need to be overhauled in the light of recent events.
I agree with so many Government Members on a number of points that they have made, not least Lucy Frazer and Nicola Blackwood. We need to recognise the scale of the whole humanitarian crisis and not concentrate just on those who are arriving in Europe. We have to meet our responsibilities in relation to those who have made it to Europe and in relation to the wider crisis.
The Secretary of State for International Development spoke of her concern not only that other countries were not matching the 0.7% aid target, but that there was a significant shortfall in so many relevant UN appeals. Some of us would say that one of the ways to deal with that is through a global financial transaction tax. Part of the aim of those of us who have supported that idea is precisely to support funding for the sort of international mechanisms and measures that are needed, rather than different UN funds having to busk around different countries trying to gather money for programmes. Although we have heard in these debates about the very good work in the refugee camps and elsewhere that is being funded through DFID and so many NGOs, let us also be clear that UN funding in a number of those camps is being reduced. The level of food aid in some of the camps is being reduced, and education support is not what it should be.
In the previous Parliament the all-party group on protecting children in armed conflict, led by Fiona O’Donnell, produced a report that drew heavily on the lessons being learned from what is happening in Syria, particularly in relation to the millions of children who have had to flee. It noted that when DFID and other organisations respond to such emergencies, in the first order of things little thought is given to education. That might be understandable, but when we consider just how long term many refugee camps have become for other conflicts—look at the Palestinian experience—we see that clearly more needs to be done. The world must respond not only to the immediacy of the refugee crisis, but to the wider lessons about the inadequacy. Obviously the convention on refugees will have to be overhauled, and so many other rules, such as Schengen and Dublin, will have to be revised.
Of course, these islands are outside Schengen. One of the things that I would like to see the UK Government do, along with the Irish Government, is convene a meeting of the British-Irish Council to co-ordinate across the devolved Administrations and with the Irish Government what the response will be across these islands in order to meet our responsibilities for accommodating refugees. That would ensure optimum co-ordination across jurisdictions and between services so that there is no fall-down, breakdown or confusion facing international agencies or domestic charities when it comes to responding. The Government might find, as a result of the information and ideas that would emerge from such collaboration, that they are in a position to reconsider the number of refugees they are taking and the time scale, not least by accommodating some of those who are already in Europe.
Let us be clear that the Government, having previously been averse to engaging with the UNHCR resettlement scheme, and then having been very dilatory in relation to the vulnerable persons scheme, have now moved to strike a tone of some urgency in this regard, but of course limits have been put on it—the Prime Minister appears to have put the guard up on his heart again. The Government must be prepared to do more, but those of us who are criticising them for the number of refugees they will admit or on the time scale must face the wider question about the scale of the problem in the camps, about other conflicts, not least in Sudan and South Sudan, that are driving people into refugee status, and about the need for a much bigger and longer-term response, including proper support for the UN, and a global financial transactions tax would be a good start.
I rise as a member of an Opposition party in this House and in support of a motion that is the collective endeavour of six Opposition parties. I ask the Government Members sitting opposite to consider the approach we are taking this afternoon. It is normally the Opposition’s job to harry and harass the Government, and even to expose and embarrass them, when they get the opportunity to do so. This afternoon we have laid aside those conventions and are not engaging in what is the normal practice in this place.
Instead, we are adopting a different approach. To use an American phrase, we are “reaching out” and trying to find a consensus with Government Members, because on this occasion our desire to see this country make a bigger contribution to the humanitarian effort that is required to face this crisis is greater than our desire to score political points. I ask the Government Members here to reflect on that and consider an appropriate response.
There are now six Conservative Members in attendance, and fewer than 30 have participated over the past four hours. I make that observation not to judge, but to ask them to reflect on whether that is an adequate level of participation and attendance, given the seriousness of the debate. That matters, because when the Division bells ring at 7 o’clock, if 300 of their number come here from their offices and other places in the Palace to vote down the motion in the Lobby, having heard neither the content of the debate, nor the tone with which it has been argued, that will do a disservice to this debate and show contempt for the point we are putting forward. That will reflect very badly on the Government, so I urge Conservative Members not to do that.
There has been much talk about the scale of this crisis, but I still think that many have not quite grasped just what we are dealing with. Since the civil war began in Syria, half the population of 23 million people have had their houses destroyed. Four million of those people are now exiled from their homeland. They are joined by 2.5 million from Iraq, 1.5 million from South Sudan, and many millions of others from other conflicts in the region. There are 9 million people in holding patterns in refugee camps in the middle east. It does not take a mathematician to know that 20,000 can be nothing but a start to tackling that problem, rather than the end point. That is why the motion asks the Government to review that figure, take time and come back in four weeks with a plan to expand it.
Much has been said about the situation in the camps and refugees in Europe; clearly, there is a relationship between the two. The Government are right to consider the question of funding for the camps, because those organising them point to a shortage of funds. There can be no doubt that deteriorating conditions in the camps would be one incentive for people to make the journey into Europe. However, let us not pretend for a moment that well-funded refugee camps in the middle east will be the answer to the crisis that we are facing by itself, because there is a much bigger factor at play that relates to the efficacy of those refugee camps—that is, many of the people who went to them have nowhere to return to. The conflicts that created their situation show no sign of abating. In fact, it is arguable that in some areas, such as Syria, it is going to get worse before it gets better. The homes in which they lived no longer exist. Those communities—those villages and towns—are no longer there. People are now beginning to realise that if they cannot go east they will have to consider going west. That is the powerful driver now at play among the refugee populations in the middle east. Unless we seriously think that the answer to that is to build refugee camps that will hold people for a generation, we need to do an awful lot more thinking about where these people will move on to from the refugee camps.
A lot of people have already taken this decision for themselves. We might well ask what drives a person to take the risks and put themselves and their families into the conditions that we have seen. Why would you even think about getting on a dodgy boat run by a criminal gang where you probably have a one in 20 chance of you and your children drowning en route? Why would you think about being locked into a container and driven for thousands of miles across a continent knowing that you could suffocate in the process? The answer is simple: because the terror in front is not as great as the terror behind. That is why people are driven to take these incredible steps. It is disgraceful for us to get into a situation where our response to the people who have flown that terror and tried to protect their families is to say, “We will not even recognise you in our policy. You stop there, you turn round, and you go back.” As Keith Vaz said, that is not an adequate response to the situation. We need a policy that addresses the refugee problem in the round—the people in the camps and the people not in the camps who have now migrated to our continent.
Some Conservative Back Benchers have talked as though the game is to try to prevent the crisis from happening in Europe by containing it in the middle east. I have to say to them that the crisis is already upon us in Europe. It is not only the third of a million people who crossed the Mediterranean this year, but the many hundreds of thousands in the previous few years, that have led us to a situation where we have over 1 million refugees in European Union states looking for a home. It is simply not good enough to turn our back on our European partners and say that we will do nothing about that. We do need to do something about it. I cannot believe that the Prime Minister of this country will go to next week’s meeting of European premiers and say that this country will make no contribution to the plans that Jean-Claude Juncker announced this morning for 120,000 or more permanent resettlements of refugees already within Europe. We have to do something. As I have said, we are not here on this occasion to chastise or berate the Government, but to ask them to take a month to think about this problem and to then come back and lay before this House proper plans to deal with the whole situation.
I heard from the Danish ambassador this lunchtime that last year Denmark—a country the size of Scotland—took 13,000 refugees, 4,000 of whom were from Syria. In the context of what the UK is doing, that shows we could do an awful lot more.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. It is worth noting that we are talking about accepting the equivalent of 0.01% of our population as refugees in the face of this crisis, while 25% of Lebanon’s residents are refugees.
My hon. Friend Mark Durkan mentioned Alan Kurdi. That image moved the nation’s heart last weekend and has led to a public change of attitude in this country, which is welcome. I concur with my hon. Friend. Is our response to the people who saw that image on their television screens and in their newspapers to say that if that child had not drowned and had survived that journey, he would not be welcome here? Surely we cannot say such a thing with any decency or absence of shame.
I appeal to the Government to think about the manner in which this debate has been conducted and to reflect on and come back with expanded plans. I think that in doing so they will be commended warmly by the people of this country. I think that all of us have been surprised and humbled by the attitude of ordinary people up and down this country. As of the weekend, in just one council ward in my constituency of Edinburgh East, 27 people—probably the equivalent of more than 100 in the constituency as a whole—have rung up to say that they would house a refugee family in their own home, and that was before anybody even asked them to do that. Imagine what the response would be if the Government, local government, the Churches, political leaders and civic leaders said, “Let us rally as a nation and do something to help these people who are in such dire need.” I think that tens of thousands of our citizens would say that we welcome refugees to our country, city and home.
I thank Tommy Sheppard for his speech. I share his passion and was very moved by how he spoke with personal commitment about the plight of individuals. Many of his colleagues have spoken with great humility and humanity about the personal challenges faced by migrants. I commend the SNP for calling this debate and for allowing enough time for a detailed discussion.
I also pay tribute to the International Development Secretary. Although we disagree on many issues, including the key issue of the number of people allowed into this country, she spoke with great warmth and insight about not only the individuals she has met when visiting refugee camps, but the plight of those in crisis.
This crisis has at its core two huge challenges: war and mass migration. War is chaotic and unpredictable, and mass migration has brought these challenges to our doorstep. As we have seen, this is also a time when the best and the worst of humanity are on display.
I was an aid worker in the Balkans and eastern Europe throughout the 1990s, and in that time I saw a lot of places impacted by war and refugee crises. I worked in Albania from 1992, which was years before the refugee crisis, and got to see at first hand a country being impacted by refugees when the Kosovan war broke out. I worked in a town called Korçë in southern Albania. In the late 1990s, when people started fleeing the murderous intentions of Slobodan Miloševic, the town took in 50,000 refugees in a single night. The population of the entire town was doubled overnight and we took part in the operation that cared for those people. It was extraordinary not only that the host town, in one of the poorest countries on our continent, responded with extreme generosity, but that the international community supported it in that endeavour. It was also interesting to see how the next-door country, Macedonia, responded very differently. We have seen how different countries on our continent have responded differently over time.
I do not want to talk in detail about those experiences, other than to point out a few lessons from my time dealing with refugees and humanitarian crises up close. The first issue that I would like to raise with Ministers is the role of the UNHCR. In my experience, the UNHCR is one of the most underfunded and overstretched humanitarian organisations, certainly within the United Nations. In one crisis that I worked in, it took three weeks before the UNHCR was capable even of deploying staff to an area that had received 50,000 refugees in a single night. When the staff did arrive, they were few in number and it took time to build the resources to get an operation up and running.
The Government are placing most of the responsibility on the UNHCR to co-ordinate the refugees who will come to the United Kingdom. I would like assurances that the Government are ensuring that the UNHCR has the right resources behind it to carry out that function with enough diligence and to make it an effective operation.
It is always a privilege for the House to hear from a person with experience in these matters. We heard the Prime Minister say the other day that the UNHCR will be tasked with sifting refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. From his personal experience, does my hon. Friend feel that the UNHCR has the resources to undertake all that additional work?
No, I welcome that because it is an important point. I was about to say that the Government are relying on the UNHCR to sift the people who will come here, and to ask for reassurance, because this is a good opportunity for the Government to reassure the House that the UNHCR has the resources to carry out the sifting in the right way. That process is incredibly important. My experiences are a little out of date so I cannot talk about how the UNHCR operates today, but based on those experiences, I think that it is cause for concern and something that the House needs to be reassured about.
The second issue I want to raise is the population that remains behind. When sifting happens in a refugee population, it is quite often the people with skills who are taken first. Sometimes, the population that will be left is not given due consideration. In a camp of 5,000 or 10,000 people—or even more, as is sometimes the case in the current situation—it is important that the population that remains after a sifting process has all the skills that any population needs, even more so considering that they are living in encampments that have very basic conditions. I hope the Minister can reassure the House that the UNHCR is being encouraged, on behalf of the British Government, to give due consideration to the population that remains.
The spotlight is on the generosity of the British people, because this crisis is unfolding on British soil. That brings aid work closer to home than it usually is. This crisis is challenging both abroad and at home. I do not see this as a zero-sum game. When we have said that not enough people are being welcomed to these shores, some people, particularly on the Government Benches, have pointed out that money is being given abroad. It should not be an either/or situation. The fact that we are being generous abroad should not stop us being generous at home.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech, drawing on his great expertise. Does he agree that one striking thing about this crisis is the number of people from different sorts of communities right across the country who are being supportive? That is happening not just in the big multicultural cities, but in small towns and villages. I think of the village of Coedpoeth in my constituency, where the Plas Pentwyn centre is already organising collections. There is a massive response across our country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it highlights just how much generosity there is within the British public at the moment, and that should be absolutely commended. At a time when anybody can get into their car to deliver aid to people in need, we must ensure that this is done in a structured way. I encourage people who are tempted to do this to co-ordinate with humanitarian organisations that have experience, because people who are fleeing war do not just need the clothing that is on offer. That is incredibly important, but many will need specialist emotional support, too. We need to make sure that they get access to both.
Brighton and Hove, the city I represent, has that generosity in abundance. The council is preparing to take five families, which is a modest contribution but it is what is being asked of it at the moment. It is also making contingency plans to take many more. We will rise to the challenge. Caroline Lucas is in her place, and I am sure that she, like me, has been inundated with offers from the general public to take people into their homes. That is symptomatic of the huge generosity that exists in the population at the moment, and I pay tribute to their humanity and generosity. We must also accept that this situation could be here for the long term. Many people will have emotional damage and will need specialist care. People who are offering to take people into their homes need to be cognisant of that and make sure that they are equipped to give the care that is needed into the long term.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. He referred to Brighton and Hove, the city we both represent, rightly saying that many people there want to help. Does he agree that we need to put more pressure on the Government for the funding, particularly for local authorities, and for them to guarantee that it will last beyond the one year? I am really concerned that one year is not enough.
I certainly share the hon. Lady’s concerns and she makes a pertinent point. It is incredibly important that when the Department for International Development funding runs out, councils get the commitment into the long term, in order to continue their efforts.
I have seen what it takes to make somebody leave their home, their community and the people they love—they do not do that lightly. The push of war is greater than the pull of Britain. This crisis involves hundreds of thousands of people—it is into the millions now. When there is a crisis involving that number of people, we can find in that population anything we like, because every ounce of human characteristics will be on display. People who look for criminality will find it, and people who look for economic migrants will find them. The job of this House is to take decisions in the round and see that, overall, this group of people need help, are fleeing their country because of war and are turning to us for help in all sincerity. We can argue about numbers but there is one basic question: are we doing all we can as a nation on our own soil, or is there more we can do? There are more people who need to come here, the British people are prepared to take more and it is the Government who are getting in the way. On that basis, I am happy to support today’s motion.
I am delighted to speak in the SNP Opposition day debate about this very important issue of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe, and I am proud that it has commanded the support of six parties across this House.
Last week, the world woke to shocking images showing the lifeless body of a three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach. There is no doubt that that image was a turning point in this entire debate. Of course, everyone in this House welcomes the Government’s plan to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees, and as we debate this issue we must remember with humility that while we debate, people continue to suffer and to die. It is important that we do more. It is important that the UK Government do more, and our constituents rightly demand that we do more.
The Government must set out a clear timetable for welcoming refugees as soon as possible. Efforts must be twofold, helping those people within the region and those who have fled. Although we wish to conduct this debate in a constructive manner, it is not helpful to link this debate—this humanitarian crisis—to talk of migration and immigration targets. The UK has done much in providing aid to Syrian refugees in the region, but it is rightly recognised that there is a moral responsibility also to resettle a fair share of refugees in the UK. The UK must continue to provide significant aid contributions to Syria and neighbouring countries, and persuade all those it can to give generously.
Long-term solutions to the root causes of conflict in Syria are required, and the United Nations Security Council is central to resolving the current crisis. The UK Government should continue to advocate a sustainable and inclusive political solution and to push for an immediate ceasefire. We must work to ensure that all parties to the conflict stop any arms transfers and guarantee humanitarian access. Alan, the child whose tragic picture was seen across the world, was only one of more than 350,000 migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean this year and, tragically, one of more than 2,600 who have lost their lives on that perilous journey. A further 1,000 have lost their lives along various other migration routes, including the Sahara desert and in the Bay of Bengal. That must be a matter of extreme concern to all of us, not only as MPs but as human beings, and to our constituents.
Far from being economic migrants—the mantra still being trotted out in some quarters—62% of those who reached Europe by boat this year, according to figures compiled by the UN, were from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, countries ravaged by war and religious extremism. The scale of the suffering faced by those fleeing violence and barbarism is almost beyond the comprehension of anyone in this House. Driven by blind panic and motivated by a desire to protect their families, they fall into the hands of villainous people traffickers who herd them on to crowded and dangerously unseaworthy vessels. The outcome is often depressingly predictable and leads to the sort of appalling images we saw in the media last week.
The debate is not helped when we do not take care with the language we use. Insensitive language serves only to remove the human element from the tragic story unfolding. Of course, we all face challenges in our own communities in terms of tackling poverty and in delivering public services, but those pale in comparison to the scale of loss and suffering being experienced across north Africa and the Mediterranean.
The number seeking refuge in Europe equates to less than 0.05% of the continent’s population and, as the world’s richest continent, we could and should be more accommodating to those in need of our protection. In recent days, more and more people are realising that we could and should do more. We have all read the emails and post from our constituents, and we know what public opinion is on this issue.
It must be remembered that, far from being the chosen or favoured destination for asylum seekers, Britain is by no means on the front line of the migrant crisis. Indeed, the migrants at Calais account for as little as 1% of those who have arrived in Europe so far this year. Estimates suggest that around 3,000 migrants have reached Calais, which is a fraction of the more than 200,000 who have landed in Italy and Greece.
As the world’s richest continent, we could do much more to address the unfolding tragedy. We must applaud the exceptional efforts of the German Federal Government, who are preparing to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, and recognise that a growing number of people in this country wish that the UK Government would adopt a more proactive role. As we have heard repeatedly in this debate, there is no doubt that the UK could comfortably provide sanctuary to many more asylum seekers, because UN figures show that the number of refugees in the UK has fallen from 193,600 to 117,161 over the past four years.
Despite the fact that UN figures show the number of refugees in the UK falling by more than a third over the past four years, only a handful have been granted asylum this year. Sadly, that is in sharp contrast to the action by the German Federal Government. There is no doubt that, as one of the largest and wealthiest countries in Europe, we are capable of playing a serious role in alleviating the crisis. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that Scotland is more than ready to assist in meeting that challenge. Indeed, my own local authority, North Ayrshire Council, has expressed its willingness to play its part. Caroline Lucas made the point very well that central Government funding is essential.
I take this opportunity to urge Members from across the House to sign my early-day motion—some have already done so—calling on the UK Government to show decisive leadership in ensuring a fair proportion of refugees are allowed to seek shelter across the UK. I and other SNP Members are confident that if we, along with our European neighbours, play our part, we can help to provide safe passage and sanctuary to those like Alan. His family simply wanted him to have a life not lived in fear, but his life was tragically lost so close to safety.
It is time for the UK to play a fuller part to help mitigate this unfolding human tragedy, which is on a scale not seen since world war two. It is time for the Government to lead, instead of being dragged into doing more by public opinion. If the UK Government do not do more, history will quite rightly judge them very harshly indeed.
I speak in support of the motion to which I was proud to add my name.
No human life is more or less valuable than another. This country has an obligation to take a humanitarian and compassionate approach to resolving the current and acute refugee crisis not because we are bound by international law and bilateral or multilateral agreements, but because each of us—here in Parliament and across the British Isles—has a responsibility, with our European neighbours, to our fellow human beings to provide help and support to those in such desperate and dire need.
The Somali poet Warsan Shire recently said:
“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Who among the parents in the Chamber could possibly contemplate the horror of putting their children on to dangerous and overcrowded boats to cross the Mediterranean sea, knowing that more than 3,000 others have perished so far this year attempting such a treacherous path to safety? How terrible must this situation get and how many more lives must be lost before this Government step up adequately to their responsibility?
The Syrian war has killed about 250,000 people to date, of whom half are believed to be civilians. Assad and Daesh have combined to bomb crowded cities and towns, and human rights violations are widespread. In this environment, it is difficult for many to access basic necessities, such as food and medical care. The UN estimates that 7.6 million people are internally displaced, and 4 million Syrians have fled. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the border.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the war and the terror in Syria, many young people are escaping to avoid being conscripted into the various warring armies in the region? It is quite understandable that many of them want to get away from a future full of nothing but terror, fighting and war.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who passionately articulates the sentiments felt by us all. As a parent, I want to be able to explain to my children that I—that we—did all we possibly could to help. Our children are asking questions, and we should not be ashamed of our answers.
A practical humanitarian response to this tragedy requires three main strands of action. First, the UK must takes its fair share of refugees. It is right that we should seek to relocate those families and individuals in Syria and in the region who are in immediate peril. I welcome the action from the Government. I agree that we should do more to support these people, but we must also play our part in responding to the immediate crisis in Europe itself. It is the right thing to do. When the other great nations in Europe are standing side by side to work together to tackle the largest humanitarian crisis in decades on our shore, the UK should not seek to stand back from our responsibility, distancing ourselves from the collective responsibility of European membership. European membership is about democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. It stands for pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and solidarity, and we should fulfil these very principles. When the leaders of Europe meet, the UK must discuss with our allies and partners what we can do to play our maximum part.
In Scotland this week, over half of our councils have stepped up to pledge their support for those affected by this crisis. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has had an overwhelming and unprecedented response from local authorities on this issue. Every party leader in the Scottish Parliament supports further action. I will not be the only Member here who has been inundated by calls, letters and emails from constituents pledging support or seeking ways in which to give support directly. By every measure, there is a clear majority of people across Scotland and the UK who support a compassionate and proportionate response from this Government.
Secondly, this humanitarian response must not be used as a cover or pretext for military action in Syria. The deterioration in the security of the region can be traced back directly to the disastrous decision to join with George Bush in pursuing illegal military action in Iraq. We must not make that same mistake again here. How could we possibly fathom another UK Prime Minister, in his second term of office, pushing for a military solution to a humanitarian crisis? An increase in offensive military action against Assad or Daesh would not stabilise the situation within Syria. Instead, what must happen now is that the UK must seek the support of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council to secure safe corridors and camps for refugees throughout the middle east. I know that this approach has already gained support from across the House, and I welcome that progress. When SNP colleagues and I met with a range of stakeholders in Scotland last week to hear their experience of working in Syria, there was wide support for such an approach. Action on this basis would be the antithesis of previous military campaigns in the region, as it would be defensive in nature, have a clear and achievable objective, and would be underpinned by international law.
In March 2011, the Prime Minister stood in this House and said of the situation then facing Libya:
“Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean”?—[Hansard, 14 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 27.]
At that point, the Prime Minster was determined to prevent a humanitarian crisis on the periphery of Europe. As we now know, the total additional cost of Operation Ellamy in Libya is estimated to be about £320 million. In the past, this Government and others before them have spared no expense in pursuing military action. We are engaged in military action against Daesh. On this basis, we should be prepared to welcome those who are fleeing its tyranny.
The threat of reprisal against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who live under Daesh, or as refugees who have fled the area, is particularly salient. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging the Government to commit to appointing a special envoy to ensure that international attention does not forget the plight of these especially threatened people?
I absolutely do, and I hope that Ministers take up my hon. Friend’s excellent suggestion.
I agree with EU President Juncker, who spoke so passionately about this issue today. For the world, this is a matter of humanity and human dignity. For Europe, it is a matter of historical fairness. This is a continent where so many have been refugees at one time or another, fleeing war, dictatorship or oppression. We need to treat others as we would hope to be treated ourselves. I am proud that Europe is seen as a safe haven for those fleeing horrific circumstances. We should not cower in fear from Europe’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and justice in a dangerous world. As President Juncker pointed out today, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon—countries far poorer than the UK—are making huge efforts in moral and financial terms to address this crisis. One in five people in Lebanon today is a refugee. Italy, Hungary and Greece cannot be left alone to deal with the enormous challenge facing us in Europe.
The hon. Lady has cited countries such as Turkey that are doing such a lot to help with the refugee crisis, but does she accept that the £900 million in aid the UK has given is helping those countries do exactly that?
As the motion details, we welcome what is already being done, but we are saying it does not go far enough or fast enough. That is the point of the motion. The motion calls on the Government to commit to take our fair share of responsibility, as a member of the EU, in resolving the tragedy unfolding before us. I implore all Members to support the motion.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
To me, this sums up our current Administration’s attitude. What a confusion the Government are in! Meanwhile, human tragedy fills our television screens and newspapers daily. We watch in amazement as party leaders morph from one policy to another—so if Members do not like this one, they should not worry, because another one will be along in a month. It appears that the Prime Minister has no vision, no strategy, nor planning; all is short-termism. Westminster has been practising short-termism for decade upon decade, and it has taken the heartbreaking photograph of a drowned boy to force the Government into action. It is totally shameful.
The Government’s inertia is baffling. Across the UK, people cannot understand such a lack of decision making and leadership in the face of these urgent world events. While we welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement to welcome Syrian refugees, the amount of time and debate it took to reach this point is embarrassing, and it is still not good enough. As said earlier, Westminster has all the resources to react quickly and decisively to urgent situations, but it never, ever seems to be ready. Why do we need another plan? This place should have a plan in place to deal with humanitarian situations. Where are the strength, the clarity of leadership and the strong voices that truly affect and reflect what the citizens of these, our islands, actually want?
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to outline plans to offer aid. Rather than dithering as people died, she urged the Westminster Government to act. On our behalf, she wants to reach out a hand and actually do something substantial. Surely to goodness, amid such a human tragedy, the UK needs a leader who demands fairness, compassion and, importantly, action from Ministers.
I have nearly finished. I will keep my comments short. Mr Speaker likes it that way—or so I am told by his former secretary’s secretary, who now works for me. [Laughter.] I might be cheating, as I have inside information, but I will put it to good use. There is no time to be lost while young lives are being lost: this is a time to act.
Lastly, I want to thank my Falkirk constituents for their prompt action. They are preparing themselves: they are meeting tonight, organising themselves and getting ready as quickly as they possibly can. Where action is required, they are prepared to react.
As the pictures of young Alan Kurdi appeared on our screens, I found it difficult to comprehend quite what had happened in Europe that allowed that to happen. I sat up all night and replied to all the emails I received from my constituents who had also seen the images and were desperate to do something to help. They wanted their MP to stand up and say, “This should not be happening on our shores; we should do everything we can to help.” I held my own children tighter that night as they slept in their beds, and I kept my own son away from the newspaper racks in the morning because I could not explain to him how that could have been allowed to happen in Europe.
I noticed this morning that UNICEF had published some photographs taken by children who were living in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Palestine in 2013 and 2014. It is interesting to observe their perspective, seeing life through the eyes of those children. What did they see in those camps? Just other families and other friends—ordinary families living lives in extraordinary circumstances that we would not wish for our own families and children. They saw heat; they saw mud; they saw snow; they saw filth; they saw weddings. Those were the sorts of things the children were seeing in those camps, but they should not have been living their young childhoods there. They should not have had to face that as their reality.
All things are not equal in EU countries today. While we are able to cope to some degree with refugees coming to our shores, people in Hungary are unable to cope. I looked through some photographs on social media and found that the refugee camps being set up in Hungary are woefully inadequate to deal with the numbers, the needs and the circumstances that people face. There are families there with pregnant women and sick and injured people who need a great deal more support than they are able to receive just now.
Médicins sans Frontières has described the current situation in Lesbos as “a pressure cooker”. There are boats going to take people away from those Greek islands because the infrastructure there cannot cope with the circumstances. People came there fleeing terrible circumstances and paid a lot to get there, but things are still terrible for them. We need to look to our European partners to see what help we can give because the infrastructure is incapable of coping.
Both Médicins sans Frontières and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station are operating in the Mediterranean. On their busiest day, some six days ago, 1,658 people were rescued by the two boats that those organisations are operating. They are rescuing people from different circumstances all day through from 7 o’clock in the morning. We need to look to our own resources; what resources can we bring to this? What could our Navy and our fisheries protection vessels be doing to help so that more people do not drown when they could be saved?
Earlier this afternoon, I received an answer from the Ministry of Defence that, in tandem with another answer from the same Ministry, shows that the first ship we deployed in the Mediterranean rescued an average 527 people every week over nine weeks. Today, however, we learn that the second ship we deployed, HMS Enterprise, has rescued fewer than that—453 migrants in total over the same period. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about what that means for our ships in the Mediterranean and what we are asking them to do? Do we not deserve a detailed explanation of their exact role in the Mediterranean?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very poor indeed if it is true that charitable organisations operating on an absolute shoestring are rescuing more people than our Navy is able to rescue, given the facilities and investment that go into our Navy. We need to do a good deal more.
Those refugees are not coming solely from Syria; they are coming from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and a range of other countries, and we must do all that we can to support each of them. As my hon. Friend Ms Ahmed-Sheikh said earlier, no one puts their child on a boat unless the sea is safer than the land. We must bear that in mind when we think of the difficulties and challenges that people are facing, and the fear that must drive them and their families out on to the sea.
The response in Glasgow has been absolutely amazing. I have been inundated with emails, because so many organisations are trying to help. Groups of people have come together to form organisations such as Scotland Supporting Refugees. Other organisations are well established, such as the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and Positive Action in Housing. Strathclyde University’s student union is collecting for refugees, and the Clutha—a bar which, as many will know, faced tragedy itself—has been raising money for the Scottish Refugee Council. All those organisations are coming together, but what would be incredibly useful would be a wee bit more guidance on what people should be doing to help. What can people give? Should they donate money, clothes or bedding? Where can they go to donate, and how can we best support the offers from ordinary people who are desperate to do something to avert the tragedy that we are seeing?
I have also received a request from a woman who is involved in Scotland Supporting Refugees. She is desperate to try to help by taking items to Greece, but she has found it incredibly difficult to persuade the airline—in this instance, Flybe—to provide the extra baggage allowance. I hope that Ministers will speak to airlines that are already operating charter flights to Greece to use whatever leeway they have to allow people to take extra items. All the airlines should be trying to support this humanitarian effort.
I have been trying to help a constituent who has been seeking status in this country for some time, having fled from a very dangerous situation in Yemen. He got in touch with me, regardless of the extreme personal difficulties that he has been experiencing—he has faced destitution, not for the first time—to ask, “What can I do to help? I do not want anyone else to have to face this situation.”
I urge the Government to do more. It is great that finance has been coming, but a good deal more needs to be done to support people who are in the most desperate of circumstances.
I apologise to the House for the fact that, although I was in the Chamber for the opening speeches, I have not been present for the whole debate.
Let me say at the outset that I am no Tory Mr Gradgrind, gnashing my teeth and moaning and groaning about things—not, I must add, with universal support in North Dorset. I am a huge supporter of the 0.07% of GDP, and I hope that economic growth can continue so that that figure can rise. It is testimony to our history, our heritage and our humanitarian outlook, and we as a nation should be proud of it.
I think the fact that the House has discussed this issue, both as a result of the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday and in the debates that have taken place yesterday and this afternoon, illustrates the huge amount of interest, concern and support in the House.
An earlier speaker suggested that this was probably the first occasion on which public policy, both here and elsewhere, was being shaped or formed by a photograph. I am not entirely sure that that is correct. Quite a lot of people will think back to the photograph of that little girl during the Vietnam war, and how it helped shape and change public opinion. The photographs of figures in holocaust camps, consisting of skin and bone held up by rags, changed the view as well. However, I have to say, without becoming too maudlin about the matter, that as the father of three daughters—one of whom happens also to be a three-year-old—I was very struck by that photograph. As I flipped through recent pictures on my phone of her splashing in the waves during a family holiday in north Pembrokeshire, I tried to put myself in that father’s position. He had lost everything, and was wondering who or what was there to help and support him—and, indeed, whether the world understood what on earth was going on.
I think what is happening in the UK is desperately important, and it is indicative of our DNA when it comes to these issues. Whenever there is an international crisis with a humanitarian aspect, our country and its citizens, charities and voluntary sector always rise to the occasion and do so magnificently, often through small people doing small things that they hope will make a big difference.
In the three sessions of debate on this issue, a number of Members have referenced what their councils are doing. I am pleased to say that even in rural, somewhat sleepy Dorset, which does not have a very racially mixed demographic, the chief executive of North Dorset district council, Matt Prosser, is convening discussions with other council officers to see what Dorset can do to help.
If this motion is pressed to a Division, I will oppose it, however, because it asks us to help those who are already in Europe. It is a fundamental principle that we must stand first against that. There are several reasons why. The kernel of my concerns is the issue I raised with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Monday—security. There is a downside to having 20,000 people over a five-year period rather than immediately. If I was an ISIS recruiter wishing this country ill, I would be trying to find ways to infiltrate and get my people in on those transports bringing people to the United Kingdom. We know because that is how they work. We know because we have seen it in other refugee camps where political or religious intimidation is rife. It would be wholly negligent of Her Majesty’s Government to adopt a policy that brought such people into this country. The sole purpose is the relief of suffering, but that would bring in people who wish to cause harm and discord.
I have to say that I think that, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is in some respects right. Part of the downside of what has been an instinctive humanitarian response is that we are doing President Assad’s job for him by clearing away the results of his devastating policy on his country, and some could construe that as waving a white flag to ISIL, too—saying, “We cannot defeat you; we haven’t the resolve or the resource and therefore we are going to absorb those people who have been displaced by your actions.” I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman in that I could see that being a very easy interpretation of some of our actions and some of these proposals.
We have a desire to help those on European shores. We are a member of the EU. We should stop hiding behind Schengen and accept our responsibilities to work with our partners to give sanctuary to those who need refuge. That is the priority.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I repeat a point I made in an intervention on the shadow Foreign Secretary: there are hospitals, doctors, schools and the whole network of social infrastructure in each and every European country. There may be qualitative differences, and there may even be quantitative differences, but those networks exist.
Let me finish this point. It would be a retrograde step if people could say, “I have arrived in Europe, I am free of persecution, but I am now going to do a pick ‘n’ mix of which country in Europe is best for me.” I also have to say that it is deeply insulting to those countries in Europe who themselves are striving to deal with this issue to say that we can do it better than them. There is a smack of imperialism—
I am grateful for the infestation of Scots; I am delighted that 56 of them are Scottish nationalists, especially in this debate today. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would agree that the nations that might require the greatest assistance are great nations such as the Republic of Greece, which founders on economic disaster, yet opens its doors without question to those seeking refuge in the most dreadful conditions; and if we are to support them, we should also give them additional investment.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly overcome whatever emotions afflicted him when he scrolled through his family photographs by conjuring up the most bizarre rationale. Does he not understand that many of us fully accept why Government Members want at every opportunity to stand outside a common currency in Europe, but not to stand outside common decency?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman—I do have a huge amount of respect for his views on many issues—I think that point seeks to deliberately debase the debate. This is nothing at all to do with either decency or indecency. The difference between opposition and government is that Opposition parties can let only their hearts dictate the narrative; the governing party has to use heart and head. I shall come on briefly to some of the issues—whether we are talking about 20,000 and whether they will come from within the camps or elsewhere—that are pertinent for Ministers to consider.
I have given way quite enough. Let me make a little progress in the time remaining.
I was a district councillor for 11 years, so I find it heartening that through the Department for International Development’s budget for the first year, funding will be made available to local authorities. I suggest that there would be an even more active response from local government if Ministers gave a further indication of the sources of funding for years 2 through to 5. That would be productive.
We should always continue to ensure that countries closer to Syria and the camps do their bit. We must ask Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others to play their part, because the quicker we can get people back to a country that is peaceful and where civil government is reinstated, the better. It will be much easier to do that from countries nearer to home.
I fear that the slightly open-door policy advocated by the shadow Foreign Secretary and the SNP is the greatest recruiting sergeant to those whom the whole House abhors: those who profit from people trafficking. I think that it will just encourage people. [Interruption.] Opposition Members from a sedentary position shout “shameful”, and I absolutely agree. It is shameful that in the early part of the 21st century, we have people—fellow human beings—who seek to profit and make their living from selling and transporting human cargo in degrading and horrible circumstances, where they are ripping people off, cramming them into boats and causing even more unnecessary suffering.
I will not give way.
Finally—and this is where we should be careful not to be media-dominated—there are lots of humanitarian crises across the surface of the globe. Some have mentioned Yemen, and there are others. We need to be very careful that we do not do too much too quickly, because that raises expectation and gives the green light to those who are fundamentally anti-democratic and anti human rights.
I was going to speak about the consensual tone of the debate, and then Simon Hoare returned to the Chamber. I have two things to say to him. First, he would have benefited if he had been able to listen to the other 29 speeches in the debate. There was a lot in them, but he will have the opportunity to see that if he reads Hansard. The second and more serious point is that, realistically, the threat from Daesh does not lie in its sticking a few operatives into groups of asylum seekers or people seeking refuge and sanctuary. The threat from Daesh is that its poisonous ideology will affect people born and bred in this country. One thing that will enable that is a suspicion or belief, founded or unfounded, that we judge asylum on whether people are Muslim, brown, black, or just look suspicious. I ask him to reflect on whether the attitude that he struck in his speech will help or hinder the battle of ideas, which is central to the assault on terrorism.
The 29 speeches that I heard—I sat through every single one—were a credit to this House and to this Chamber. Of course there were disagreements. Incidentally, this motion is the most consensual motion that I have ever had a hand in drafting in this House. I can absolutely assure the Chamber of that. This motion is not just about what is in it, but about what has not been put in it. Government Members will notice that there is no mention of the imperial legacy in the middle east, which is the fundamental cause of many of the issues. There is no mention of the illegal war in Iraq, which is the more immediate cause of destabilisation and radicalisation. There is not even any mention of our recent experience in Libya.
Government Members might ask what we did wrong in Libya. Of course there was a strong argument on humanitarian grounds for intervening in an air campaign to protect people against the dictator, but where does the argument lie given that the House of Commons Library has explained to us that this country committed £320 million to that air campaign and committed £25 million to the rebuilding and reconstruction programmes after the immediate conflict? Thirteen times as much was spent on a military campaign as on a reconstruction campaign.
I did not mention the arms trade in the motion and the reality that, in this conflict as in every conflict, British armaments and munitions will be used by both sides. This motion was aimed at concentrating on areas where we could build a consensus.
I said that this was the most consensual motion in which I had been involved in this House. I was involved in a number of consensual motions in the Scottish Parliament as First Minister when I led a minority
Government; I felt that the necessity of numbers often required me to temper my enthusiasm for certain areas of policy and I tried instead to build a consensus. I did so on issues such as climate change remarkably successfully.
This Government have a majority in this Chamber, but I caution them to reflect on the fact that the leaders of six opposition parties and the Independent Unionist Member of Parliament have put their names to this motion. Having a majority in this Chamber does not necessarily represent a majority opinion in the country. There is the strongest evidence that the majority position in the country is more reflected in this motion than in the Government’s disagreements with it. We tried to emphasise in the motion not just what more we think should be done but what has been done, and we tried to accord it full credit and our support.
My hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin reminded us of dehumanising language and the dangers it can have in such debates. It was significant that for the overwhelming bulk of the debate, at least, there was no dehumanising language. There was no mention of “hordes”, or “floods”, or “swarms” or anything like that. The context of the debate, the reason why we are here today and the reason why there has been this overwhelming surge from the grassroots of each and every one of our constituencies to do more is that picture of Alan Kurdi. Rather than making the debate about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or masses of migrants, that picture humanised it. It made the debate about an individual, small child lying dead, face down in the waves of the Turkish beach. That was what humanised the issue for our constituents and, in all honesty, it is why the Government are at the Dispatch Box today.
That context combines two things: the instinct to survive that is the most profound of all human emotions, as mentioned by the spokesperson from the Labour Front Bench, Hilary Benn; and the anxiety to help that is a profound human response to seeing our fellow human beings in extremity. As a Chamber and as a House we should reflect on the point that if the purpose of the Kurdi family had been to go not to Canada but to the United Kingdom and if, by some wonderful act of fate, Alan had survived rather than dying in the sea, that three-year-old child would have been refused refuge in the United Kingdom, either because he landed in Turkey, and we therefore do not think that that accords with our obligations, or because we are not prepared to play a part or make a contribution with other European partners to taking responsibility for part of the problem.
As for leadership, we have this opportunity because our constituents are exercised and energised on this issue. We have heard from almost every speaker about the experience in their constituency of the anxiety and willingness to help. That gives us the opportunity for real leadership, and we should do more in this House. We should do that.
The nub of the debate and the issue that has divided opinion, even among those who are anxious to help but who none the less have a legitimate argument against the motion, concerns what Conservative Members have cautioned against: the green light, as they put it, that would be signalled to traffickers and displaced people in the middle east if the UK joined our European partners in accepting refugees.
In giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, the mayor of Calais was very clear that family members of immigrants—economic immigrants as well, I fully accept—write to their relatives in their countries of origin telling them that Britain is a land of fairness and freedom and encouraging them to come over. Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that criminal networks want to make—
I understand the point, as I heard the counter-arguments from a number of Members with great experience. I heard Mark Durkan, for example, point out that exactly the same logic was used to withdraw the naval patrols in 2013, resulting in people dying. I heard from people with practical experience. Peter Kyle pointed out that the push of war rather than the pull of the UK is the motivation for people taking the desperate gamble of going across the Mediterranean. In realistic terms, does anyone seriously believe that, given that the German Government’s policy of offering sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of people is in place, others would be motivated if this country were prepared to accept a share of the responsibility? That is an extraordinary argument.
Those on the Conservative Benches should reflect on the speech of Nicola Blackwood, which shone out like a beacon among the contributions from Conservative Members. She pointed out from her own experience that the conditions in the camps are also what motivate people to leave—the hopelessness of not having any prospect of returning to Syria or any of the other benighted countries, and the lack of opportunity for education. We heard two statistics. The Secretary of State herself told us that only 37% of the necessary funding was available for the food programme. The Opposition spokesperson pointed out that the food ration had been cut by 50%. The camps cannot be regarded as the only solution to the problem.
My right hon. Friend is making a good point about why these people will come and will have to come. As my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard said, the terror behind them is so much worse than what is in front of them. With the UK closing the door or being ham-fisted, our European partners have to take more refugees, as we would wrongly pass by on the other side. I urge the UK Government not to do that, but to play their full part and ask, “What more can we do?” as my hon. Friend Angus Robertson said in his opening speech.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
When the Prime Minister goes to the European summit next week, or when he deals with our partners in the United Nations, what position will he adopt in asking others to fulfil their obligations to help support people in the camps in the middle east? Will he approach others by saying, “We’re having nothing to do with our European partners in their programme of resettlement”,
or by saying, “We will share that burden and we expect you to share the burden of support for refugees in the camps”? Which position will accord this country the greatest influence and the greatest prospects of success? Surely logic tells us that it is the co-operative position.
I genuinely appreciate the right hon. Gentleman giving way. From the phrases that he has just used, the inadvertent implication of the motion—I take it that it is inadvertent—seems to be that our priority would be to help our European partners alleviate the burden of their immigrant and refugee crisis, rather than helping the people in the refugee camps on the borders of Syria. Surely that cannot be his intention.
I suggest the hon. Gentleman reread the motion. Also, if he had been here for the debate, he would have heard that explained many times.
That brings me to my final point of argument before I sum up—that is, whether the situation would be manageable if we made a contribution. In some of the speeches I heard, Members were worried about whether we could cope with an issue of such magnitude. Recent experience, never mind post-war experience, tells us otherwise. In 2001 the number of asylum applications in the United Kingdom that were granted—not the number that were made, but the number that were granted in a single year—was 31,641. Last year the number was 8,150.
Even in our recent experience we have coped properly, morally and responsibly with far larger numbers than even the Government’s renewed suggestion of a resettlement scheme implies. It is important for us to understand that we have the capacity to deal with the situation, as shown not just by the case of the Ugandan Asians or Vietnamese boat people, but by very recent experience. President Juncker made an excellent, if belated, speech this morning to the European Parliament, pointing out that at the end of the second world war 20 million people had to be resettled on the continent of Europe. Surely now we can find it within ourselves to make a contribution with our European partners to address the issue of refuge in Europe, as well as encouraging them and the rest of the world to act directly on the situation in the camps in the middle east.
I absolutely agree, which is precisely why the motion argues for an attitude of co-operation with our European partners, so that we will be in a position to encourage them to join us in taking further action in support of UN efforts.
I have two further points to make, but I will make them quickly because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to answer the questions that so many contributors to the debate have asked. I recently became a member of UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s board, which is chaired by Sir Peter Bazalgette on a cross-party basis. During the first meeting I attended I made the point that the organisation must be about more than having a memorial, as crucial as that is. It must ensure that the memory of what happened in the holocaust is never lost and that information about it is available to future generations, but it must also celebrate the contribution that those who were saved from the death camps have made to this country, in medicine, science, business and the arts.
Although this debate has not been guilty of using dehumanising language, not enough has been said about what an opportunity this is. That is surprising, given how many Members pointed out that they themselves are the sons, daughters or grandchildren of immigrants or refugees. This is not a burden, a problem or a drag; it is an opportunity. Every family, every child and every human being that we contribute to saving has an opportunity to do great things for this country, just as the refugees who were saved from the death camps have done. Let us change our attitude and see the potential in doing the right thing, not just the problems.
Finally, the Prime Minister said today—I think I am quoting him correctly—that he was putting “no limit” on the first year. I am not sure that is accurate, in the sense that there is the limit of 20,000 over five years. None the less, he said that he would not put a limit on the programme in its first year, which should make Conservative MPs pause for thought. He also said how pleased he was that we can exercise sovereignty because we are not in the Schengen agreement. I have spent my political life arguing for sovereignty for the Scottish people, so I really do understand its importance. But having sovereignty is about having the right to choose and not to be ordered to do things. I think that it is a good thing not to be ordered to do things, because we should not have to be ordered to do this; we should choose as a nation to do the right thing, and we should choose to support this motion.
We have had a good, broad and wide-ranging debate on an issue of real concern not only to this House but to the whole UK. Indeed, it should extend to Europe and the world as a whole, given the flows of people we are seeing and the challenges that presents. A number of important themes came through in the debate, and they were apparent in all the contributions we heard. There is recognition and understanding of those challenges, and indeed support for a number of things that the Government are doing. We welcome the points of the motion that underline that. In the spirit with which Angus Robertson opened the debate, I recognise that in the points of the motion that he highlighted.
In that spirit of understanding and agreement, I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to do their bit to support the resettlement scheme that the Prime Minister announced earlier this week, to ensure that local authorities and the devolved Administrations come forward and play their part, and indeed to find ways of channelling that passion and the contributions that the individuals who have contacted us can make. I will come on to the structures and statements that will follow and what we are doing to ensure that this work is undertaken at pace to give effect to the rightful expectations of this House and the country as a whole. These themes of compassion and humanity have been raised by Members in all parts of the House, and that has been the motivating factor for the actions of this Government too.
We are witnessing mass migration across Europe on a scale not seen since the end of the second world war. We have seen harrowing pictures that serve as a tragic reminder of the risks that people take when attempting to make dangerous journeys to Europe, and a stark reminder of the exploitation by smugglers and organised criminal gangs who put people’s lives at risk, put them in harm’s way, and, frankly, do not care whether they live or die. It is that loss of life that Members across this House take so seriously, and it is a further point we can all agree on.
I want to return to the opening speech by my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary. Many Members—certainly Opposition Members—have said, “We’re looking for leadership.” Well, this Government are showing leadership in being the only EU country to fulfil its pledge to provide 0.7% of GDP for international aid. We should be proud of that. Through that leadership, this country is showing that it has a sense of where need is required to be met and the difference that is making. This is not about simply saying, “It’s millions of pounds”, although it is; it is about the fact that it is delivering real benefit to so many people. UK support has delivered over 18 million food rations, each of which feeds one person for a month, provided access to clean water for 1.6 million people, and provided over 2.4 million medical consultations in Syria and the region. This country can be proud of that.
The record will show that just a few moments ago the Minister said that the United Kingdom is the only member state of the European Union to fulfil an obligation of 0.7% in terms of international development aid. Is he saying that the Netherlands, Denmark and other EU and Scandinavian countries have not fulfilled the 0.7% obligation? They have done so for a number of years, yet the UK is only now beginning to do so, having promised to, in the first instance, from 1970.
Order. Mr MacNeil, you have been doing very well this Session—let’s not spoil it.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that we should be proud of this. In his opening speech, he highlighted the real benefit that we as a country should look to—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to have two classes of partner in the European Union whereby the Government decide that some are major and some are minor?
It is important to come back to the point I was making on the difference that aid is making. The £100 million that was committed in July is providing vulnerable people inside Syria and across the region with food, clean drinking water, relief assistance, health support and shelter. There is a focus on education, including an increase in funding up to £20 million for education in Lebanon this year in preparation for school enrolment in September to help ensure that refugee children and Lebanese children alike can benefit from an education. I hope that everyone agrees with the need to provide hope and a future for the refugees in those camps, who have been displaced into that region. That gives a sense of how we can rebuild, while recognising that this is a challenge beyond the shores of Europe. The International Development Secretary clearly indicated in her opening remarks the other steps required.
I am genuinely sorry if the hon. Gentleman finds fault in the way in which this Government —or, indeed, this country—are providing aid and assistance. This is a really serious and important matter. The point I am underlining is the leadership this country is showing, and we should not talk it down or diminish it, because it is making a real difference.
I thank the Minister for giving way: he is being very generous. I want to take us away from the statistics to the things that will actually help the refugees in the camps. Does he agree that the humanitarian crisis response model is not fit for a long-term crisis and that responding with short-term assistance does not give hope to refugees? We need to address problems of insecurity, long-term education and job opportunities. That will address the drivers of this crisis.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, whose speech I commend for underlining the importance of examining the long-term future of the region. This debate has focused on that serious issue and it is important that we continue to do so.
Most of the debate has focused on the pressure in the Mediterranean as a result of events in the middle east and north and sub-Saharan Africa. The UK works closely with international partners to tackle the conflicts in Syria, providing support to the region and fighting the criminal gangs who exploit people. We continue to play a huge role in international search and rescue efforts to save lives at sea. HMS Enterprise and the Border Force cutters are still patrolling the waters, supported by a helicopter, and the combined response that the UK has generated has saved more than 6,700 lives to date.
We recognise that many people are refugees fleeing conflict. That is why the Prime Minister announced on Monday that the UK will resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the lifetime of this Parliament, building on existing schemes. That is in addition to a further £100 million of humanitarian aid for those in camps in Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, bringing our total contribution to more than £1 billion. The UNHCR views our contribution on resettlement as serious and substantial.
The Minister will have heard me say earlier that the Ministry of Defence revealed this afternoon that HMS Enterprise is rescuing people from the Mediterranean at less than 10% of the scale that HMS Bulwark achieved. Is there an explanation for that, and how is it consistent with what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor said in June about continuing to play a full role in search and rescue?