Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe

Part of Opposition Day — [6th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader 12:52 pm, 9th September 2015

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 12 October 2015 detailing how that number can be increased, encompassing refugees already in Europe and including a plan for the remainder of this year to reflect the overwhelming urgency of this humanitarian crisis;
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.