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

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

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

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.