Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe

Part of Opposition Day — [6th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Treasury) 4:21 pm, 9th September 2015

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.