Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe

Part of Opposition Day — [6th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport) 4:39 pm, 9th September 2015

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?