Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe

Part of Opposition Day — [6th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 4:49 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 4:49 pm, 9th September 2015

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.