Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe

Part of Opposition Day — [6th allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Scottish National Party, North Ayrshire and Arran 5:42 pm, 9th September 2015

I am delighted to speak in the SNP Opposition day debate about this very important issue of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe, and I am proud that it has commanded the support of six parties across this House.

Last week, the world woke to shocking images showing the lifeless body of a three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a Turkish beach. There is no doubt that that image was a turning point in this entire debate. Of course, everyone in this House welcomes the Government’s plan to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees, and as we debate this issue we must remember with humility that while we debate, people continue to suffer and to die. It is important that we do more. It is important that the UK Government do more, and our constituents rightly demand that we do more.

The Government must set out a clear timetable for welcoming refugees as soon as possible. Efforts must be twofold, helping those people within the region and those who have fled. Although we wish to conduct this debate in a constructive manner, it is not helpful to link this debate—this humanitarian crisis—to talk of migration and immigration targets. The UK has done much in providing aid to Syrian refugees in the region, but it is rightly recognised that there is a moral responsibility also to resettle a fair share of refugees in the UK. The UK must continue to provide significant aid contributions to Syria and neighbouring countries, and persuade all those it can to give generously.

Long-term solutions to the root causes of conflict in Syria are required, and the United Nations Security Council is central to resolving the current crisis. The UK Government should continue to advocate a sustainable and inclusive political solution and to push for an immediate ceasefire. We must work to ensure that all parties to the conflict stop any arms transfers and guarantee humanitarian access. Alan, the child whose tragic picture was seen across the world, was only one of more than 350,000 migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean this year and, tragically, one of more than 2,600 who have lost their lives on that perilous journey. A further 1,000 have lost their lives along various other migration routes, including the Sahara desert and in the Bay of Bengal. That must be a matter of extreme concern to all of us, not only as MPs but as human beings, and to our constituents.

Far from being economic migrants—the mantra still being trotted out in some quarters—62% of those who reached Europe by boat this year, according to figures compiled by the UN, were from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, countries ravaged by war and religious extremism. The scale of the suffering faced by those fleeing violence and barbarism is almost beyond the comprehension of anyone in this House. Driven by blind panic and motivated by a desire to protect their families, they fall into the hands of villainous people traffickers who herd them on to crowded and dangerously unseaworthy vessels. The outcome is often depressingly predictable and leads to the sort of appalling images we saw in the media last week.

The debate is not helped when we do not take care with the language we use. Insensitive language serves only to remove the human element from the tragic story unfolding. Of course, we all face challenges in our own communities in terms of tackling poverty and in delivering public services, but those pale in comparison to the scale of loss and suffering being experienced across north Africa and the Mediterranean.

The number seeking refuge in Europe equates to less than 0.05% of the continent’s population and, as the world’s richest continent, we could and should be more accommodating to those in need of our protection. In recent days, more and more people are realising that we could and should do more. We have all read the emails and post from our constituents, and we know what public opinion is on this issue.

It must be remembered that, far from being the chosen or favoured destination for asylum seekers, Britain is by no means on the front line of the migrant crisis. Indeed, the migrants at Calais account for as little as 1% of those who have arrived in Europe so far this year. Estimates suggest that around 3,000 migrants have reached Calais, which is a fraction of the more than 200,000 who have landed in Italy and Greece.

As the world’s richest continent, we could do much more to address the unfolding tragedy. We must applaud the exceptional efforts of the German Federal Government, who are preparing to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, and recognise that a growing number of people in this country wish that the UK Government would adopt a more proactive role. As we have heard repeatedly in this debate, there is no doubt that the UK could comfortably provide sanctuary to many more asylum seekers, because UN figures show that the number of refugees in the UK has fallen from 193,600 to 117,161 over the past four years.

Despite the fact that UN figures show the number of refugees in the UK falling by more than a third over the past four years, only a handful have been granted asylum this year. Sadly, that is in sharp contrast to the action by the German Federal Government. There is no doubt that, as one of the largest and wealthiest countries in Europe, we are capable of playing a serious role in alleviating the crisis. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that Scotland is more than ready to assist in meeting that challenge. Indeed, my own local authority, North Ayrshire Council, has expressed its willingness to play its part. Caroline Lucas made the point very well that central Government funding is essential.

I take this opportunity to urge Members from across the House to sign my early-day motion—some have already done so—calling on the UK Government to show decisive leadership in ensuring a fair proportion of refugees are allowed to seek shelter across the UK. I and other SNP Members are confident that if we, along with our European neighbours, play our part, we can help to provide safe passage and sanctuary to those like Alan. His family simply wanted him to have a life not lived in fear, but his life was tragically lost so close to safety.

It is time for the UK to play a fuller part to help mitigate this unfolding human tragedy, which is on a scale not seen since world war two. It is time for the Government to lead, instead of being dragged into doing more by public opinion. If the UK Government do not do more, history will quite rightly judge them very harshly indeed.