With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on the UK’s response to the migration situation in Europe and the middle east.
Last week, many right hon. and hon. Members across the House spoke passionately and thoughtfully about the distressing scenes that we have witnessed over the summer—men, women and children taking extraordinary risks as they have travelled to reach Europe, some by rickety vessels over the sea, others by land and by foot. Many are fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria, where war has wrought devastation and destruction on so many innocent lives.
As I told the House last week, the UK can be proud that since the start of that conflict we have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response. We are providing more than £1 billion in aid, making us the second biggest bilateral donor in the world. Our contribution is almost as much as the rest of the European Union put together. Since 2011, we have taken more than 5,000 Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, and last week, the Prime Minister announced that we will resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection over the course of this Parliament.
I can tell the House that plans to welcome those refugees are progressing at pace. On Monday the Prime Minister announced the appointment of a new Minister solely responsible for overseeing this work. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend Richard Harrington, will be responsible for co-ordinating and delivering this expansion of our resettlement programme across Government, as well as co-ordinating the provision of UK support to Syrians in the region. He will report primarily to me and to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He will also report to the Secretary of State for International Development on the provision of support and assistance to Syrian refugees in the region. My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister will continue to be responsible for our asylum system for Syrians and people of all nationalities who need our protection. One of my hon. Friend’s first commitments will be to host a meeting of non-governmental organisations to agree with our partners how best to harness the strong desire expressed by the public, and a range of organisations, to welcome these refugees to the UK. This will take place over the next week.
The response of the British public has been one of overwhelming generosity, and many have been moved to make very kind offers of assistance. In order to harness that tremendous generosity, we have set up a web page on gov.uk to provide advice for those who want to help. In collaboration with Her Majesty’s Government, the Red Cross has set up a helpline for anyone who wants advice on the ways in which they can be of assistance to Syrians in need of protection in the UK.
In addition to appointing the new Minister, I have established a dedicated gold command team within the Home Office to bring together important partners such as the Local Government Association, the Department for International Development, the Department for
Communities and Local Government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and NGOs. This team is working closely with local authorities across the UK to ensure that refugees will have the support and care they need locally on arrival.
Last Friday, I chaired a cross-Government meeting that brought together the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government, for Work and Pensions, for International Development, for Education, and for the Wales and Scotland Offices, as well as Ministers from five other Government Departments and representatives from the Local Government Association, to drive forward this important work. Together we agreed the plan of action, which includes urgent work to expand the criteria for our existing Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and to scale up our current processes. We have also had a number of productive discussions with the UNHCR. On Monday in Brussels I spoke to the UNHCR, António Guterres, who welcomed our decision to take more refugees from the region and gave his full support to the Government’s plan.
In welcoming vulnerable refugees to the UK, it is imperative that we have in place the support and help they need and deserve. I know that hon. Members, and the general public, are keen to know more detail on the numbers and when people are expected to arrive, but I must underline that the scale of the expansion needs careful and meticulous planning to ensure we get it right. My hon. Friend the Minister and I will continue to update the House on that point, but I am pleased to tell the House that we are looking forward to welcoming the first wave of new arrivals in the coming days, and we are working at speed to plan for even more in the coming weeks.
This is of course a crisis that affects the whole of the EU. That is why, together with the interior ministers of Germany and France, I called for an extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council to be held on Monday to discuss the immediate situation. At the meeting, Ministers from across Europe agreed on the need for bold and concerted action, and I stressed our desire to work with our European partners. I also made it clear that we do not support all of the Commission’s recent proposals, which include the relocation of 120,000 people already in Europe. As I have said before, the UK believes that this approach risks encouraging even more people to risk their lives making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean or into Europe.
Instead, we should, as the UK is doing, be resettling people directly from the region, including Syrian refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, such as those the Prime Minister met on his visit to the region on Monday. This is important for three particular reasons. First, it ensures that we are taking the most vulnerable people, not just those who are sufficiently fit or who have enough money to make the journey to Europe. Secondly, it deters people, of any age or wealth, from attempting the perilous journeys that have already led to so many tragic deaths. Thirdly, it helps to break the business model of the callous criminal gangs preying on human misery in this way.
I made it clear once again at the Council meeting on Monday that the UK will not be participating in a compulsory EU relocation scheme, and our position on this has been acknowledged clearly by the Commission and other member states. The UK will, however, continue to build on the considerable practical assistance we are already providing to the member states experiencing particular pressures, and help them to build functioning asylum systems with the resilience to withstand increased pressures. We have already provided over 1,000 expert working days to countries such as Greece and Italy—more than any other member state. We are also committed to supporting our European partners in ensuring the full and proper management of the EU’s external border.
I set out our strong support for the Commission’s hotspots proposals for screening centres in the parts of Europe most acutely affected at the moment. These centres will identify those in need of international protection and give them quick access to asylum procedures. They must become operational immediately. Those who are not in need of protection will be rapidly returned to their countries of origin, relieving the huge pressure which unfounded claims put on member states’ asylum systems, and ensuring that our protection can be given to those who really need it.
The strain of such claims must be addressed. Claiming asylum must not be viewed as an easy means of settlement in Europe. Now more than ever we need asylum systems that can respond quickly to those genuinely in need, and all available resource must be directed appropriately. I also stressed the importance of long-term work to overcome the issue. We must use every opportunity, including the Valletta summit in November, to continue to deepen our work with our international partners, including those outside the EU, and we must work to smash the criminal gangs that lie behind so much of this disgusting trade in human misery.
The UK is already spearheading the effort, working bilaterally with a number of other European countries as well as with Europol, and I urged other member states on Monday to join us in that important work. We need to ensure that all possible information and intelligence, including from migrant debriefing, is shared across Europe and with Europol.
We also want to see the EU and its international partners take forward more ambitious efforts under initiatives such as the Khartoum and Rabat processes and the proposed multi-purpose centre in Niger. These should include concrete actions aimed at combating the people smugglers and returning illegal economic migrants.
The plight of so many Syrian refugees who have been left homeless and whose lives have been shattered is simply heart wrenching. They have experienced things most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Many have seen their friends and family killed. Others have suffered terrible injury and trauma. Most have lost the prosperity and security they once enjoyed. As the Syrian crisis has grown over the past four years, Her Majesty’s Government have done—and will continue to do—everything we can to help those in immediate need. I hope the whole House will join me in sending a message of welcome to those refugees who will soon be arriving in this country and I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for updating the House on the refugee crisis and welcome the further measures she has announced today. We have worked together well in the past and although I will of course provide real challenge in this role, I shall do so constructively at all times.
May I also take this opportunity to praise my predecessor and friend, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper? She showed great leadership in forcing the Government to face up to the scale of the crisis and I am sure that the whole House wish her well in her continuing role on these matters.
Unfolding across Europe and the north of Africa is a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war. More than half a million migrants have arrived at the EU’s borders this year, about double the number that came in 2014. Terrible images of families and children in great distress continue to fill our television screens. Earlier this week, four babies, six boys and five girls were among 34 victims who lost their lives after their boat capsized between Turkey and a small Greek island. With winter approaching and temperatures in many of the countries affected about to drop, an urgent solution is needed, so may I begin with the Government response to date?
The measures announced last week—in response, it has to be said, to huge public pressure—were, of course, welcome as far as they go. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are right to say that the UK has set the lead on aid spending and we must urge other European countries to match it. Although the appointment earlier this week of a Minister with specific responsibilities is a welcome and sensible development, we now need clarity on the headline figures.
The Government have committed to 4,000 refugees a year, although the Prime Minister has suggested it could be more this year. What is their latest assessment of how many will arrive this year and how many does the Home Secretary expect to arrive before Christmas? What discussions has she had with councils about the practical arrangements? More than 50 have offered to help. Are they actively turning those offers into practical proposals and, given the concerns that councils have expressed about funding, is she working to get a better funding arrangement for them?
Will the Home Secretary say more about the situation in Calais? How many of the people in camps there have had their status assessed and what discussions is she having with her French counterpart to progress that situation? The big question, of course, on the Government’s response to date is whether it is in any way commensurate with the scale of the crisis. David Miliband, chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said earlier this week that the UK Government’s commitment on an annual basis matches only the numbers arriving in Greece on the beaches of Lesbos every single day. With that in mind, is the Home Secretary really standing by the description of the Government’s response to date as adequate? Does she accept that it must be kept under constant review and, if necessary, increased?
Let me turn to the European response and the Justice and Human Affairs Council meeting on Monday. Such is the sheer scale of the challenge, the Home Secretary is right to say that it can be met only through a co-ordinated European response. Although she was right to call for the meeting, it is disappointing, to say the least, that the UK Government failed to table any practical or positive proposals to help our European neighbours. Can we really leave Greece, with all the other economic problems it faces, to cope with the situation alone? The expert help is good, but it goes no way to meeting the scale of the emergency Greece faces.
Although we understand that the Government do not want to give an incentive for people to travel across the Mediterranean, they cannot deny the reality on the ground in Europe right now. The Home Secretary describes the arrivals as the fittest and the wealthiest. Is not that a dangerous generalisation? Does it adequately describe the people—the desperate parents carrying children at the Hungarian border and the children sleeping on the streets in Greece? Is the Government’s decision not to take any refugees from Europe sustainable from a moral and practical point of view? Although I understand the Government’s reluctance to take part in the proposed quota system, surely an offer of some help would live up to the historic tradition our country has always had. If the Government were to provide that help, would not that only build good will and help the renegotiation discussions in advance of the forthcoming European referendum?
The Home Secretary will know that Chancellor Merkel has called for a summit of European leaders to broker a solution. Will the Home Secretary today commit the Government to a positive response to that call? One of the problems the summit will have to address is the management of borders within Europe. Does the Home Secretary agree that the ability to move without checks can leave people in the grip of people traffickers? What is her view on Germany’s decision to reintroduce border controls, and what implications does she think that will have for the Schengen agreement?
Will the Home Secretary say more about the proposal for removal centres in transit countries in Africa? She says they must become operational immediately; when does she expect that to happen? Is the approach of moving people back to transit centres consistent with the principle set out in the Dublin convention, whereby people have the right to claim asylum in the country of arrival?
Is the EU in discussion with other countries across the middle east to increase what they are doing? Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are doing what they can, but surely they need more help from other, wealthier countries in the region.
Finally, we have heard today about the deployment of HMS Richmond to the Mediterranean, with a specific role to board ships and intercept people traffickers. Although we welcome that development, will the Home Secretary say more about how it will work in practice and whether it will work as part of an international effort to disrupt those gangs?
In conclusion, this is possibly the biggest crisis of its kind in our lifetime, and the way in which we respond to it will define us as a generation. We need to be ready to do more, if the necessity demands, and reach out to our European neighbours whose challenges are greatest, and we must honour our country’s long tradition of providing refuge to those who need it.
May I start by welcoming Andy Burnham to his place? I would also like to pay tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). She was appointed as shadow Home Secretary in 2011, before the Syrian conflict started, but since the beginning of that conflict she has shown great passion for the concerns of those displaced by it. She has continued that approach in recent weeks and continues to work on that particular area. I wish her the very best for her time on the Back Benches.
The right hon. Member for Leigh is, of course, a former Home Office Minister, so he will be aware of some of the issues that are likely to be the subject of our debates. I welcome the fact that he has said he will approach his role constructively and that he will wish to work with the Government on some areas. Obviously, I think we are all agreed on the need to take action on the issue under discussion, but it is clear that it is in the British national interest for this House to be able to work constructively on other issues, not least national security.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. To be absolutely clear on the numbers, the Prime Minister set the figure at 20,000 by the end of the Parliament and that is the figure we are looking at. We have not set a year-by-year quota or a target for the numbers before Christmas. As I explained in last week’s debate, we are working with the UNHCR and have expanded the criteria of vulnerability that will be used to identify refugees to come to the United Kingdom. We want to work with the UNHCR to ensure not only that we are taking those whom it is right to take according to those criteria of vulnerability, but that we have the right support for them when they are in the United Kingdom. I am sure that everybody will agree that we need to ensure that it is not a question of just taking people from Syria and putting them somewhere in the UK; it is about making sure that their needs have been identified and that they are given the right support when they arrive.
That ties in with the right hon. Gentleman’s question about local authorities. As I have said, Local Government Association representatives were present at the meeting I chaired on Friday. They have already been working with local authorities across the country and looking at the offers and the capacity of various councils to receive refugees. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government met the LGA leadership again this morning to talk through the issue. As I indicated in my statement, this is one of the practical issues that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees will address at a granular level in his discussions, making sure that those offers are being made and that they give the correct support.
The right hon. Member for Leigh talked about European support and Monday’s meeting. We have, over time, been giving practical support to other EU member states. As I indicated in my statement, we have been supporting asylum systems in Greece, initially as part of the Greek action plan but also subsequent to that. We have also been looking to work with the Italians and others to break the criminal gangs. Crucially, I encouraged other member states to support us in that work. We have worked bilaterally, particularly with the French, and broken a number of criminal gangs dealing in people smuggling, but more effort needs to be made.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the UK’s historic tradition of helping. That is why it is absolutely right that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the humanitarian support for people who have been displaced from Syria. That is why it is right that we are the second biggest bilateral aid donor to those in refugee camps and communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Foreign Office is working with others in the region to encourage increasing support for those in the camps. The UK can be rightly proud of the effort we have put into that humanitarian support. There are people today who are fed, watered and sheltered because of the generosity of the British taxpayer. We should recognise that.
There was some confusion in relation to one or two references the right hon. Gentleman made about the return of individuals and the immediate establishment of hotspots. I think I heard him suggest that the hotspots were in the transit countries in Africa, but actually they are in countries such as Italy and Greece. They are part of the EU’s collective support for those countries and provide a system whereby people who cross the border can be properly identified and registered. Those who are claiming asylum appropriately are identified, but it is those who are illegal economic migrants that we are talking about returning to their countries of origin. That is, of course, all within arrangements relating to the Department for International Development.
On the question of aid from other countries in Europe, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development and I have consistently made that point to other EU countries. Indeed, only this morning my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was in touch with the European Commissioner concerned to discuss the issue.
My right hon. Friend and the Government are to be congratulated on the manner in which they have dealt with the problem of migration at source, but will she do what the European Scrutiny Committee has insisted on and agree to a debate on the document on the relocation of migrants, which we will discuss with the Minister for Europe in about an hour’s time? We have asked for it to be debated on the Floor of the House, but without success. Will the Home Secretary agree to that request?
Will the Home Secretary also recognise that Germany, despite all the hype, has not done anything like as well as the United Kingdom in respect, for example, of the money we have provided to the World Food Programme? Some of its policies have clearly been orientated to assist its own internal economic problems. She should have a word with her counterpart to ensure that Germany does actually step up to the mark in doing the sorts of things that are really going to help and stop the tsunami of millions of people who could well come over here and swamp Europe.
My hon. Friend has long championed having debates on the Floor of the House on various matters put forward by the European Scrutiny Committee. The business of the House is of course a matter for the Leader of the House and the business managers. I simply point out to my hon. Friend that how the EU has responded on this matter has already been addressed by Members in our debates. Last week we had a number of discussions on this whole question, including three in the Chamber on various aspects of the refugee crisis and, indeed, migration.
In relation to aid, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that the United Kingdom has, as I said in my statement, given financial support to the aid programme adding up to virtually the same as that of the rest of the European Union put together, so I think we can be justifiably proud of what we have done. I think I am right in saying—I will correct this if I am wrong—that we are actually giving about double what Germany is giving in aid to refugees in the region.
I reiterate that the reason why that is important is that it helps people to stay in the region, where many of them want to be, so that they are there and able to return to Syria when the conflict is over and they can do so, and so that they are not encouraged to make the perilous journey that, as we have seen—sadly for some, including for some very young children—has led to a loss of life.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, but the Scottish National party remains of the view that the United Kingdom Government are not doing enough in the face of the extraordinary humanitarian crisis sweeping across southern and now central Europe.
It is a matter of regret that at the emergency meeting on Monday, European Interior Ministers did not explicitly endorse Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to have mandatory quotas for member states to facilitate the resettlement of the 120,000 refugees who are now in Italy, Greece and Hungary. The SNP welcomes reports that Ministers agreed in principle to share the refugees among different countries, but is disappointed that they could not decide how the refugees would be divided up. Meanwhile, the unravelling of frontier-free travel across Europe over the past few days is a symptom of the fact that certain states are bearing the brunt of the influx of refugees. It is therefore imperative that EU Interior Ministers agree on a new system of binding quotas for refugees to be shared across Europe.
It simply will not do for the United Kingdom Government to continue to insist on an opt-out from relocation proposals for the refugees already in Europe. As my right hon. Friend Angus Robertson said in our Opposition day debate last week, the SNP recognises and welcomes the steps that the UK Government have taken, but we do not think that they are doing enough—nor do significant numbers of the British public and leading international charities. In her statement, the Home Secretary said: “The response of the British public has been one of overwhelming generosity”. Why are her Government unable to match that overwhelming generosity?
In the face of the biggest humanitarian crisis to hit Europe since world war two, it is just not right for the UK to refuse to take one single refugee from the European mainland. We should be taking steps to relieve the pressure on southern European countries, which, because of their geography, are the first port of call for the refugees. The refugees are seeking sanctuary with us—with Europeans—and countries such as Greece are ill-equipped to cope with them because of their own economic condition. Richer EU member states, such as the United Kingdom, should assist them to deal with the enormous challenge that they face. Will the Home Secretary please reconsider her refusal to take any refugees from the European mainland?
Finally, I want briefly to welcome the Home Secretary’s statement that the United Kingdom Government will take steps to co-ordinate the humanitarian and practical response at home by making contact with NGOs and setting up a gold command team. Some weeks ago, the Scottish Government set up a taskforce—it has now met twice—which brings together stakeholders from across Scotland in the areas of local government, housing, heath services, language support, transport and social services, as well as charities and faith communities. Will the Home Secretary confirm that what she is doing is something akin to that taskforce, and that it will perform the same function on a continuing, rather than a one-off, basis?
Order. Before we proceed—I certainly did not want to interrupt the hon. and learned Lady, who is a most experienced advocate—I just want to say to the House that from now on and in conformity with usual practice, statements should be followed by questions rather than further statements. Of course, I partly have what the hon. and learned Lady said in mind, but not only what she said. It has become quite common in recent times for people to feel that they must follow a statement with another statement. This is not for speeches to the Press Gallery; it is for a series of questions following the statement. I hope that that is helpful. It is genuinely intended to be helpful.
The hon. and learned Lady invited me to comment on the Schengen borders and the decisions taken by a number of European Union member states who belong to the Schengen border-free zone. I would simply say that such decisions are matters for countries that are members of the Schengen zone. The United Kingdom is not a member of Schengen and will not be a member of Schengen.
The hon. and learned Lady referred to the public’s overwhelming generosity and various issues about how we are helping people. While she welcomed what we are doing, she said that we are not doing enough. I would say to her that the overwhelming generosity of the British people has been exemplified, first, by the fact that we have been willing as a Government to commit to 0.7% of GNP going to our aid budget, and secondly, by the fact that we are the second biggest bilateral donor to people in the region. The figures are striking. There is obviously a difference in terms of the support given and the sort of life and accommodation that people have, but I think these are the figures: with the money that would be spent on one individual coming to the UK, 20 people can be supported in-region. That is why we have always said that we can help more people by supporting them in the region, where, as I said in response to my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, they are then able to go home when that becomes possible.
Finally, we have had significant interaction with the Scottish Government. I think that the Prime Minister spoke to the First Minister last week about this matter. We have also had interaction with the Welsh Government on it. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees is due to meet the relevant Scottish Minister soon and to speak to the relevant Welsh Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration spoke to his Scottish and Welsh contacts on this matter last week.
In my right hon. Friend’s EU ministerial discussions, has any progress been made on finding and producing better safe havens outside the external frontier of Europe? Refugees from places such as Somalia, Eritrea and Iraq, as well as those from Syria, could be taken to such safe havens when they cross the Mediterranean or reach the border in other ways, and could live there in civilised conditions while they are processed to decide whether they have any claim for asylum. Does she agree that, although it would be an enormous task to arrange that, something of the kind must be attempted if we are to stop this stream of destitute people coming along the roads and railways of Europe to get to Britain, Germany or Sweden?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. There has indeed been discussion at European Union level. I and other colleagues, particularly the French Interior Minister, have encouraged the European Commission to work at pace. The initial proposal is for a centre in Niger. We are looking, as is the European Commission, at the possibility of a centre in east Africa as well. It is obviously important to look very carefully at where it is appropriate to have such a centre, because it needs to be a place of safety for individuals. This also relates to the important issue of illegal economic migrants, rather than refugees, in that it is about breaking the link between making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and gaining settlement in Europe.
I thank the Home Secretary for her kind remarks. She and I were first elected together in ’97, served on our first Select Committee together, were first promoted at the same time and have shadowed each other for about seven years. I can only wish that her promotion prospects will be rather more successful than mine.
May I ask the Home Secretary about the crisis? I welcome the work that she has done in the last week alone since we debated this matter, but she has been asked repeatedly to go further in taking refugees from Greece, as well as from across Europe. Some 230,000 people have arrived in Greece this year alone. She has provided only 1,000 expert working days to help them. Does she really think that all those people, many of whom are Syrian refugees, should remain in Greece? Does she think that other countries nearby should offer to help and to take some of those refugees? If she thinks that other countries should offer to help, why shouldn’t Britain?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. I simply say to her that politics is an interesting business, and despite what one’s future looks like at this point in time, one never knows what may happen in the coming months and years.
The right hon. Lady asked about the people who are in Greece. She recognised in her question that of those 230,000 people, not all are Syrian refugees and not all are refugees. There are people from other countries who have seen it as a route to enter the European Union. That is why the hotspots proposal is so important and why it is important to set it up as quickly as possible. There were indications on Monday from the European Commission and the Greek Minister that the support that is being put into that will enable people to be identified at that point, so that those who have a genuine claim to asylum can be supported appropriately and illegal economic migrants can be returned to the countries from which they originated.
People traffickers and organised criminal gangs operating in the Mediterranean are responsible for the deaths of more than 2,600 people. Will the Home Secretary detail the action that is being taken to tackle that vile trade?
I am very happy to do so. We have been working bilaterally, particularly with our French colleagues, to break a number of criminal gangs. We did that over the first few months of the year and quite a number of gangs were dealt with, but there are more out there that we need to deal with. We are putting support into the JOT Mare operation, run by Europol, which enables the sharing of intelligence on such matters. It is important that everybody participates in this. We have put effort into it and I have been encouraging my European counterparts to do the same, because we need a collective effort across the European Union. The National Crime Agency and Immigration Enforcement have set up a new organised immigration crime taskforce, to which 90 people are assigned, not only in the UK but elsewhere in Europe and in Africa, to help identify the criminal gangs and take action.
I, too, welcome the appointment of the shadow Home Secretary and pay tribute to the former shadow Home Secretary for the work that she has done. I warmly welcome the appointment of the Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees. He has a good record of dealing with the diaspora community in north London and I think he will do an excellent job.
My concern has to do with the criminal gangs, which were just raised by Nusrat Ghani. We are not part of Schengen, so we are not part of the rapid border intervention team deployments, but we need to provide support to break the criminal gangs. That means that there must be a 24/7 operation, because criminal gangs do not operate to Brussels office hours; it is something that they do all the time. What support will the Home Secretary give the Tunisian Government? I was in Tunis last Thursday where they are intercepting Libyan boats that are trying to get to Italy. Without supporting the Tunisians, we will not be able to defeat the criminal gangs.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am tempted to say that very few of us work to Brussels office hours, but he is absolutely right that it has to be a 24/7 operation. We need co-operation across Europe, but we also need to work with the countries in Africa where the criminal gangs are operating. That is why the National Crime Agency has ensured that its new organised immigration crime taskforce has people in Africa who are able to work at a local level, with European input, to break the criminal gangs.
We also have the proposal from the European Union, which has been masterminded by High Representative Federica Mogherini, to take action off the Libyan coast through the common security and defence policy. Of course, that depends on the consent of the Libyan Government. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that is not something that is possible at the moment, but work on the stability of Libya is part of the important work that needs to go on.
In recent days, we have seen the closure of the German-Austrian border. Does my right hon. Friend, whom I commend for her statement, agree that that shows the naivety and nonsense of the Schengen treaty? Will she rule out this country ever being a signatory to it?
My hon. Friend tempts me to talk about Schengen, as did Joanna Cherry who spoke for the Scottish National party. I simply say that we are not a member of Schengen. Decisions on borders within Schengen and the operation of the Schengen border code are matters for countries that are within the Schengen zone. We are not a member of it and we do not intend to be a member of it.
We managed two debates in this House last week without a single reference to dehumanising language such as “swarming” and “swamping”. We have not managed that today. The next time the Home Secretary hears such language, will she undertake to say something and take a stand against it, instead of ignoring it as she did today?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it behoves all Members of the House to be careful about how they speak in relation to these matters. It is the job of the Home Secretary, in responding to a question, to respond to the question.
When people are identified to come to the United Kingdom under our resettlement scheme, we assess their needs and ensure that the proper security checks are undertaken. The fact that the refugees we are taking come from the most vulnerable sections of the populations in the camps suggests that the problems my hon. Friend is talking about are less likely. A lot of the people we have been taking are women and children who have been traumatised by sexual violence and who have particular needs. However, we do ensure that there are proper security arrangements in place in relation to the matter that he is talking about.
Last week I spent three days in Lebanon—a country that took more refugees in two days than Britain will accept in five years. In
Beirut, Sidon and the Bekaa valley, I met people who were suffering neurological problems as a result of chemical weapons, disabled children who were unable to access any support and frail elderly people who had been deregistered by the United Nations because they had made the decision to travel back to Syria to seek medical help that they were unable to afford in Lebanon.
When the Home Secretary is looking at her resettlement programme, I ask her to consider people who have been deregistered as refugees by the United Nations, as well as those who are registered. An estimated 50,000 Syrian children who were born in Lebanon do not have birth certificates. Those stateless children are the most vulnerable of the refugee population. Great work is being done by charities such as Islamic Relief and by the United Nations, but the most vulnerable people are those who have been deregistered.
I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing some work to look at people in Jordan who do not have documentation. We recognise the effort that has been put in by the countries close to Syria—Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon—that have taken large numbers of refugees and that now see, particularly in the case of Lebanon, that the refugees who have come over from Syria make up a very significant portion of their population. That is precisely why the United Kingdom has been helping those countries by putting money into the camps to provide support for the refugees.
I applaud my right hon. Friend for what we are doing for refugees in the region. Can she assure the House that, in liaison with the Local Government Association, councils will get long-term funding for refugees, not just funding for one year? We have the brilliant introduction of a new Minister for Syrian refugees, but will that Minister also look after refugees who were previously in Syria, namely Palestinian refugees?
It is right that we cover the cost of refugees being received into the United Kingdom in the first year from available overseas development aid funding. That is open to us and that is the decision we have taken. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that he is considering the funding thereafter, but he must obviously do that in the context of the spending review that is taking place. Given the criteria for the people who are being selected to come to the United Kingdom as refugees, not all of this is relevant, but it is possible for refugees to claim benefits and to work from day one.
Why does the Home Secretary think that responding to this crisis in the region of origin and responding to its effects in Europe are mutually exclusive? Why can we do only one or the other, and not both? Until she answers that question, the Government’s response will not match the generosity of spirit that she has so rightly identified in the British people.
A number of people who have asked questions today, who contributed to last week’s debates and who questioned the Prime Minister on his statement made a point about the large number of people who have been travelling to the borders of the European Union and trying to get to EU member states. One decision that the UK Government have taken is that we do not want people to make that perilous journey because, as we have seen, some of them die in the back of a lorry in Austria or on a boat in the Mediterranean sea. That is why it is important to provide support in the region. Countries are responding to this crisis in a number of ways. We have responded generously with our support for refugees in the region, and we are now taking an increased number of refugees directly to the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend is correct to say that many of the people who have fled violence are traumatised and have been physically injured. The generosity of the British people in opening their homes to those people is remarkable, but will my right hon. Friend tell the House what process will be undertaken to vet those who are volunteering their homes, to ensure that they are suitable and that they understand the responsibilities they will be taking on?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why the work that the Minister for Syrian refugees will do in considering offers of support and ensuring that they are channelled in the best way possible is important, so that people are able to give that support. I have discussed this matter with the LGA, and local authorities will have some responsibility when considering people’s offers. However, the LGA has already sent a message to councils for them to give to others, because some people do not perhaps realise the nature of the commitment that would be required. We are talking about people coming to the United Kingdom with humanitarian protection for five years. These people are particularly vulnerable and, as I indicated earlier, some of them will have been traumatised, for example by the use of sexual violence against them. It is important that those people are placed in an environment where they get the necessary support, so that their experience of living in the United Kingdom is a good one.
Birmingham City Council held an open meeting yesterday and made it clear that the city will welcome Syrian refugees. As the Home Secretary has recognised, those refugees will require long-term support, and to tell local authorities that they will receive funding only for 12 months is simply not sufficient. May I press her to make more long-term commitments and to allow local authorities to plan properly?
I will give the right hon. Lady the same reply that I gave to my hon. Friend Dr Mathias: we are clear that ODA funding will be available for the first year as the ruling on such funding is that it is available for 12 months. Thereafter, discussions will take place with the LGA, those involved in this issue, and with the Treasury, and the Chancellor has made clear that he will consider this matter carefully as part of the spending review.
My right hon. Friend will have heard in this morning’s media that the Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr Viktor Orbán, has suggested that one reason to close the borders was to stop the dilution of Hungary’s Christian heritage. May I press her to say that when we help people from Syria and in the camps we will not discriminate against anyone as a result of their faith or otherwise?
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend has said. We look at the need of individual refugees. This is not about people of a particular faith; we do not discriminate against people because of their faith, and it is their need and vulnerability that will determine whether they come to the UK.
The hon. Lady has tried, neatly, to join together two issues that it is not possible to join together. Figures on migration numbers are produced by the Office for National Statistics on the same basis as they have been produced for many years. Earlier I indicated that it is not right for us to say that we are looking to bring in a certain number of refugees by a certain date, because that will be determined by need and vulnerability. We are working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at pace, to ensure that it can identify refugees whom it would be appropriate to bring to the United Kingdom, and at what support it might need in that work.
The UNHCR has called on the international community to provide places for 130,000 particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees by the end of 2016, and on
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Immigration Minister held that discussion with the UNHCR last week after the Prime Minister made the initial announcement about the expansion of the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. My hon. Friend is right: the UNHCR was clear that that announcement will enable it to meet its target.
We must address the push factors behind the refugee crisis, one of which is that individuals have been targeted, attacked and killed for their religion or beliefs, and their very identity is putting them at risk in their own country. To resolve the refugee crisis in the coming years, when will we start analysing and addressing the reasons behind that crisis, alongside providing practical humanitarian aid?
We are seeking to address the reasons behind the crisis. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Syrian conflict started with President Assad attacking his own people within Syria. People fled and there have been terrible scenes, including reports of a barrel bombing that has taken place more recently and the possible use of chemical weapons. These are matters of concern, and one can understand why people are fleeing. If we add to that the brutality of ISIL—or Daesh—in parts of Syria, we can see why around 11 million Syrian people have been displaced. About 4 million of those have left Syria to go to refugee camps, and a significant number are still in Syria but displaced from their original homes. Dealing with the origin of the conflict must be part of the work done by the international community.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in these challenging circumstances it is increasingly difficult for the Schengen arrangements and the protocols of the Dublin convention to work effectively together? Does she agree that it is important for Schengen members to work effectively to update its increasingly outdated framework?
The members of the Schengen zone are already considering how the Schengen arrangements and border code operate and whether any changes need to be made. Obviously, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends have hinted, some countries have been exercising the clause in the Schengen arrangements that enable them to take emergency border measures. It is right that the members work together on this issue to decide what is appropriate, and it is right that we have retained our border controls and are not part of Schengen.
A gold command team has been set up to look at how we offer people support when they are here. Can they also look at the welcome people get the minute they set foot on UK soil? As the Secretary of State has said, we are taking the most vulnerable people and they need to know they are welcome here. I was struck by what happened in Germany, where people seemed to come out spontaneously and welcome people to their country. It is important that we do the same—important that the people of these islands can express their support and important for the people arriving as well.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. It is important to ensure that when people arrive here they know they are welcome in the UK. That is part of the work that the Minister for Refugees will be doing. It is a way to harness the offers of support from individuals, charities and non-governmental organisations across the UK to make people welcome when they arrive.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for updating the House. It is no wonder she looks a little tired given the hard work she is doing on this difficult situation. When I was chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking, we warned of the problems of open borders in Europe. We will never tackle the problem of people coming across without getting rid of these gangs. If there are no gangs, they will not be able to come across. One problem with putting more money and resources into fighting these gangs through the Home Office was funding. We wanted to get the funding from the overseas aid budget, because that seemed a good way of spending it, but it would have impinged on the 0.7% and would not have counted. Can we look at that again?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not wish to become overly discursive. I regard him as an exemplar in this place.
It is important, as the hon. Gentleman rightly observes, and he has made his point with some eloquence.
I am always willing to consider suggestions about possible budgets to deal with these issues, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the gangs smuggling in refugees and illegal economic migrants. Of course, the business of some people smugglers is taking money from people and putting them on a boat that they know will probably sink in the Mediterranean, while others are human traffickers who want not just to put somebody on the journey but to ensure they are met when they arrive and are taken into some vile form of slavery. We constantly look at our effort on this, and I am pleased we have now confirmed in his place the independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, who has been working with countries—in Africa, for example—looking at this terrible trade of human trafficking.
The Government take the view that the Syrian assets are the assets of the people of Syria and that they should decide how they are used. I recognise that the hon. Lady is suggesting that we use them on behalf of the people of Syria, but it is not necessarily appropriate to take money from those assets, which will be needed in the future when Syria has to be rebuilt.
Order. Progress has been slow, and we are a bit short of time, but the last question was commendably pithy. If we can follow in that vein, it will help the House with later business.
Like others, I welcome today’s statement, but could the Home Secretary tell us a bit more about the criteria she will use to determine the proportions of settlers going to the various nations and regions of the UK?
There will be a balance between the offers of accommodation and the availability of the appropriate support for individuals. It is a careful process to ensure that individuals are placed where their needs can be best met. For example, it might be appropriate for somebody with a particular medical need to be in the vicinity of a hospital with such a specialty. It is not a question of allocating on a quota basis across the UK, even if others might suggest we do that within Europe. It is important to fit the offers of support to the needs of the individuals.
Have the Government received any specific request for financial help from the Welsh Government to enable them to respond to the refugee crisis?
If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I am not aware of any specific financial requests from the Welsh Government, but I know that discussions have taken place with them on their willingness to be part of this effort to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the course of the Parliament. I will write to him on that specific point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that by focusing our efforts on the region we will be in a better position to help the most vulnerable as well as the maximum number of people?
My hon. Friend has it in a nutshell. By giving £1 billion to refugees in the region, we can support more people in the region, from where, in due course, they will be able to return home, which is where many of them wish to be.
The Home Secretary will be aware more than anyone else in the House of the inefficiency inherent in our asylum determination system, which a report by the Public Accounts Committee last year said was being made worse by reducing the seniority of decision makers. Will she ensure that Syrian refugees have their status assessed by well-trained expert staff and have access to healthcare and the other provision that such vulnerable refugees will absolutely need?
I can guarantee to the right hon. Lady that people will be specifically set aside with the task of assessing these claims. Of course, there is an initial assessment with the UNHCR in the region, and we also work with the International Organisation for Migration, which assesses migrants’ health needs. On Monday, I spoke with Bill Swing, who runs the IOM, about the facilities it can make available in the region to carry out those assessments—for example, looking at important issues such as vaccination. The point of matching people with accommodation and support in the UK is to ensure that their needs, be they physical, medical needs or mental health needs, can be met.
Having just returned from the Calais camp, I would like strongly to endorse the Government’s compassionate position. Can we find some funding to send illegal migrants either back to their own countries or to a safe refugee camp nearby?
We are already working with the French Government on the issue of returning illegal economic migrants, and we are looking to boost our capability to do so to ensure that illegal immigrants with no right to claim asylum can be returned.
The voluntary sector plays a vital part in supporting both asylum seekers and refugees, yet organisations such as Asylum Link in Liverpool are suffering cuts in funding just when they are needed most. Will the Home Secretary or her very welcome newly appointed Minister for Refugees give specific attention to that issue, outside the support given to local government directly?
I can assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the Minister for Refugees will work with NGOs to assess their requirements, capabilities and capacities and to determine in what areas they can give support.
That will also link in with the work that the Government are doing, including with the Local Government Association. We all have one aim here: to ensure that those refugees whom the UNHCR identifies as particularly vulnerable and who come to the UK are given the support they need when they arrive.
The Prime Minister has just returned from Lebanon to see for himself the difference that our aid is making in Lebanon. I and other members of the all-party parliamentary group on Jordan are due to visit the region during the forthcoming recess. Will the Home Secretary give an update on the difference that our aid is making in Lebanon, Jordan and the region, and on how it will continue to do so?
I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to visit Jordan as well as Lebanon. He met people in refugee camps and saw for himself—and has reported it back—the very real difference that our aid is making. It is notable that we are providing water, food, shelter and medical support, and for those who are not in the camps, we are helping communities by providing education for children, for example. We are making a real difference.
I am pleased that the Home Secretary and her colleagues are working closely with the Local Government Association, but I want to press her again on local council funding. Surely this is such an urgent and unique problem that the Government, in advance of the spending review, can make a commitment to cover the full costs that local councils incur—and not just for the first year—in delivering a national policy. I ask the right hon. Lady to reflect on the potential damage done to community relations by saying to people who welcome refugees into their communities, “Welcome them now, but you will pay the full cost in the future in cuts in your services for funding the refugees coming to your community.” That is a damaging position for the Government to get into. Will she please reflect on that urgently?
From my experience of working in a previous refugee crisis, I know that the UNHCR is one of the most overstretched and underfunded of UN organisations. Now that the Government are relying so heavily on the UNHCR to help them with this crisis, can the Home Secretary assure us that it is adequately resourced and that British officials are working alongside in situ?
Yes. That is exactly one of the issues that I discussed with António Guterres when I saw him on Monday—we stand ready to provide support, probably in the form of personnel who can help to bolster the UNHCR effort to the extent that it requires. He already has plans for refocusing some of its effort to ensure that such support can be provided, but if further support is needed in the form of people in situ, we stand ready to provide it.
Would the Home Secretary’s message of welcome to refugees not be strengthened if she led by example? There are 459 asylum seekers in Newport; 900 in Cardiff; seven in the Home Secretary’s constituency; two in the Chancellor’s; and none in the Prime Minister’s. As there are great advantages to refugees and communities in spreading the refugees evenly throughout the country, will she tell us how many of the 20,000 she expects to welcome to her constituency?
The hon. Gentleman talks about how the dispersal of asylum seekers takes place across the country, but we are of course operating on the basis of the rules that were introduced by a previous Labour Government. We are looking at all the offers from local authorities and, indeed, from others. As I said earlier, we will ensure that need is met, so that when people come here, their need can be met through the accommodation and support they are able to receive.
Two weeks ago, the Home Office wrote to my constituent to apologise to her because the six-month period had not been honoured since her asylum claim. This is a woman who came from Syria, travelling across the continent to join her husband, who is my constituent. The Home Office has now said that it can give no fixed time during which her asylum claim will be decided. Will the Home Secretary please allocate additional resources to the case officers who are dealing with such refugee claims, because insecurity is what they fled from? To be told when they get here that there is no fixed time in which their case will be decided only adds to that insecurity.
UK Visas and Immigration has made a lot of effort to try to ensure that it operates within the six-month timescale for asylum-seeking claims. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gives the Immigration Minister the details of the particular case, so that we can look it at and find out why it has taken longer. As for those who we will bring in from Syria as refugees, we will set aside specific resources to be able to ensure that the claims are dealt with properly.
Does the Secretary of State agree that our refugee family reunion rules are too restrictive to be appropriate for use in the current crisis, and that the procedures for applying are too bureaucratic? Will she work with expert organisations to extend their scope and simplify the procedures so that those for whom the UK is clearly the appropriate place of refuge are able to get here safely?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me before. The criteria set for vulnerability by the UNHCR include refugees with family links in resettlement or the humanitarian assistance programme. We also have the Mandate Scheme—I think that is the right title—that is specifically for the resettlement of people in countries where they have family links.
The Secretary of State will know that the mayor of Liverpool has offered her Government the practical assistance of our great city. Given that Liverpool city council is one of the hardest hit, has she had the opportunity to speak to Liverpool city council officials about additional costs in regard to any particular number of refugees who might be settled?
I personally have not spoken to Liverpool city council officials. The offers of support from local authorities are being dealt with first by the Local Government Association, although discussions have been held with Home Office officials—the Gold Command and the team—about these matters. Given that we are looking at the needs and vulnerability of individuals and matching that to support here in the United Kingdom, requirements will vary. It is of course necessary to look at people on a case-by-case basis. There is an overall assumption of the cost of a refugee being brought into the UK, but matching the particular needs is important.
I think my hon. Friend Paul Flynn deserves a better answer than he received. Will the Home Secretary confirm whether
Syrian asylum seekers who arrived before the Government had reached their current position will have their applications for refuge processed swiftly—in weeks, not months? Will she also confirm that if they have had their fingerprints and photographs taken at other points within the European Union, they will not be returned there?
I undertake to consider the points that the hon. Lady makes. We will try to ensure that those who are claiming asylum here in the UK are dealt with properly and within a reasonable timescale. That is why I said to her hon. Friend Barry Gardiner that I would be interested in hearing the specifics of the case he raised, where somebody had not been dealt with within the timetable.
The Home Secretary is clearly right to say that we have to do everything possible to tackle smuggling by criminal gangs, and it was useful to get an update on the Government’s work in that area. She will also know that people turn to these gangs only out of utter desperation. Does she therefore accept the concern of the Refugee Council that if we simply stop illegal routes, we will leave vulnerable people stranded in potentially dangerous situations—in Libya, for example—unless we provide alternative safe and legal routes through which to make asylum claims? What is she doing to address that issue?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is one of the reasons why the European Union is looking at working with countries such as Niger to establish centres that will be safe for individuals, so that people do not have to make that journey and are not going through to a country where they might be at risk of exposure to people smugglers and human traffickers—or, potentially, face a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The establishment of safe zones in countries such as Niger is part of the work we are doing across the European Union.