[Relevant documents:2nd Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2015-16, HC 342-ii, Chapter 3; 3rd Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2015-16, HC 342-iii, Chapter 8; 5th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2015-16, HC 342-v, Chapters 1, 2, and 3; and 9th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2015-16, HC 342-ix, Chapter 3.]
I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of European Union Documents No. 9355/15 and Addendum and No. 11132/15, international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece, No. 11843/15 and Addendum, establishing a crisis relocation mechanism, and No. 11844/15 and Addendum, international protection for the benefit of Italy, Greece and Hungary;
and agrees with the Government’s decision not to opt in to proposals establishing provisional measures for the relocation of individuals in need of international protection or to the proposal establishing a crisis relocation mechanism.
The motion covers a series of EU proposals on the relocation of migrants within the EU. They formed a central part of the EU’s summer response to the ongoing migration crisis and have been the subject of long negotiations within the EU and of previous debates in the House.
The current migration crisis has been described as the worst refugee crisis since world war two. It has severely tested the ability and resolve of the EU and member states to provide a comprehensive and sustainable response that is able to support member states under the most pressure and ensure protection for those in real need of it. The situation has been and remains complex and fast moving. Proposals have been brought forward and adopted extremely quickly; at times, Interior Ministers have met almost weekly, and as soon as proposals were adopted, they were often superseded by others.
Since the crisis began, the Government have been clear about our views on relocation: it is the wrong response. It does absolutely nothing to address the underlying causes of the crisis and does nothing more than move the problem around Europe. Relocation also reduces incentives for member states to tackle abuse, process applications and strengthen their borders. It may also encourage more migrants to travel illegally to the EU. We must ensure that the permanent relocation proposal does not reduce the obligation on all member states to have fully functioning border and asylum systems.
The Government have consistently stated that the UK would not opt in to measures, whether temporary or permanent. I apologise to the House for the fact that we have had to override scrutiny on these relocation measures. The European Commission brought forward proposals on relocation as a response to an emergency situation. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary were required to make the Government’s views on such measures clear in hastily arranged EU Council meetings.
The debates on relocation continue within the EU. Only a tiny number of people have been relocated under the agreed temporary measures and many member states are now stepping back from their previous commitments. Concern is growing about the merits of the permanent mechanism.
Obviously, we are not party to the arrangements as we are using our opt-out. My hon. Friend highlights some of the issues that have arisen since the measures were put into place. I am aware that Slovakia and Hungary have recently filed legal challenges in the European Court of Justice against the relocation scheme. There are relevant concerns. In our view, the proposals are ill conceived and many more now question the viability of relocation as a tool to manage the migration crisis.
I strongly support the Government’s decision to opt out. Will the Minister explain something? Under the scheme that was agreed, if migrants were allocated a given country to settle in but then decided they would rather live in another EU country, what would stop them from moving?
My right hon. Friend has highlighted what might be described as secondary movement, and we remain conscious of that. Obviously, there is secondary movement within the Schengen area, but we maintain our own border controls and visa requirements. Practical issues with the scheme have been highlighted; to date, only about 160 people have been relocated under the measures thus far.
Rather than relocating those arriving in Europe, the Government have made clear that our policy is to focus our efforts on resettling vulnerable people in need of international protection. We continue to make the case that this is not just an EU problem but an international issue requiring concerted action from a whole range of international parties.
Is not the problem on secondary movement the fact that once migrants have become citizens of an EU member state, the free movement of people means that they are entitled to go anywhere? Even under our own laws, asylum seekers go to the head of the queue in getting nationality.
My hon. Friend makes an important point in respect of rights and entitlement to citizenship, but he will know that there are certain tests that we adopt—good character requirements, for example—and other steps that we take to assure ourselves in respect of those who may be granted citizenship, and that that process is conducted over a number of years before someone would be so entitled. Citizenship is certainly not automatic. I underline the point that I made—we maintain our own visa and border requirements in respect of those who come here, and adhere to them clearly for those who are not EU citizens.
There is another problem that arises before secondary movement. What if the refugees do not want to go to the countries to which they have been allocated? If they are put on trains and forcibly sent to countries that they do not want to go to, that has echoes of uncomfortable times in the past.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the operation of the scheme. That has been a practical issue for EU member states that are party to the scheme when migrants have displayed an unwillingness to participate in the relocation arrangements envisaged by the measures to be debated this evening. Such practical issues have to be confronted.
The migration crisis is constantly changing and requires a flexible but robust response. Our approach has been designed to protect the UK interest while making a contribution to helping those in need and addressing the unprecedented challenge faced by our partners. Relocation is not proving to be successful. In our view, time would be better spent on measures that would make a real difference. We must secure the external border, quickly provide protection to those who need it and return those who do not. That is where the focus of this Government will remain, and I trust that the House will be minded to support the motion.
I am glad we have the opportunity to debate this vitally important issue today. Political unrest and widespread violations of human rights have led to millions of people being displaced. The UNHCR says that there are 4.3 million Syrian refugees alone. This is, as the Minister said, the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the second world war, and it is clearly the most important issue now facing the EU.
Over the past nine months, the EU has seen unprecedented levels of migration, with more than 812,000 asylum seekers registered in the EU up till the end of September. The UNHCR says that more than 3,000 people are tragically dead or missing as a result of attempted crossings of the Mediterranean. The vast majority of the pressures of those incoming migrants has fallen on Italy and Greece, with 99.5% of migrants who cross the Mediterranean arriving in these two countries. That is the background to the EU-proposed programme of relocation in the UK. Britain rightly has an opt-out in relation to migration matters and has decided not to opt back into these measures.
Although we support that decision, it is disappointing that it has taken over six months and repeated prompting by the European Scrutiny Committee to secure this debate on the Floor of the House. We recognise, of course, that situations are often fast-moving and that the Government should not be constrained, but we think the Government should reflect on the approach they have taken so far in relation to the procedure.
On the substance of the matter, although we do not want to see Britain opt into mandatory quotas, we believe that we should take an active role in tackling the migration crisis across the EU, as well as on our doorstep. In this respect we take issue with the Government’s response. Just as we have joined military operations to play our part in tackling ISIS, so we have a moral responsibility to work with other EU states to help to deal with the large numbers of refugees who are fleeing the barbaric conditions in Syria and elsewhere.
The Government have pledged to accept 20,000 refugees over this Parliament—4,000 a year. After more than two years of Labour calling on the Government to take action, this is undoubtedly a welcome step and was welcomed by the House, but the Government still refuse to accept people in desperate need who need relocation from other EU states.
Four thousand refugees represents less than 0.5% of the refugees entering the EU this year. That is not good enough. The UK has a proud history of offering sanctuary to those in need of refuge and should not shrink from its responsibilities because it has the fortune not to be on the frontline of the crisis.
Our position is that mandatory quotas are not the way forward. Any numbers taken in this country should be only on a voluntary basis. In view of what we see as the current failure of relocation policy, the Government should rethink whether we should take some numbers from Europe on a voluntary basis. It would be for the Government to decide what number, on a voluntary basis, would be the right number. It has been suggested that if every city or county in Britain took just 10 refugee families, we would be able to help perhaps 10,000 individuals. As I say, in the first instance we call on the Government to reconsider their approach in the light of the prevailing situation.
It goes without saying that under any scheme, and under a voluntary scheme in particular, there should be robust and effective vetting and safeguarding procedures, wherever those procedures take place. We therefore call on the Government to reconsider the refusal to take people relocated from other member states on a voluntary basis, without opting into a mandatory system. Even if we are not part of the mandatory relocation scheme, we should do everything in our power to ensure that it works effectively. The EU relocation scheme has so far relocated just 130 individuals from Italy and 30 from Greece of its intended 160,000 people, which seems to indicate that it may be incapable of successfully dealing with the pressures being faced in Italy and Greece. In addition, only six of the 22 member states have notified the EU that they have the capacity to host relocated individuals.
What steps, if any, are the Government taking to support the relocation programme and to help to cope with this volume? On a point that has been raised on more than one occasion by the European Scrutiny Committee, in the absence of voluntary relocation how do the Government interpret the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility in the EU?
Let me turn to the questions that we have on the motion, which we support. Can the Minister update the House on the number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Britain since the Prime Minister announced that we would take 20,000 over the course of this Parliament? In addition, the Home Office has stated that 55 local authorities will welcome Syrian refugees into their communities before Christmas. How many of those authorities have so far welcomed refugees? The Government say they are reluctant to take migrants relocated from within the EU for fear of creating new pull factors, but they have consistently produced little evidence that this would be the result of allowing internal relocation. As the European Scrutiny Committee has observed, the Government have been thin on substance on this issue. Can the Minister now give some substance on the pull factor argument? Surely we must recognise the level of desperation that forces people to leave their homes and attempt the journey to the EU in the knowledge that they or their loved ones might not make it. That will be a significant factor whatever relocation programme is put in place.
The Government have rightly said that they will take refugees from outside Europe, and we support that, but what about those who have made it into Europe? Of course the Government do not want to get drawn into a mandatory relocation programme within Europe, but why cannot there be a voluntary arrangement that we could enter into in order to play our full part in solidarity and fair responsibility for refugees across Europe? Just as we have joined with our European and other international allies in trying to defeat ISIS and other causes of refugees and migration, so we should play our full part in dealing with the crisis here in Europe, with huge numbers already desperately needing relocation. On the basis of the figures, at least at first blush, it looks as though the relocation programme is not working as was anticipated. As I say, only 160 or so individuals have been relocated. In those circumstances, we ask whether the Government could and should do more.
I finish where I started and return to the way in which this matter now comes before the House. Recognising that the situation is moving fast, will the Minister give an assurance that the House will be properly updated and that time will be allowed for proper scrutiny and debate as the relocation policy rolls out over the coming weeks and months?
As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I have been invited to attend four meetings—two in Luxembourg, one in Brussels, and one in Italy this last weekend—bringing together most of the national parliamentary chairmen with responsibilities in the area we are discussing. I pay tribute to the chairman of the Schengen committee in the Italian Parliament, Laura Ravetto, for taking this extremely important initiative.
I would like first to refer to a meeting that took place under the auspices of COSAC—Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union. That body, which consists of the chairmen of the national parliamentary EU committees, is given a very wide remit in matters of the kind that we are discussing. Although its meetings are webcast and published, it does not get anything like the attention that it really deserves. Having served on the European Scrutiny Committee for 30 years, having been its Chairman for the past five years, and now having been re-elected as Chairman for this Parliament, it is important for me to say that I have never seen such an explosion of anger at a meeting of COSAC in all the time that I have been taking part in those meetings.
The reason for that is the lack of democracy that lies at the heart of this proposal. Kelvin Hopkins was with me in Luxembourg, and he will bear witness to the sheer anger about its imposition against the wishes of the individual countries concerned—about five in all, from central and eastern Europe. They were absolutely furious about having these mandatory controls imposed on them. This raises a fundamental question of intense sensitivity to the people who live in these countries. The way in which the issues are debated and discussed in the upper echelons—the rarefied atmosphere—of the European Union in its institutional framework bears almost no relationship to what is going on on the ground as regards the voters themselves. When the national chairmen came together at the meeting, they expressed themselves in very clear language indeed.
Apart from all the other things that are going on with the referendum and our complaints about the single currency—and the exchange rate mechanism before that—this raises the whole question of the straitjacket, ever further political integration, and the compression chamber, which I have been referring to since I led the rebellion on the Maastricht treaty back in 1990. I mentioned then, in black and white, in pamphlets and in debates, the compression chamber that was building up. This is an example of that compression chamber, which is now exploding, as was made clear in the COSAC meeting and replicated yet again in our discussions last weekend on the Schengen agreement. I know that we are not members of Schengen, and we will perhaps have an opportunity to discuss that in a moment.
I was with the hon. Gentleman at the meeting in Luxembourg, as he rightly said. Does he agree that there seemed to be some intimidation of smaller, less economically powerful nations by larger, more economically powerful nations?
There is the case of Germany, to come straight to the point.
At the meeting it was discussed whether the 28 member states represented there, excluding us and Ireland because we are not part of Schengen, would welcome the proposals that were set out in the motion. In a nutshell, the countries concerned—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania—were being told that they should go along with these mandatory arrangements irrespective of their resentment about that, their parliamentary votes against it, and their application to the European Court of Justice. As the Minister said, Hungary and Slovakia had brought proceedings in the Court of Justice to challenge the validity of this. These countries were, in effect, being told that they were wrong, and that in saying that the motion should merely “take note” of the relocation proposals, which was almost over-generous of them in the circumstances, they were refusing to accept the notion that they should welcome it. That is what led to the explosion. The debate went on for nearly four hours. This must not be underestimated. It is not just something to be floated over as, with respect, the Minister did; I understand why he probably did so. It is fissile material. It is a perfect example of the total want of democracy in the European Union in imposing, by mandatory arrangements, a settlement on countries that simply do not want it. It is a perfect example of what I have described as the compression chamber blowing up in such circumstances.
That is the background against which we should consider this. It is not just a question of whether we like it or not, but of how the European Union operates in practice. One need only look at how the Greeks were treated by the Germans with regard to the whole austerity programme or how the Portuguese president, a few weeks ago, disregarded, ignored and refused to accept the decision of the voters by not acknowledging the new party of government. The list is considerable, and, as far as I am concerned, that is the basis against which this issue ought to be judged.
I am, of course, delighted, but not surprised, that the Government have decided not to opt into the arrangements. I say with enthusiasm that our policy of trying to deal with the problem of refugees at source, which I have applauded from the very beginning, is the best way to go about it, not to allow these people in. At Friday’s meeting, the issue was raised of why Germany took the line it did. The answer, as I have said on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions over the past couple of months, is that it was very much to do with its desire to have more people working in the country, not just for altruistic reasons but for economic reasons. It wants to compensate for the fact that it will soon have a much lower working-age population. It made the decision because that is what Germany wants, irrespective of the impact it will have on the European Union. Angela Merkel’s popularity happens to have plummeted over the past few weeks because, in my opinion and that of many other commentators, she has misjudged the situation.
The real point is that, to bring in 1 million people to Germany—that is basically what is happening—is not the end but the beginning of the story. Those 1 million people will themselves have their own children and probably bring their families over as well, because the charter of fundamental rights will be made available to them. This is, in fact, an opening of what I described the other day as a tsunami.
On top of that—I have referred to this on a number of occasions on the Floor of the House—nobody can doubt for a moment that there are a number, albeit perhaps small, of jihadists among those people who have come over. The reality is that only a few are needed in order to wreak the kind of carnage and havoc that we witnessed in Paris. To those who would criticise people like me for mentioning that, I say that it is a fact that that is what is happening, and on a scale unprecedented since the second world war.
I am very concerned to hear what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Does he actually have hard evidence that jihadists are arriving in the United Kingdom under the disguise of migrants? Given that some people pose as police officers and social workers in order to commit heinous crimes, does he think we should abolish the police and social workers as well?
The reality is that there are declared jihadists who have been in Syria and other parts of the middle east. Jihadi John, as he was described, is a very good example of a declared jihadist who came from the United Kingdom, but I was not making a point about the United Kingdom, although I do perceive the danger. I was referring to the fact that there is no doubt that citizens—admittedly, they were French—who had been to Syria and come back via routes that enabled them to get to Paris contributed to the carnage. People can dispute that if they wish, but the facts are clear. The reality is that real problems have to be addressed, and that is an extremely important part of this debate. People can have differing views, but the reality is that there are real dangers.
I am also bound to say another thing with respect to the manner in which the Government have dealt with the issue. I want to make this point briefly, but it is important. The Minister passed very briefly over this and made a slight apology for what happened, but, with regard to override, I am going to put it in stronger terms. Scheduling a debate after the Government have reached an opt-in decision makes a mockery of their own commitment to enhanced scrutiny of their opt-in decisions and to provide full transparency and accountability to Parliament. The Government have provided no explanation, even this evening, for their failure to schedule an opt-in debate during a September sitting of Parliament, when the House could have expressed a view on the merits of opting into the first two relocation proposals, or an opt-in debate before the expiry of the opt-in deadline of
Would my hon. Friend be more sympathetic to Her Majesty’s Government, as I might be, if it were not true that it was nearly three years ago, in January 2013, that the European Scrutiny Committee requested a debate on the Floor of the House on the free movement of people? Their failure to schedule debates is long standing.
It is indeed. I always want to encourage the Government to do better, but on this occasion they have done a lot worse. The delay in scheduling opt-in debates is inconsistent with the letter and spirt of the commitments made to Parliament by the Minister for Europe. I would be grateful if the Minister for Immigration would deal with that, because he owes not only the European Scrutiny Committee, but, much more importantly, the House and this country’s voters an apology for the way in which it has been dealt with. I am sure he will give that apology; perhaps he would like to do so now. Is there a chance that he might? Is he listening to what I am saying?
I am grateful to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee for allowing me to intervene on him. As I said when I gave evidence to the Committee, the Government have had to deal with a fast-moving situation, and, as I have already indicated today, we are sorry that it has not been possible to have the debates in the way we would have chosen to have them, but that is a reflection of the exceptional circumstances with which we have been dealing. There have been opportunities for debates and to respond to questions by way of statements, but that is the situation to which we have been seeking to respond.
Is that an apology? I would like the Minister to reply. I want to know whether, in these circumstances, which are unusual and unprecedented—[Interruption.] The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Michael Ellis, should keep his calm. It is very important that he should understand that these matters relate to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, not to purely personal opinions. We are very concerned about that and I have made my point.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s comments on delayed debates on the Floor of the House and even in Committee. The Minister said that matters were fast moving, but I hardly think that having to wait two years for a debate is fast moving. The issue is fast moving when the Government want it to be, but when they do not want it to be fast moving, it moves very slowly indeed.
In the joint address to the European Parliament on
“Calling into question the free movement of people, by returning to internal borders, would be a tragic error”.
He went on to say:
“ But pretending that Schengen, with its current way of functioning, allows us to face border pressures would be another mistake.”
The question, therefore, is whether the Dublin system is at risk of breaking down and whether further fragmentation of the Schengen free movement area can be avoided. An extraordinary contradiction emerged from the meeting I attended over the weekend. The people there were very anxious to be sure that we had a proper border control system, but they also insisted on an external border system. I am sure the Minister is aware of that from his discussions in Brussels and elsewhere. The irony of the situation is that at the same time as they are insisting on greater border controls—as I have said on other occasions, there is almost more barbed wire in Europe today than there was during the cold war—they also want a complete external border system surrounding the whole of the European Union, presumably with the exception of the non-Schengen countries, namely ourselves and the Irish. I hope the Minister appreciates that, under the pressures exerted by the migrants crisis, there is a real desire to go further towards having a complete external border and to go deeper towards having political union. At the same time, they want effective border controls, but those two things are inconsistent.
I understand that the Government now propose to use taxpayers’ money to increase the effectiveness of Frontex, but when we consider the scale of the borders—a massive area of the European continent is supposed to be completely sealed off along the EU’s external borders—we can see that the costs will be absolutely monumental. Frontex has already proven to be ineffective.
It does not work and I doubt whether it is possible to make it work, but through an insistence on its external borders, more and more pressure is being exerted towards the deeper integration of the European Union.
I want the Minister to tell us how we can have an effective system of the kind now proposed, with a full external border for an enhanced Schengen system, and the United Kingdom staying in the European Union at the same time. I see this as a very important moment in terms of our having to leave the European Union. The Schengen arrangements, reinforced by Frontex, to which the British taxpayer is expected to contribute, and the increasing pressures towards political union seems to me to be a subject on which we should speak more and more clearly and loudly.
There are real dangers in all of this. I simply think that bringing the Turkish action plan into operation will make the situation even more intractable. More could be said about that. At this moment in time, with their internal border controls, Germany and several other countries are in breach of the Schengen free movement area. Border controls have been introduced by Austria and Germany, justified on the grounds of public and internal security, and imposed unilaterally without prior notice, whereas the Schengen border code specifies a maximum period of two months. Those countries are in breach of the code, and I understand—the Minister may confirm this—that Germany is facing infraction proceedings. Angela Merkel is facing very substantial pressures from within her own country as a result of the mistakes that have been made.
The reality is that the Commission opinion has shown the interdependence of member states participating in the Schengen free movement area and the risk of a domino effect whereby unilateral action by one member state has an immediate effect on the security of its neighbours. That is causing the most enormous pressure and enormous volcanic eruptions in the countries concerned. People simply will not wear it.
I welcome the chance to debate this vital humanitarian issue, but like Sir William Cash, I am deeply disappointed that it has taken so long to bring it to the Chamber. As was pointed out by the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, Keir Starmer, it is six months since the European Scrutiny Committee first asked for this debate. It may be longer since it first asked for another debate, but I was not in Parliament to know that.
The Chair of the Select Committee has gone in detail through the steps the Committee had to take to get this debate, so I will repeat them. On
I find it impossible not to contrast the Government’s willingness to cancel an entire day’s business in the Chamber to hold a debate that they wanted on bombing Syria with, frankly, their complete stonewalling of the due parliamentary process that allows us to debate how we can and should do more to help some of the millions of innocent victims of the bombs already falling on that country.
The hon. Gentleman is a fellow traveller on the European Scrutiny Committee, but will he be slightly more precise with his wording? We are not bombing Syria; we are bombing Daesh in Syria. It would be very helpful if all Members used those words so that there is no misunderstanding about what we voted on.
This is not the place to rehearse the weakness of the Government’s case for saying that the bombs will not injure or kill innocent people. If the hon. Lady had listened carefully, she would have heard me make the point that the people we are talking about are those who have already fled or are in the process of fleeing from the conflict. I suggest that, having taken the deliberate decision to become part of that armed conflict, the moral responsibility on the United Kingdom is even greater than it was before. We are now part of that war and we bear a moral responsibility to help to deal with some of the desperate human consequences of it and do what we can to help.
As things now stand, the Scottish National party cannot and will not give an entire endorsement to the Government’s decision not to opt in to the proposals. That is not because we believe the proposals are perfect—far from it; it is because they offer a real attempt by all the nations of Europe, or certainly all the nations of the European Union, to recognise that this crisis is far too big for any one, two or three countries to cope with on their own. It is far too important—it is literally a matter of life and death—for us to risk the chaos that will ensue if 27, 37 or any number of different countries all go their own way.
We have had a foretaste of what happens when countries unilaterally and at a moment’s notice close their borders, open their border, close them again and then open them to some people, but not to others. That is how we have ended up with tens of thousands of desperate, broken people behind barbed wire fences, which is when the tensions and violence are in danger of escalating beyond all control.
We cannot allow the Government to let their own party disagreements on Europe and immigration stand in the way of a moral and compassionate response to what has rightly been described as the worst humanitarian crisis that, please God, most of us will ever witness in our lifetimes. We must see this, first and foremost, as a crisis of protecting the victims of war, not as a crisis of immigration caused by the victims. Our highest priority at all times should be the welfare of millions of people—yes, millions of our brothers and sisters, and millions of citizens of this planet with whom we share a common humanity—because we owe them a moral and, I would argue, a legal duty to protect them as far as we possibly can.
As I have said, having taken a deliberate decision to play even a small part in the war, the United Kingdom has accepted a significant moral responsibility to help to secure the futures of the victims of that war. The numbers are truly breathtaking. We know that at least 4 million people have already fled Syria, and that over
7 million more have been displaced within their homeland, most of whom would leave today if they thought they had any chance of getting out. We could be talking about more than the entire population of London losing everything—their homes destroyed, and their families in many cases murdered, or at best torn apart, perhaps losing contact for the rest of their lives. Surely, these people deserve the best future and the best support that we, in our hearts, can possibly find the human decency and kindness to offer them.
Given that the Government’s own advice is that the United Kingdom’s military action in Syria is likely to last for three years, this is not a short-term problem that will be fixed with a short-term solution. It is not enough simply to throw money at emergency aid, important though that is. We have to consider massive infrastructure spending to provide 4 million people—and probably many more millions of people—with the housing, health services and education that they are legally and morally entitled to receive. It is not credible to expect three or four countries around the Mediterranean shoreline to provide all that by themselves, even if there is a significant influx of cash from the UK and elsewhere.
In a written answer that I received on
Expecting Greece to provide the infrastructure to support all the refugees who land on its shores for three years, five years or longer is simply unrealistic. Again, this is not about the money. It is not possible for Greece to produce the infrastructure to look after, house and educate the number of desperate refugees it is already trying to support.
The Government, for their own reasons, continually seek to blur the lines and to encourage us to think of these men, women and children as willing economic migrants. There is even the suggestion that some of them might be terrorists in disguise—a suggestion for which there is not a scrap of evidence. They are not willing voluntary migrants. They did not volunteer to have their homes blown to pieces. They did not volunteer to have their towns destroyed. They did not volunteer to have their families killed. They are refugees who are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children because, if they stayed at home, their children would die. They have a legal and moral right to receive whatever help we can give them.
The humanitarian crisis in and around the Mediterranean shows that the previous rules on who should look after refugees are not fit for purpose in a situation of this scale. They were not designed in the expectation that one country would have to cope with 50,000 or 60,000 migrants coming in at a time. They were not designed in the expectation that one of the poorest countries in Europe would look after the welfare of hundreds of thousands of refugees who arrive in the space of a few months.
It is reasonable to expect the initial process of confirming identities, performing security checks and registering and fingerprinting refugees to take place as close as possible to where people land in the European Union. Some people refer to that as the hotspot approach, but I find that phrase demeaning and dehumanising. It makes it sound like the hotspot of a problem, rather than a place of opportunity, where we can show the kindness that these people can expect. I prefer to refer to such places as first reception facilities.
That approach, whether it is called the hotspot approach or first reception facilities, is one that we can support, just as the Government support it, but if it is not done properly, it might as well not be done at all. For much of the past six months, the conditions in and around the official registration centre on Lesbos have been an affront to human decency. The fact that that is happening on this continent is something of which every last one of us should be utterly ashamed. It is happening not because the various agencies and volunteers do not care, but because they do not have the capacity or resources to cope with the task.
As soon as refugees have been through the necessary registration process, the aim should be to help them get to their end destination as quickly as possible by safe, legal and dignified means. We should remember that these are human beings we are talking about. That needs to be done with full co-operation between the countries of Europe, both in agreeing which countries the refugees will settle in and in helping them to get there. This is another area where we cannot support the Government’s refusal to be part of any of the options that have been put forward.
So anxious are the Government to persuade their wavering supporters that UK sovereignty over UK borders is sacrosanct that they will not even compromise on it if it prevents us from honouring our legal and moral obligations to some of the most vulnerable and desperate citizens on the planet. I find it astonishing that the same people who, less than two weeks ago, were condemning us for not showing solidarity with our allies when it came to committing acts of war in Syria should now be so resistant to showing solidarity in supporting and protecting the innocent victims of war.
The Government are asking us to agree with their decision not to take part in the EU scheme. We believe that it was a bad decision, taken for the wrong reasons. Tonight’s vote will not force the Government to change their mind, but we believe that the principle at stake is important enough that we should put on the record our belief that the UK Government are failing to live up to their moral obligations. For that reason, we will oppose the motion tonight.
I support the Government’s decision to exercise the opt-out. I am pleased that the Government and the official Opposition agree that the United Kingdom should not be part of the Schengen system and that they both wanted to exercise the opt-out.
As an island nation with a neighbour in the Republic of Ireland and with the three countries on our principal island entirely surrounded by water with no land frontier, it clearly makes sense for the United Kingdom to have her own border arrangements. Indeed, it is fundamental to a sovereign people and a sovereign Parliament that one of the decisions that we should be able to make for ourselves is who we invite in and on what terms we invite them in to become citizens of our country. It is a great privilege to be a citizen of our country. It brings all sorts of benefits, as well as responsibilities. Surely that is a decision that this Parliament should wish to make, with the Government offering guidance and leadership, to show that we are in control on this fundamental point.
As the Minister indicated in response to interventions, even though we have opted out of this proposal for allocating refugees and other recent arrivals in the European Union under a quota system, what the Schengen countries do at their common external frontier still matters to the United Kingdom. While we remain under the current European Union treaties, we have to accept the freedom of movement rules. That means that if any other country or part of the European Union accepts people in, they may well be eligible, in due course, to move to the United Kingdom. We are therefore interested directly in how those countries conduct themselves and what they wish to do by way of inviting people into the general European Union area.
We are also interested in the policy of the Schengen countries, which we have opted out of, because the British Government have none the less agreed to spend money and offer resource to police the common external frontier of the Schengen area. In particular, we have committed resources to tackling some part of the desperate problems that the EU migration policy has caused in the Mediterranean, where all too many people commit themselves to hazardous and expensive journeys and then need to be rescued by the Royal Navy and other naval contingents.
Does my right hon. Friend have any idea of the extent of our share of the costs to which he has just referred? Perhaps he might ask the Minister to consider that. As I understand it, it could be as much as £150 million, but, because the cost of providing for Schengen relocations will, by its nature, be ever-increasing, presumably that amount will go up.
That is an important issue and the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee is right to raise it.
I have some sympathy for what the SNP has said. It is a disgrace that our rich and relatively successful continent is facing this huge crisis, with many refugees and economic migrants arriving, and the system is unable to cope with them. We have to ask why that is. Given that we do not wish to see people undertaking such hazardous journeys and that we do not feel that the way in which European Union policy is impacting on those people is decent, we need to influence our partners in the European Union to do something better.
Again, I find myself in complete agreement with the Government. They are right that the correct thing to do for refugees is to work with the United Nations and our other partners to make sure that there is a safe place of refuge near to the place they fled from, and be there to talk to them and to consider who would like to come to countries in Europe and elsewhere and decide on what basis we will admit people from those camps. That is surely the humane way to approach the issue, and it obviates the need for people to undertake extremely hazardous, and often very expensive, journeys. Only the richest and fittest among those groups can undertake such journeys, only then to discover that the hazards are too great and that they may lose their lives or need rescuing from the Mediterranean. Surely the money that we are spending on picking people out of the Mediterranean could be better spent on an orderly system closer to the place from which people are fleeing, and on helping them to get legal transport to come to the country of their choice once they have been offered that facility.
Such a system would also mean that we could make clearer and better distinctions between economic migrants and genuine refugees. There are, of course, a lot of genuine refugees from a country such as Syria, but different considerations should apply in the way that we respond to a lot of economic migrants who come along at the same time from a range of countries in the middle east and Africa.
Does the right hon. Gentleman have anything further to add about the unaccompanied children who are arriving in Europe and who appear to be extremely vulnerable and in need of assistance?
Of course our hearts—mine as well as the hon. Lady’s—go out to those children, and such things should not be happening. It is only happening because adults have allowed it to, or made it happen, because children do not normally have their own money or wherewithal to do such things. Somewhere in the process adults have persuaded or set up those children to make those journeys, and placed them in the hands of people traffickers who may be very destructive towards their interests and their lives. The remit of the United Kingdom is quite large, but we cannot get into the homes and minds of all the parents, aunts and uncles who commit those children to such hazardous journeys, or into the minds of other adults who should be offering care if a child’s parents have been tragically taken from them by violence in the country in which they were living.
Surely the European Union, with all its powerful and rich countries, could do a better job in coming up with an orderly and sensible way of handing help and assistance to genuine refugees who are being forced out of war-torn areas or countries by civil wars and violence. We must also send a clear message to economic migrants that there is an orderly system, and that they are not welcome if they turn up as illegal migrants. People should go through a proper process in the country from which they are coming, or in a place adjacent to that country if they have already started their journey. That would be a better way of doing things.
When Angela Merkel—perhaps for the best of reasons, both because Germany would like a bigger workforce and because she felt very sorry for these people—suggested that many more migrants should turn up, I fear that that compounded the problem. Far from being a caring solution, it meant that many thousands more people committed themselves to hazardous journeys, only to find when they arrived that other countries in the European Union did not have the same view as Angela Merkel, that the policy was not clear, and that certain borders were shut in a rather unpleasant way with razor wire and high fences, because the numbers were simply too great and people could not be handled.
I support the motion and urge the Government to do far more to try to persuade our partners that EU policy is letting down refugees and economic migrants, as well as the member states and inhabitants of the European Union. This issue is of vital interest to us because we want the EU to have a more caring policy, and because decisions taken in any other EU country can have a direct impact on our own migration policy, owing to our current status as a member of that body and as part of the freedom of movement provisions. Many people watching these awful tragedies unfold on television, or when reading newspapers or even listening to some of our debates in this place, will conclude that as an island nation we can—and should—control our own borders. We could do a rather more humane job than the European Union is currently doing, and perhaps for Britain, that is the best answer.
I will not speak for long, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is important to say something in this debate. I support my hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer and his emphasis on behaving in a humane way towards migrants, as well as his point about the rather small numbers of people currently being allowed into our country. Like him, I believe that we should consider taking more of those desperate people into this country from areas where they risk death on a daily basis.
I support the Government’s position, and it is right that this country should have its own controls, but I think that that should go further and that other EU countries should also be able to control their own borders—that is what has caused the enormous row that Sir William Cash mentioned. I believe that a fundamental component of democracy is that a country should control its own borders and who comes in. That is sometimes difficult to do, but it is fundamental. Borders matter, and trying to eliminate them in pursuit of the creation of some kind of super-state—that is effectively what has been happening in the European Union—is a mistake and will eventually come to a sticky end. It is noticeable that tensions are rising strongly at the moment.
As I said in an earlier intervention, refugees may not want to go to the country to which they have been allocated. If they are allocated to countries that do not really want them, they may not be made welcome, cared for, or well treated when they get there, and that is another serious problem. A way of helping refugees to go to places to which they want to go, and where they will have some kind of welcome and be looked after, would be much more sensible than a forced allocation policy. The UK can do that and we should not opt in to the arrangement, but other countries in the European Union should be in the same position as us.
I do not accept free movement; I think it has been a mistake. If we want to recruit people from other countries who have the skills we need, that is fine. That could be done on a temporary or permanent basis, but it should be a choice and not that of some supranational body that says, “You must accept people because those are the rules of the club and you ought to accept those rules.” I do not accept those rules, and neither do many people in Britain.
There is a conflict here. We must ensure that we behave in a humane way to other people. We all admire and wish to adopt such humanitarian actions, but large, substantial and unregulated movements of people can militate against the humane feelings that we all have. There comes a point when people think, “We can’t cope”, and destabilising massive population movements are not conducive to humane behaviour.
In the 19th century there were vast open spaces in the United States, South America, Australasia and elsewhere, and countries recruited people because they needed them and it was not a problem. We recruited people from Ireland in particular, as well as from elsewhere. We have also been very humane with certain immigrations. When I was younger in the 1960s, the Ugandan Asians were being seriously threatened and we accepted them into our country. Indeed, one or two Members of the House are descended from that population, and those people have made a massive contribution to our society. We have behaved well in the past, but when movements of people become so large and seemingly unstoppable, our humanity starts to break down—not individually in the Chamber, but as a society—and people start saying, “We can’t cope. There is a desperate housing crisis and unemployment and so on”.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has a point, but would it destabilise the United Kingdom to take a share of the 4 million people who have fled Syria? How can it stabilise anyone for all 4 million to be left in two or three countries in the Mediterranean?
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I have said, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras on the Labour Front Bench has said, that we should accept more people from Syria. There is absolutely no question about that. We should play a bigger part in helping refugees to escape their terrible situation. The number the Government have decided to accept is far too low. That said, we are not going to have an open border policy in which very, very large numbers of people come here, because that would be politically destabilising. It would not be good.
Germany’s population was falling. It is a very successful industrial country with a low birth rate, which means it needs workers. Our population is increasing rapidly. We are going to overtake Germany and become the country with the largest population in the whole of the European Union. We are therefore in a very different situation from Germany. If we had a serous labour shortage, and lots of space and vacant housing, we would want to recruit more people.
Has the hon. Gentleman also heard that our own population is growing exponentially and that we will get up to about 70 million really quite soon? Such an increase is way beyond the space and capacity of the United Kingdom and its expenditure.
I do not want to get into specific numbers, but our population is increasing substantially. The German population was falling. The population of a number of other European countries is falling too, and they will no doubt want to recruit sufficient young and energetic people to make sure their economies carry on working well.
Médecins sans Frontières estimates that over 466,000 people have arrived on the beaches of Lesbos. The population of Lesbos is about 86,000. Do we not have a responsibility to help them, as they cannot possibly deal with that number of new people arriving in their area?
As I said, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras that we should take more. We should be doing more to help the refugees who need help, but I do not think that compulsory allocation to countries across the European Union or a free flow of migrants across the continent is sensible. In the end, I think it would militate against a humane and managed way of looking after people.
On this occasion, the Government are right. I understand that the Scottish nationalists do not agree and will vote against the measure, but the Labour Front Bench and the Government are together on this and I support them. In the longer term, we have to look to the restoration of sensible border controls within the European Union between member states, and not just the breaking down and the elimination of borders and having an indefensible common external border.
I am actually going to support the Government today, too. There seem to be amazing levels of support, which is always quite dangerous, but it is refreshing that the Scottish National party is here in force to ensure that these matters are properly debated and scrutiny is carried out effectively.
The reason I support the Government is partly because the European Union has made an absolute hash of it. I phrase myself slightly more bluntly than Keir Starmer who, in glorious understatement, said that the scheme of the European Union was not working as anticipated. Well, I thought that was on a par with the late Emperor of Japan, who at the end of the war said:
“The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
When we think that, according to the Daily Express, 184 people out of 160,000 have been relocated, it is a failure even by the terms of the European Union. It introduced a plan that was hotly opposed by elected Governments. It imposed it by qualified majority voting. We, fortunately, had an opt-out, which we used. But what underlies this policy is, to my mind, also so wrong.
Here I disagree with Peter Grant, who made a very powerful speech about the duty we have to mankind in general. I very much accept that. The duty to refugees is fundamental. It is tremendously important and is something the United Kingdom has done for centuries. The question then is how to do it well, how to do it effectively, and how to preserve life so that we actually save people. It seems to me that what the European Union has done has made the situation worse for the refugees themselves. Of over 900,000 who have come by boat to the shores of the European Union in 2015, 3,671 have either died or gone missing. The terrible events in the Mediterranean in 2014 led the Holy Father to say:
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard.”
The reason this happened is the pious but failed hopes of the European Union’s refugee policy: the idea that as soon as people get into the boundaries of the European Union they will get citizenship, but if they cannot get here there is nothing that will be done for them. That seems to me to encourage people to take these crazy risks that have led to the tragedies. The EU’s policy is itself creating dangers for refugees.
The refugees who come are not the halt and the lame, but the fittest and the most able to take the risks involved in trying to cross the sea to come to the European Union. We have seen that 70% of the refugees who have come to the European Union are in fact men, primarily young men. A system has been set up that creates incentives and leads people to take foolish risks to come here in the first place. The people who are most at risk—the children, the elderly and the frail—are left behind, because if they apply from their risky country, the forces of the EU will not let them in.
Her Majesty’s Government have got this right, but the numbers are hopeless. The 20,000 over five years is absolutely a step in the right direction, but of course we should do more. We should think of how many we take from the European Union under the free movement of people. In the year to March 2015, we took 183,000 economic migrants from the European Union; 183,000 people who were safe in their own country and not at risk of persecution. They were not in fear of their lives. They wanted to come here for the most noble and honourable reason—to improve the condition of themselves and their families. They moved halfway across a continent to do it and that is something I admire hugely. That is a very Conservative thing to do—to wish to better oneself and to take that risk. That is what entrepreneurs do. However, they are economic migrants, not refugees. And because we take so many people from the European Union under the guise of the free movement of people, when it comes to taking those who are genuinely at risk of their life we take 4,000 a year. We take 4,000 a year from the camps in Syria who may die if they do not escape, and we take 183,000 because we believe in the principle of European citizenship and that anyone who wants to come here from the EU should be free to waltz in, wherever they have waltzed from.
This is not only undesirable in domestic political terms: it is undesirable in moral terms. We are not helping those who are most in need; we are helping those who do not in fact need our help and support. We are helping those who are safe, rather than being generous to those who are at risk. This seems to me a fundamental failing of the European Union, because—instead of giving aid to refugees—it encourages people to take unwarranted risks, and gives benefits to those who are already safe.
Why do I stick to this number of 183,000 and what is the context? The context is that there is a limit to the numbers any country will take in any one year, not because free movement is a bad thing in itself but because the societies to which people move cannot cope with the influx above a certain level. There is not the infrastructure, there are not the schools or hospitals, and the society lacks the capacity to absorb large numbers at one point. Their arrival needs to be staggered over a much longer period. If we have so many coming from safe countries, inevitably we have to be mean with the numbers we can control because they do not benefit from the European treaties and free movement with the EU.
The EU’s whole approach is wrong, and we, in our renegotiation, are unutterably feeble; all we are doing is muddling about with a few benefits, which is not why people come anyway. As I said earlier, they come for that noble, inspirational reason: they want to improve their lives and those of their families. They do not come because they are benefits cheats, yet we grub around on that, rather than thinking about the real problem—the scale of immigration from the EU. As Kelvin Hopkins pointed out, free-for-all immigration does not work for our democracy. Our people—our voters, our electors—do not want it, they reject it, and yet the Government do not even ask to get this back under domestic control. Instead, they do not opt in to one part of things with many parts, but it will not have any great effect.
I will support the Government tonight, but what was the best reason we heard for why the 800,000 Mrs Merkel is welcoming in will not come here? Apparently, our ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Germany has reported to Ministers that we do not need to worry about them coming here because the Germans are slow at processing citizenship applications. Well, isn’t that lucky? They are slow. I always thought German bureaucracy was efficient, but clearly not; when it comes to processing citizenship applications, they might take 10 years. So we will not get 800,000 today or tomorrow. But we will get them the election after next. That, I am afraid, is where the Government are failing and letting down the British people. They have opted out of one thing, but they have left the big, the real, the major problem at the centre—
I am finding it difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Why, once these 800,000 people have been settled in Germany for 10 years, are they all suddenly going to come to the UK, with their new German citizenship papers?
The amount of immigration to this country from the EU shows that we are a great magnet. Everyone seems to want to come to the UK, including to the glories of Scotland. It is extraordinary the draw we are. In a way, I am proud of this. I love the fact that people all around the world think the best place to live is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It should give us a glow of pride about the success of our nation under this glorious Conservative Government, who are bringing us peace and prosperity.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that part of the benefit of being in the EU and having those open borders is that British citizens can go and live in Europe and that as many of them go and live there as come here?
No, I do not accept that. The reason the British go and live abroad and are welcomed abroad is that most of the British who go abroad are quite well off and mainly retired, and therefore they take a lot of income into poorer European countries that happen to have a little more sunshine. I quite understand. It is the Florida effect. People want to go to the southern European countries, but they take wealth with them, which would be welcomed even if we were not members of the EU, because poor countries always want to attract rich migrants. Rich countries cannot take an unlimited number of poor migrants, which is why we should focus on the most needy —the real refugees, the ones in Syria and the camps—and cut back on the 183,000 economic migrants coming from the EU. When the Government do that, they will deserve much more support than the support they will get today.
It is perhaps a consequence of the route by which this matter has come to the House today that much of the debate has focused on the constitutional and jurisprudence aspects of the EU, when it should have been about how we respond to what others have already described as one of the most remarkable and unprecedented humanitarian crises to hit Europe since the end of the second world war.
I have been struck by the number of hon. Members who have referred to the timing of this debate. I share the concern of those who have pointed out that the matter has been brought before the House when the decision has de facto already been made, but surely there is a more human aspect to the timing: winter is coming. Those who have made the journey to Europe—we heard about the remarkable numbers in Lesbos alone, let alone in Greece more widely—will now suffer real hardship as a consequence. It is also apparent that people will keep coming this winter. We will not see a diminution in the numbers making that journey. Surely, that is why there is so much to regret in the Government’s position. If SNP Members divide the House tonight, the Liberal Democrats will be with them. I suspect it will not take us long to get through the Lobby, but, like them, I think it is the right thing to do, notwithstanding my reservations about the arrangements being debated.
This year alone, 950,000 people have arrived in Europe, having risked their lives to get here. They do not come because they are the able ones; they come because they are desperate, and surely, as a consequence, we should have a humanitarian response. Mrs Merkel’s action in Germany was not the cause of their coming; it was a response to it. It is worth considering the consequences of the lack of concerted European action to the challenge. Ranked by asylum applications per head, Hungary has gone from ninth to second, behind Germany, while the UK has gone from seventh to 17th.
The Minister did not spend much time on the Government’s reasoning, but we know from comment elsewhere that they have spoken of the pull factor that would come from opting in. This has been considered by a Lords Select Committee that described itself as not convinced by the Government’s reasoning. It is worth considering the reasons the Committee came to that conclusion. It wrote:
“we heard arguments that the Government’s concern that the proposal could act as a ‘pull factor’, which would encourage further migration to the EU, was not supported by evidence.
The migrants affected by the present proposal are those belonging to nationalities for which international protection is on average granted in at least 75% of cases—at present, those from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq. The situation in each of these countries is dire: it is clear that the vast majority of those leaving these countries are fleeing civil war or the imminent threat of persecution. This is underlined, for instance, by the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The Government’s argument that the relocation of 40,000 migrants who have reached Greece or Italy will somehow encourage more to leave their countries of origin is therefore unconvincing.”
That is—to borrow the expression of Mr Rees-Mogg—a somewhat masterful understatement.
What are the elements that could produce safe routes and a humanitarian approach? We need to extend the family reunion rules. We need to allow more people who have family in the United Kingdom to come here safely. The current rules mean that a Syrian father granted asylum in the United Kingdom would be allowed to bring his wife and younger children, yet if he had a 19-year-old daughter, for example, she would not ordinarily be able to come here. Her parents would be forced to choose between leaving her behind and paying smugglers to bring her to the United Kingdom. In either scenario, she would be at grave risk.
The priority for my hon. Friends and me is to bring in 3,000 unaccompanied refugee minors who have reached Europe, and there has been an ongoing dialogue on that between my party and party leader, and the Prime Minister. If there is an opportunity at the end of this debate, we would like to hear from the Minister what progress has been made on that.
We must also extend the resettlement scheme as a matter of urgency. Twenty thousand refugees over five years is a drop in the ocean. We can and should do more to take those vulnerable Syrian refugees, who now face a bitterly cold winter in camps in Syria’s neighbouring countries and other parts of Europe. Come the Division, the Liberal Democrats will be with the Scottish nationalists this evening.
We have certainly heard a number of important points, which in some ways have strayed more widely than the measures in the motion before the House and which may also arise in the debate to follow.
We will continue to work with European partners to develop and implement a sustainable and comprehensive solution that allows people to live fulfilling lives in their home countries or in countries of first asylum. Intra-EU relocation should not, in our judgment, be the response. The Government have been clear that the UK will not take part in it and have urged the EU to concentrate on actions that address root causes, control illegal migration and tackle abuse, not just actions that respond to the consequences of large-scale spontaneous migration. We have also been clear that, despite weaknesses in the Dublin arrangements, which we agree need reform, their underlying principles remain sound, with member states taking full responsibility for the effective functioning of their own border and asylum systems.
In our discussions with the EU we have been measured and constructive, while promoting and defending UK interests. Our approach reflects the need for a concerted humanitarian response for those who need our protection. On the issue of solidarity, let me underline the front-line and other support that this country has given through the European Asylum Support Office, Europol, our search and rescue operations, our support for the common security and defence plan and our approach to resettlement, as well as the aid assistance that has been provided. Underpinning all that work is the idea that measures should not undermine the principle that asylum should be sought in the first possible safe country. Therefore, I urge the House to support the Government’s motion.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 9355/15 and Addendum and No. 11132/15, international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece, No. 11843/15 and Addendum, establishing a crisis relocation mechanism, and No. 11844/15 and Addendum, international protection for the benefit of Italy, Greece and Hungary; and agrees with the Government’s decision not to opt in to proposals establishing provisional measures for the relocation of individuals in need of international protection or to the proposal establishing a crisis relocation mechanism.