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.