Relocation of Migrants in need of International Protection (Opt-in Decision)

Part of European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:54 pm on 14th December 2015.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Scottish National Party, Glenrothes 6:54 pm, 14th December 2015

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 27 October, the Minister of State, Department for International Development was able to identify only three countries in the whole of the middle east and north Africa as being able to provide safety and access to essential services to refugees: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. He declined to say how many refugees the Government thought those countries could realistically be expected to support, despite my direct question to that effect. I suggest that the total will be nowhere near 4 million, never mind the potential 10 million or more.

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.