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

Part of European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 14th December 2015.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 7:34 pm, 14th December 2015

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.