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Refugees and Human Rights

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 24th January 2018.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 1:39 pm, 24th January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
believes that conflict resolution, climate change and the protection of human rights should be at the heart of UK foreign policy and that effective action should be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis and calls on the Government to lead international efforts through the United Nations and other international organisations to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld around the world.

We always welcome the wisdom of the Minister of State, Department for International Development, Alistair Burt on these issues, but it is a great shame that although the Foreign Secretary has had time over the past week to act as Chancellor, as Health Secretary, and even as underwater construction engineer, he is not able to do his day job today. We hope that wherever he is heading on his travels, he is accorded rather more of a hearing than the Cabinet gave him yesterday.

The motion might be familiar to some, as it mirrors the words Labour used in our manifesto last June, in which we set out how we would tackle the causes of the refugee crisis—because some of us believe in our election promises. There is one more difference between our manifesto and the Government’s. No, it is not that ours was costed, nor that it was popular: it is that not a single one of the 25 countries that I will talk about in this speech was mentioned even once in the international section of the Tory manifesto last June—with, of course, one glaring exception: the United States.

We may differ in our attitudes towards the American leadership, but I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with me on some of the great figures of America’s past. It is fitting that this debate takes place 25 years to the day since we lost Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who, over six decades, helped to dismantle legal discrimination in America and to put human rights at the heart of its jurisprudence. It is worth remembering that his legendary legal career almost never began. As a young man, he only persuaded his grandmother to let him study law on the condition that he also learned to cook. She thought that that was a better guarantee of long-term employment. I wish someone had given me that advice—not that I would have changed my career, but I would at least be able to cook a proper roast dinner, like my nan could.

Among the many other great pieces of advice that Thurgood Marshall left the world are these words, which stand at the core of this debate:

“The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”

That measure is similar to the Leader of the Opposition’s when he said in Geneva last month that the refugee crisis is one of

“the biggest moral tests of our time”.

Let us be clear: as a country, our greatness is currently being tested, but not all will agree with Justice Marshall or the Leader of the Opposition about the right answer. There will be those who say that amid grave economic uncertainty and domestic pressures, we need to focus on our own finances and public services, not on showing compassion to those in need elsewhere; there will be those who say that if we need global alliances to help to preserve trade and investment, that must come ahead of other considerations, including human rights; and there will be those who say that we have enough on our plate trying to manage Brexit, and that the rest of the world’s problems can be left to the rest of the world. But they could not be more wrong.

Our global leadership is needed now more than ever, not least because the five challenges that currently leave 65 million people in our world internally displaced or as refugees are getting only worse. Those challenges are: first, the state-led violence faced by minority groups in places such as Myanmar; secondly, the seemingly intractable wars in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere; thirdly, the cycles of division and violence in which Israel, Palestine and others are trapped; fourthly, the political instability that faces post-conflict countries such as Lebanon; and fifthly, the ever more stark realities of climate change.

Those five challenges may vary, but they all lead to one crisis: millions of vulnerable civilians, many of them children, left in desperate humanitarian need, either trapped, praying that relief and protection will come to them, or fleeing in the hope that they will find it elsewhere. Make no mistake: in the coming years those challenges will test the limit of our resources, the depths of our compassion, the strength of our global leadership and, ultimately, the greatness of our country.