Refugees and Human Rights

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 24th January 2018.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 2:40 pm, 24th January 2018

I welcome the choice of debate and the motion, and I particularly welcome the call for effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis. With 23 million refugees worldwide and more than 40 million displaced internally, this is indeed, as has been said, one of the toughest global challenges of our time. There is no silver bullet to solve it, but Governments working together can achieve a great deal to alleviate the dreadful suffering and misery that it has brought—through efforts on conflict resolution, international aid and crucially, through the provision of safe legal routes for those fleeing persecution.

In my view, the report card on the Government’s response is mixed, with significant room for improvement. Let me start on a positive note with the role of the Department for International Development. As the Minister said, there is no doubt that UK aid in countries such as Lebanon has been hugely significant. In that respect the UK is playing its part, and long may that continue. However, it cannot and must not be the case that playing a part through international aid absolves any country of the responsibility of hosting a share of those who have fled persecution. In fairness, I do not think anyone is arguing with that, but on the question of whether the UK has played its part in sheltering its fair share of refugees in response to the crisis, I still believe that the Government have fallen short. Can we and should we be doing more? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.

From the outset, the Government’s approach to resettlement and relocation of refugees and asylum seekers went essentially from strong resistance to extreme reluctance, only then to find that once the programmes were up and running, they can be genuine successes and make a genuine contribution to the international crisis. A case in point is the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, which the Minister pointed to. It was introduced by the previous Prime Minister following what can only be described as a summer of resistance from the Home Office. Only after immense public and parliamentary pressure, magnified by the tragic pictures of little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach at Bodrum—who can ever forget them?—did we finally see a hugely welcome announcement that the UK would accept 20,000 vulnerable Syrians by 2020.

No scheme is perfect, but as I think everyone in this Chamber would agree, once up and running it has proved an extraordinary success. Across the UK, we have been very pleased to see more than 9,000 refugees arrive. As part of that, we were delighted to see the 2,000th arrival into Scotland just last month, and our thanks and congratulations go to all involved in making that happen.

Resettlement works and can make a crucial contribution to the task of the UNHCR. I hope that the Government’s initial reluctance towards resettlement schemes is now a thing of the past. As the Home Affairs Committee recently recommended, it is important that the Government establish a more general resettlement scheme for the future, echoing calls from the UNHCR, which estimated that 1.19 million people were in need of resettlement globally in 2017. It has asked the UK to aim for 10,000 places each year.

Whereas the Government’s report card on resettlement would say, “Solid start but could do better,” their record on solidarity with our European neighbours has fallen further short. It is worth remembering that at the outset, the Government even opposed the introduction of the Dubs scheme before being forced to accept a watered-down compromise. Despite that scheme having been significantly watered down, it is another example of one that can work and transform lives, as we saw when the Home Office was eventually pressed into urgent action by the impending demolition of the camps at Calais.

Although the recent change to the cut-off date applied to the Dubs scheme is a step in the right direction, this Parliament should insist on revisiting some other restrictions that the Government have placed on it, including, most obviously, the desperately inadequate “specified number.” We should insist on the necessary investment to make it work properly. We should find the children in Greece and Italy, and not make them resort to using people smugglers or travelling to Calais.

It is not only children who need protection, but men, women and children all require safety. Long before the Dubs amendment was tabled during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, my party argued for UK participation in EU proposals to relocate refugees and asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states. It is to our huge regret that efforts at establishing a relocation scheme have continued to flounder.

As we have heard, what does exist is Dublin III. It is far from perfect, but it is there and must be made to work much more quickly and effectively. The recent agreement that the Government reached with France seeks to significantly reduce the processing times for take-charge requests, and that is very welcome. However, huge problems still exist with accessing the asylum system altogether. We should not be waiting for children to come to us, but actively seeking out those who may have grounds for transfer to the UK. Otherwise, it is inevitable that there will be further deaths as young people and children undertake hazardous trips to join family here.

We need to work faster in other countries, too—notably in Greece and Italy, where it can take up to a year for the Dublin process to run its course. If we can do more to fix delays here and to find potential applicants in those countries, we will undoubtedly save men, women and children from hazardous onward journeys, people smugglers and exploitation.

Resettlement, relocation, and Dublin are three examples of safe legal routes that we support that can help to prevent dangerous journeys and alleviate suffering, but let me mention one more: family reunion. Scottish National party Members have repeatedly argued that rights to refugee family reunion in the UK are simply too restrictive. People with family in the UK are clearly the ones who are most likely to try to get here, but by making it virtually impossible for too many categories of family members to qualify for family reunion, including siblings who are over 18, too many are left with no choice but to make dangerous journeys.