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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 8:08 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I am sure I speak for others in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on initiating this important debate and on the way in which he introduced it. It is characteristic of his contributions to the House.

The debate is timely because next week the Second Reading of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will take place. I am extremely frustrated because it clashes with a sitting of the Procedure Committee at which I shall have to be present. Ten days or two weeks later we shall then have the Committee stage, and again I shall be frustrated because my responsibilities in the Council of Europe mean that I shall probably be in Chechnya. There is a big problem in Chechnya with those who are, if not technically and legally refugees, displaced people, with which the Council of Europe is trying to grapple.

It is also timely because, as the noble Earl reminded us, this is refugee week. Today, the Refugee Council has brought out an extremely interesting publication, Credit to the Nation. We might well have taken as our text for the debate today a quotation contained in that publication from the Conservative MP, Lord Malmesbury, in 1852, who said:

"I can well conceive the pleasure and happiness of a refugee, hunted from his native land, on approaching the shores of England, the joy with which he first catches sight of them; but they are not greater than the pleasure and happiness every Englishman feels on knowing that his country affords the refugee a home and safety".

That is a telling text for our deliberations this evening.

In its publication the Refugee Council very effectively tells the story of the immense cultural and economic contribution that waves of refugees have made to this country. As regards numbers, the report contains some interesting statistics. It talks, for example, of the 150,000 Protestant refugees who came from the Spanish Netherlands and France between 1560 and 1700. It talks about the 200,000 Jewish refugees who came from Poland, Russia, Austria and Rumania between 1880 and 1914. It talks about the Belgians during the Second World War; the refugees in the run-up to the Second World War from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia; Basque refugee children; Polish refugees; the refugees fleeing Nazism; refugees from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Rumania during the Cold War, and so on. All this helps to put our present preoccupations very much in perspective.

The point that I want to make in the brief time available is that it is important to have a perspective and to see our present situation against the historical background. As I have said, this has resulted in very important contributions to the well-being of this country, and indeed has led to refugees and their offspring playing an important part in the other place and in this House.

I want to dwell for a moment on public attitudes. Notwithstanding the sensationalism of the press, there is a great deal of research to suggest that the general public in Britain are infinitely more enlightened about refugees and what causes people to become refugees than the popular press might suggest. They understand persecution, war, suffering and torture.

The one issue on which the general public is extraordinarily ill informed is the numbers. These have somehow been inflated in the public perception beyond all reality, sometimes by a factor of 10. It seems to me that this places a heavy responsibility on government information to ensure that the facts regarding the numbers are understood—just as it places a heavy responsibility on the media: how can a free society and democracy work if the media, which are the lifeblood of the democratic system in terms of the quality of information available, are deliberately and sensationally distorting the realities?

Whether we are talking about immigration in general—and one cannot disentangle the refugee situation from the general challenges of immigration—we must recognise that it is impossible for the United Kingdom to solve the problem on its own. There must be effective international agreements. But they must be global agreements. For example, there is much talk about the need for a European Union policy. But do we ask ourselves what a European Union policy will do for countries immediately outside the European Union which may find their challenges and their problems greatly accentuated by the "fortress European Union" approach? The responsibility must be global in the way we approach this matter.

Finally, as with immigration policy in general, I fear that in refugee policy we are too concerned about the dangers from the extreme Right. We are told that we have to listen to people; we must be seen firmly to be managing a situation because people are anxious. But I put it to the House that one of the reasons for the upsurge of the extreme Right has been a failure of leadership and a failure of determination to present the challenges. We cannot do it all ourselves. But there is world of difference between seeing refugees and the whole issue of human rights associated with refugees as an unfortunate inheritance from a post-Second World War era—an approach that we want to try to minimise in its implications for us practically—and seeing them as a challenge which we are determined to do our best to answer, together with other nations which share our philosophy.