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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:24 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 8:24 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, following the noble Lords before me, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this extremely important debate. He has an excellent record of work in this area and we are all indebted to him for it.

Given the current state of the world, it is obvious that more and more people from the poorer and war-stricken parts of the world should be desperate to enter the affluent parts of the West. Some want to escape persecution; others want to escape acute poverty. As all research shows, really poor people generally do not migrate; they simply do not have the resources, or the resourcefulness, or the contacts. As for the skilled professional classes, they either do not need to migrate because their countries can look after them, or they are eagerly sought after by the affluent West.

The potential pool of migrants generally consists of young people with some skill—but not very high skills—and some resourcefulness who see no hope for themselves in their countries. Although their number is large, it is not too large and too unmanageable. Obviously we cannot take them all in and need to develop a sensible and humane policy. The Government are beginning to move in the right direction, but I think that they need to go a little further. I suggest that we need to develop a humane and just immigration and asylum policy based on the following four principles.

First, I greatly welcome the Government's programme for highly skilled migrants. We desperately need such people. I also welcome the working holidaymakers scheme and the plan to open it up to non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth countries. About 40,000 people are admitted under it, and they are allowed to work in Britain for up to two years. I also welcome the plans to expand the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and to extend it to other parts of agricultural industry and to other non-agricultural industries such as hospitality and construction. This should increase the current number of workers from about 20,000 to almost double that number. All this should open up more routes to those who want to come to work here.

Secondly, when determining the claims of asylum seekers, we need to take into account not only the likelihood of persecution but also desperate economic circumstances. People die when they are tortured as well as when they starve. There is nothing wrong in being an economic migrant. Many of us who are now happily settled here in Britain were once economic migrants. Thousands whom we have accepted in the past were economic migrants and the country has greatly benefited from them. I suggest therefore that we should operate with a wider set of criteria than we seem to do at present. Individuals may not be physically persecuted, but deliberately starved or denied jobs or denied means of survival. These are all forms of persecution, although they are indirect in nature, and their victims have a legitimate claim to our help.

Thirdly, when people come to our doorstep they deserve to be treated humanely and their basic human rights must be respected. That is the point that we have constantly made on the Select Committee on Human Rights, and our report on the government Bill points out where there is a danger of these human rights being violated. We are obligated to respect human rights because of our treaty obligations as well as because we are signatories to international human rights conventions.

If the claims of asylum seekers turn out to be untenable, they should certainly be sent back; on this there can be no compromise. Nor can we allow criminal gangs to traffic in human beings. They must be tracked and smashed. However, it is extremely important that when asylum seekers come to our doorstep their claims should be fairly assessed and they should have a proper right of appeal. They have basic human rights and these can never be forfeited even if their claims turn out to be untenable. If some of them have untenable claims, we should not treat them as a dangerous nuisance to be quickly jettisoned. If they cannot be returned to a safe country, we should take a humane view of them. If they have stayed here long enough or have friends and ethnic support, we should take this into account. We should not in any case put them up in places unfit for human beings or which are likely to be sources of violence and disorder.

Finally, just as we cannot deal with terrorism without tackling the deeper economic and political causes of terrorism, we cannot tackle unwanted migration without addressing its deeper and real causes. Those causes are undeveloped economies and political instability. We must therefore make sure that we do nothing, consciously or subconsciously, that destabilises poor societies or foments ethnic strife. I am afraid that in that respect our best record has not always been honourable.

Above all, we should increase aid to those countries, offer them better trade agreements than we have done so far, build up their economic infrastructures, and not use the IMF and World Bank to impose untenable and unworkable programmes of economic reforms, many of which are partly responsible for causing a flux of asylum seekers. My own limited research suggests that at least a quarter of asylum seekers come from countries for whose sorry plight we bear at least some responsibility.

In short, our immigration and asylum policies should be guided by three fundamental principles: first, national interest; secondly, moral obligations to those who have not done as well as we have; and, thirdly, the spirit of humanity and respect for human rights. In other words, we want a morally tempered but realistic immigration and asylum policy, administered in a spirit of charity.