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Refugees

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:58 pm on 18th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 8:58 pm, 18th June 2002

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for initiating this debate. It comes at a time when the Government are in the process of introducing another Bill dealing with national, immigration and asylum matters. Its Second Reading is to take place next Monday in your Lordships' House. That demonstrates that the previous three measures have not been effective and that we are still not at ease with some of these matters.

I recall discussing in the middle of the night some of the contentious issues of that time with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, whom I see in his place. We said that the voucher system would not work, and it did not. We said that fining lorry drivers and impounding the lorries would not work, and it did not. And we said that the unplanned dispersal of people would not work. Again, that was the case. I hope that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, will listen very carefully not only to the arguments that are put forward here but also to some of the suggestions made during the Second Reading of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. On that basis, I hope that some consensus will be reached in dealing with this issue.

There is a contradiction in the way that asylum matters are being handled. We pay lip service to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes a right to seek political asylum. However, many of the policies pursued by the Government are based on toughness rather than the principles of compassion and humanity on which the convention is based.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the UN convention. We have a proud history of offering shelter to those fleeing persecution. Yet the emphasis that we give to that obligation has changed out of all recognition. Much of the tabloid coverage is negative. The noble Earl is right that asylum seekers are often branded as cheats, scroungers and beggars. It is frightening and a shame that some politicians give credence to such generalisation.

There is a concern that the current system is failing many refugees. There is little acceptance that migration is now a world-wide phenomenon. It is not just western countries which are affected. Developing and third world countries probably cater for the largest number of displaced persons.

We need to address three issues: immigration in a global economy; economic migrants; and refugees and asylum seekers. A debate about what a modern and effective immigration policy should look like needs to be defined. It should not be a reaction to emotional outpourings of tabloid newspapers or a knee-jerk reaction to political pointscoring. We need to draw on many complex and inter-related issues.

I have a fundamental disagreement with the way in which the Government have set out their objectives on immigration policy. The government paper refers to,

"Regulation of entry to and settlement in the United Kingdom in the interest of stability and economic growth and facilitation of travel by UK citizens".

That is a simplistic statement on immigration and asylum matters. Immigration should be looked at on the basis of potentially huge economic benefits for Britain if it is able to adapt to the new environment of global economy. Its aim should not be restricted to protecting our society and economy from external pressures. We also need to manage the opportunities at a time when we have a skilled labour shortage, a declining population and an ageing population. The cost of mismanaging immigration could have dire economic consequences for generations to come. If we fail to produce wealth, then we cannot sustain health, education, pensions and service provisions for the future generation. That is the stark reality and countries like the US, Canada and Germany have realised that.

The process of asylum over the past 10 years is a relatively new phenomenon. The entry of over 70,000 people has skewed the debate on migration. There is a lack of clarity about the process of economic migration and primary migration to the United Kingdom has virtually come to a halt.

So what are the issues? They are the need to identify genuine refugees as quickly as possible, but speed should not sacrifice fairness. Migration is not simply about economics. We all benefit by the enrichment of our social and cultural lives. The whole area of immigration cries out for more research. What brings people here? What are their skills? How do they settle in their new environment? Does migration interact with social stability? How do we raise the level of political debate? How do we challenge many of the assumptions which are made? What are the factors which pull and push people to different parts of the world?

Immigration and asylum matters go beyond national boundaries. We now require international solutions. A Europe-wide policy must be a starting point. But, first, we need to look at conditions that bring despair and trigger the process of migration. Poverty, disease and safety are their main concerns. Not everyone travels across continents. Most find shelter on the other side of the national boundaries.

Secondly, the balance between money spent in assessing applications, estimated at about £10 billion, is out of all proportion to money spent in the protection of displaced persons. Thirdly, there is a clear need for the UNHCR to enlarge its resettlement programme. A logical solution must be a common EU asylum system: a UNHCR clearing house which will identify genuine asylum seekers in their own homelands and involve European countries in their resettlement. Why have we not progressed in assessing asylum claims overseas?

The rhetoric about the new asylum package sounds hollow and is designed to placate those with Little Englander attitudes. Using overseas aid as a lever to deport failed applicants, a rapid reaction multi-national border guard or the use of the RAF or Royal Navy to tackle seaborne illegal immigrants will simply not work. Asylum is now an international issue. We need leadership which acknowledges the vast contribution made by refugees all over the world. We wait for the Government to give a lead; so far they have failed.