Refugees and Migrants from Asia and Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:18 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 2:18 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, I thank my noble friends on the Cross Benches for choosing this Motion for debate, along with all noble Lords who will speak today, and the staff of the House of Lords Library for their excellent briefing note.

In returning to a crisis which we briefly addressed in Grand Committee on 18 June, there are three things which I want to address: first, the scale of the challenge; secondly the circumstances which prevail in the countries from which migrants originate; and thirdly, our response.

In 1938, after Kristallnacht, and the attempts of many Jews to flee Nazism, the remarkable Independent Member of Parliament, Eleanor Rathbone, known as the refugees’ MP, and noted for her hostility to appeasement, established the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees. Two years later, on 10 July 1940, in a six-hour debate, she intervened no fewer than 20 times to insist that Britain had a duty of care for the refugees being hunted down by the Nazis. She said that a nation had an obligation to give succour to those fleeing persecution, and in her words,

“not only in the interests of humanity and of the refugees, but in the interests of security itself”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 10/7/40; col. 1212.]

We might bear in mind those words as we reflect on the debate that she initiated. She said that those debates,

“always begin with an acknowledgement of the terrible nature of the problem and expressions of sympathy with the victims. Then comes a tribute to the work of the voluntary organisations. Then some account of the small leisurely steps taken by the Government. Next, a recital of the obstacles—fear of anti-semitism, or the jealousy of the unemployed, or of encouraging other nations to offload their Jews on to us”.

We may no longer be dealing with Jewish refugees, but there are many parallels. Perhaps her hard-headed humanitarianism should form the backdrop to our debate, which is taking place in the context of the largest movement of peoples since World War II.

I turn to the scale of the challenge facing us. At the conclusion of 2014, the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, reported that, worldwide, 54.9 million people were refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons, with a further 59.5 million forcibly displaced. The UNHCR says that Africa has 4.6 million refugees and 10 million internally displaced people under its mandate. Darfur alone, where I visited refugee camps, has seen the loss of 300,000 lives, more than 2 million displaced, with 400,000 more IDPs added last year alone.

In Asia, there are 9 million refugees and 15 million internally displaced people. Afghanistan generates the second largest number of refugees worldwide, while Burma is awash with refugees, including thousands of Rohingyas, cast adrift in rickety boats in the Andaman Sea. These new boat people bring to mind the Vietnamese boat people, whose camps I visited as a young MP. I also served as president of Karenaid. Last week the noble Earl confirmed that there are 110,094 Karen refugees in camps, which I visited on the Burmese border. Some have been there for decades. Will the noble Earl say whether we are talking to ASEAN about developing a strategy for that region’s refugees and what practical help we are giving to search, rescue and resettlement?

Of course, much closer to home, destitution and desperation have arrived on our own European doorstep, with half a million more people reported to be in Libya waiting to join the exodus. Some 46% of those making these perilous crossings originate from Eritrea or Syria, where we continue to witness the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. Human beings are being turned into flotsam and jetsam, with some 3,500 people fished from the sea, dead, with 1,800 corpses reclaimed this year alone. And who can forget the harrowing images of the hundreds who died in April when their fishing boat capsized, or the rescue from “Ezadeen”, a livestock freighter, when 360 Syrian refugees—including 70 children—were seized from the clutches of racketeers?

This year 137,000 migrants, including 6,413 children, 4,063 of whom were unaccompanied, have so far reached southern Europe. Will the noble Earl say—when children, inevitably the most vulnerable, are involved—how we meet our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? Is he aware of the call made only yesterday by Save the Children that, as a matter of urgency, the United Kingdom should take 1,500 children immediately, a request that I certainly agree with? Some of those children have been brought to safety by the gallant crew of HMS “Bulwark”; we all pay tribute to their rescuing thousands of migrants. However, its replacement, HMS “Enterprise”, has a much smaller capacity. The Government need to tell us how they expect “Enterprise” to balance rescue operations and the apprehension of smugglers, and to clarify the legal status of those who are rescued by a Royal Navy ship, as asked for on 18 June by my noble friend Lord Kerr of Kinlochard.

Those fleeing have to raise staggering sums of money, often indebting themselves to the smugglers, leading to exploitation and slave labour. Italian sources say that smuggling is generating revenue for organised crime and terrorist organisations such as ISIS. Will the noble Earl tell us how many of these profiteers have been arrested or prosecuted? Italy has spent some €800 million on rescue operations and in camps such as Lampedusa. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister, rightly describes the EU’s collective response as “largely insufficient”. Italy and Greece are inundated with refugees, and now a land route has opened between Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia, with an estimated 60,000 people illegally entering Hungary in 2015. As recently as Tuesday, 19 died when a smuggler’s boat heading for Greece capsized.

Last week, Hungary indefinitely suspended EU asylum rules and is considering erecting high fences along its borders, in a Europe which once rejoiced in the smashing down of walls. But is that so very different from the high-security fences being erected in Calais, where, in the course of just four hours, 350 stowaways were evicted from British-bound lorries in scenes reminiscent of bedlam? Fifteen people living in makeshift camps in Calais have died in the last 12 months. This week, we heard of a further death of someone on a cross-channel freight train. FRONTEX, the European border agency, says that it is completely overwhelmed, and with Italy also threatening to disregard the Schengen rules it is clear that no one country can deal with this crisis and that it requires careful reflection about free movement. It is a global crisis in need of global solutions.

Those numbing statistics tell only a part of the story. What surely matters most is why people are risking their lives and what our response should be. It is abundantly clear that populations will continue to haemorrhage unless we tackle the reasons for these vast displacements at source. Four of the countries generating the most migrants and refugees are Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. I shall use them to illustrate my point as I argue that the House should carefully consider the connection between our foreign affairs, defence and development policies, and their interplay with mass migration, a crisis that is compounded by climate change. I know that that is something that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who is in his place, is particularly interested in, but if climate change is happening this situation is only going to get worse.

Despotic governments and terrorist organisations have been the major immediate catalysts for conflict and mass migration, but aerial bombardment without a presence on the ground, a post-conflict development strategy, or a new attempt at creating peace will simply generate more refugees. Last week I met a leading figure from a humanitarian group working in Syria and Lebanon. He described the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon as,

“a demographic bombshell, threatening the stability of that country”.

In the 1980s I visited Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps at Shatila and Sabra; leave people to fester in a refugee camp such as those and you create cannon fodder for terrorists and militias. I wonder whether the new refugees will suffer a similar fate of being in camps 30 years later. In the short term, what we are doing to ensure that bolder steps are taken under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2165 and 2191 to deliver aid securely to Syria for longer periods of time, reaching more civilians in need, might help to stem that flow of refugees. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us what we are doing about that. Ministers have rightly argued that those responsible for Syria’s atrocities should be tried in the International Criminal Court, but have we taken that proposal back to the Security Council, which initially rejected it because of the vetoes of China and Russia?

Today is the fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, but there is little to celebrate. At a briefing this morning that my noble friend Lord Sandwich and I attended we were told that conflict there has generated more than 2 million displaced people and half a million refugees, while in the north, 12 July marks five years since Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir had genocide added to the list of crimes he is accused of having committed—the 300,000 deaths in Darfur and 2 million refugees I referred to earlier. Yet, last month, al-Bashir travelled freely to an African Union summit in South Africa. Failure to arrest him was a blow to every refugee forced to flee their home, and to the rule of law. It undermines the authority of the United Nations. What does this culture of impunity say to other despots who we now want to bring before the ICC?

Even while al-Bashir was safely travelling home, the United Nations published the findings of its commission of inquiry into human rights in Eritrea—my third example of the need to tackle the sources of migration.

The United Nations found that,

“systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government”.

The report also says: that it is wrong to describe the drivers fuelling mass migration as purely economic, and:

“Eritreans are fleeing severe human rights violations in their country and are in need of international protection”.

Every month around 5,000 people leave Eritrea—more than 350,000 so far—around 10% of the entire population. The UN says that, during their journeys:

“Thousands of Eritreans are killed at sea while attempting to reach European shores. The practice of kidnapping migrating individuals, who are released on ransom after enduring horrible torture or killed, targets Eritreans in particular”.

Noble Lords will have seen reports that some Christian Eritreans who reached Libya have been beheaded by ISIS, which it then publicised, with all its barbarity, on YouTube.

Those Eritrean refugees who have been forced to return have then been arrested, detained and subjected to ill treatment and torture. So refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Syria, comprising more than half the Mediterranean migrants, represent what we need to do—tackle the problem at source. Then we would turn the tables on mass migration, ending the tsunami of people. However, not all people fleeing their countries are refugees; some are economic migrants. We will not properly address this crisis without some bigger-picture policies aimed at them, which must include the aim of helping Africa become peaceful and prosperous, and therefore more attractive as a permanent home. This is where our development policies interplay with mass migration.

The bigger picture includes a Europe, US and Japan which make it harder for Africa to prosper by propping up murderous, corrupt dictators with our misguided aid and arms sales; dumping our subsidised agricultural surplus on their markets; and laundering money stolen by their elites. We also need to balance the work we have done in using development programmes to train women, which were admirable, when boys and men also need economically useful skills and a sense of purpose, too. They make up the lion’s share of mass migration. In countries where economics drives migration, there should be public information campaigns, highlighting the fate of too many of those who have been lured into embarking on their perilous journeys.

That takes me to my final point: our response A thoughtful, generous, humane, international strategic response is the only way to address this phenomenal global challenge. The children’s parlour game of pass the parcel had its origins in 1888, when a lighted candle was passed along a row of people. The first recipient says, “Jack’s alive and likely to live. If he dies in your hand, you’ve a forfeit to give”. As nations now argue about who will have to pay the forfeit, and as we hold lives in our hands, we must combat xenophobia and assert humanity’s shared responsibility. Here we should be looking at ideas like that of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and one which I and colleagues flagged up in a letter to the DailyTelegraph on creating safe havens where people can be properly assessed. We must look at “taking our fair share”, as Sir Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative, put it. Sweden has taken 40,000 vulnerable people and Germany has taken 30,000. Although I am not arguing that this country can take everybody or solve all the problems of the world, we must certainly play our part.

As the son of an immigrant whose first language was Irish and who married a demobbed Desert Rat whose brother gave his life in a war against Nazism, I have always loathed racism and xenophobia. In cities like the one I represented in the House of Commons, Liverpool, which calls itself the whole world in one city, I am deeply aware of the extraordinary and rich contribution which many who have arrived here have made to British society. However, I am also clear that the scale of what we currently face has the capacity to undermine community cohesion and destroy good relationships between people of different racial and religious origins. This also means that there are significant security implications in failing to tackle this challenge effectively and humanely.

I began by quoting from Eleanor Rathbone’s speech made in 1940. She concluded that it was,

“not only in the interests of humanity and of the refugees, but in the interests of security itself”,

to tackle these problems head-on. I beg to move.