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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:34 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 2:34 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, this debate is very much an extension of the excellent one which we had in the Moses Room on 18 June. I concluded my remarks on that occasion by saying that the matter is so important we must have an urgent debate,

“on the Floor of the House at a very early date”.—[ Official Report , 18/6/15; col. GC 48.]

I therefore wholeheartedly support the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and congratulate him on achieving this debate and on his excellent and very comprehensive speech.

This country has had a good record on refugees. I pointed out in the earlier debate that I am now the sole survivor of a Cabinet committee which recommended to the Heath Government back in the 1970s that we should admit the Kenyan Asians who were refugees from Mr Amin. However, the way in which we have reacted to refugee crises has not always been the same. As I also pointed out, we behaved very badly towards refugees when World War II broke out by confiscating all their assets.

Having said that, the issues we are discussing are set out very clearly in the article which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wrote in the Times of 13 May, in which she put forward a number of proposals which I think we all very much support. However, they all require action. What concerns me is that remarkably little seems to have been done either on our part or in Europe, which is distracted perhaps by the Greek affair, or in the United Nations. It is very important that we should do something positive rather than simply debate the issues. I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s reply on that point.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s main theme is that we must do nothing which would encourage more refugees to take the risk involved in crossing the Mediterranean, or which would make the task of the people traffickers easier. In that context, I am somewhat concerned. Of course, it is marvellous, and no one supports more strongly than me the idea that we should maintain the basic principles of rescue at sea. However, I am concerned that we probably need to divide the issue of rescue at sea from that of entry to the European Union.

I tabled a Written Question to the Government regarding the position of British naval vessels, and where they disembark the migrants who are taken on board. I think that the same would apply to the Belgian ship which I saw the other day with a huge number of refugees. I got the following reply:

“Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, the government responsible for the Search and Rescue Region in which assistance to those in distress at sea has occurred has the primary responsibility for ensuring that survivors are disembarked at the most convenient place of safety, with minimum deviation for the rescuing vessel.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) manages all rescues in the Central Mediterranean area of operations. At present, those rescued in the Central Mediterranean are brought to shore in Italy, in ports determined by the IMRCC”.

However, it is clear that that is not consistent with the position the Home Secretary takes, which is that we should do nothing to encourage people to take the risks or help the traffickers. Clearly, people are more likely to take the risks if they think that the ship is not likely to make it all the way to Italy and they will be rescued on the way. Of course, they have to be rescued, but the issue then is where they are disembarked. If it is known that they will then be disembarked at a convenient port in Italy, that achieves their objective and makes it easier for traffickers to sell the proposal to them that they will make it safely. So I think there is a problem here, but this also links up with the whole issue of return.

My noble friend the Home Secretary also made other proposals—for example, that the European Union should work to establish safe landing sites in Africa. I note an interesting speech by Mr Vaz in the other place recently, in which he suggested alternative sites for such a thing. But I ask my noble friend: is anything at all really being done to establish such a landing area? What is the policy on returning people who turn out not to be refugees but economic migrants? The Government’s policy seems clear but it is not clear that it is being implemented, and it is therefore very important that we establish exactly what the position is.

Similarly, as far as the United Nations is concerned, I am not at all clear. There was originally a proposal that action should be taken to confiscate or destroy the boats of people traffickers, but that would apparently require a UN resolution. Has anything at all been done as far as that matter is concerned? It is very important to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. The two are closely related, but the position of refugees is being jeopardised by all the problems created by economic migrants and their movement through Europe—without barriers between individual states—and the piling up of refugees at Calais. These are areas where we need to know what is being done by our own Government, the European Union and the UN. I hope my noble friend will give us a clear indication of that.