My Lords, I pay tribute to the excellent introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I also congratulate him on his tireless and determined work supporting all those who seek justice, human rights and freedom. It has been my privilege to work with him on a number of challenging issues.
How can we live with the endless stories of the misery and suffering of people who feel that they have no choice but to risk life and limb in order to leave their countries? How can we urgently and effectively address the growing migration crises, when EU member states have absolutely no solution and have failed to agree on migrant resettlement? Every day we hear stories of so many people who risk everything, travelling huge distances in appalling conditions and taking mortal risks on land and, indeed, on sea. We are seeing terrible human suffering at Europe’s borders as thousands of people struggle to reach safety, with little or no assistance. I regret that the European Union, including the UK, continues to renege on its humanitarian duties to put in place adequate and humane policies and practices. Hundreds of thousands of people faced with seemingly hopeless situations, which they feel powerless to change, are now fleeing their countries and seeking refuge and, indeed, a better life.
Human Rights Watch has said,
“research shows that most of those making the crossing are taking terrible risks because they have to, not because they want to”.
For instance, the Syrians who are seeking to travel to Europe are not after UK welfare benefits, as some would suggest. They are seeking to leave a county experiencing a vicious civil war, in which their children’s schools are attacked by barrel bombs and they live every day in fear of chemical weapons. Does the Minister agree that it would be best if the Home Secretary stopped referring to the “pull factor”, which suggests that these people who head for Europe are taking unimaginable risks because they are making a lifestyle choice? Surely it is more accurate to refer to “push factors”—60% of the people seeking refuge originate from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan. They flee their homes because they have to and because they fear extreme violence, egregious human rights abuses, desperate humanitarian conditions and, of course, the absence of hope.
Our call today has to be for the UK to improve its active response to these tragedies. The Government have sadly already downgraded their contribution to the search-and-rescue mission and now seem to be focused on smuggling networks rather than saving lives. Does the Minister agree that the call for the creation of safe and legal routes should be at the forefront of the UK and EU response to the crises in the Mediterranean? Surely the people who in desperation make perilous journeys across land and sea deserve that. They are taking life-threatening risks because they have to, not because they want to.
Among those compelled to take such risks are the impoverished and persecuted Rohingya, in Rakhine State in Burma, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. They are oppressed by draconian travel restrictions and the denial of education, land rights and healthcare and are widely described as the most persecuted people on earth. More than 140,000 Rohingya have been confined to squalid camps. They are the world’s largest group of stateless people and are effectively banned from citizenship because the Burmese Government have scrapped the Rohingya white identity cards, and the voting rights that go with them, in Rakhine State, where they live in a state of virtual apartheid and dire poverty. Will the UK support the view that the UN Secretary-General should now take the lead in negotiating humanitarian access to Rakhine State?
There are also the gross violations of human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has mentioned, which are the background to the mass exodus of desperate Eritreans, who are fleeing a totalitarian state. Some 5,000 Eritreans embark each month on their journey to escape what the UN has described as “gross human rights violations”. The truth is that the cruelty and oppression of President Isaias Afewerki and his regime is such that all rights and freedoms are being denied to those people. What is the Minister’s assessment of the claims made that, in spite of the deteriorating situation described by the UN rapporteur, the EU is now minded to engage with Eritrea on the basis that, such has been progress, engagement is now appropriate?
Finally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said:
“European countries must shoulder their fair share in responding to the refugee crisis, at home and abroad”,
“To deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build”.