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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 3:21 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, it is always a great tonic to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai.

Alongside conflict, climate change and terrorism, and because of all these things, international migration has become one of the most acute problems of our time. At times, even in this debate, it seems insoluble. First, I acknowledge the extraordinary courage of aid workers and UN staff who work against the odds to bring water, food and sanitation to registered refugees and—this is often forgotten—to many others who are unregistered or displaced around the world. The UNHCR has been given the massive task of receiving these refugees and internally displaced persons—IDPs.

I will provide just one example from Sudan, which was mentioned by my noble friend. As he said, he and I were briefed by Oxfam only this morning on the fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, for which we had such hopes. More than 4 million people there face severe food insecurity, largely as a result of the conflict that affects about 40% of this young country’s population. It has already made more than 1.5 million people homeless and caused another 500,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The UNHCR is frequently overwhelmed, as we saw many times in South Sudan last year—and in the north—not just by the numbers but by the UN itself becoming almost a party to the conflict, concealing victims from both sides of a racial and political divide.

Palestine is another country where the UN mandate has made it almost impossible for UNRWA workers to remain independent. It is a paradox that aid workers the world over are trained to be neutral while inevitably they take the side of the victims. In the same spirit, we can imagine the Greek islanders, in the midst of their own economic struggles, opening their doors to thousands of Syrians—sometimes as many as their own population—as well as Eritreans, Somalis and even Afghans alongside their regular tourists and visitors. Most of these people melt away into other EU countries, somehow avoiding all Greek, Italian and FRONTEX reception centres on the mainland, making their way northwards towards healthier economies and prospects of greater security.

It seems that up in the UK we have not yet grasped the urgency and scale of the problem. A large proportion of those crossing the Mediterranean, perhaps one-third, are escaping from conflict in Syria. It has lost 3.9 million people to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, leaving another 12.2 million in need of humanitarian assistance. We should make a particular effort to shelter more of these refugees in Europe—I know that we are doing a lot in Turkey and other countries—because this is a crisis of exceptional proportions.

To take one example of what we can do, what is happening to the UK’s share of the UNHCR’s resettlement scheme? The Government are already receiving up to 750 refugees from different countries under the Gateway programme. More recently, they committed to providing a safe route for some hundreds of vulnerable Syrian refugees, selected because they are elderly, disabled or in some way victimised, who are given five years’ humanitarian protection status. This seems to be an admirable scheme—yet, as was mentioned, up to March only 183 had been resettled through this route. Perhaps the Minister could give us an up-to-date number and say what will happen next.

The Government are often criticised for their poor response. They protest that more than 4,000 refugees have been granted asylum during the whole crisis and that large sums have been given to refugees in Turkey. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said, we do not match the generosity of other EU members such as, in this particular case, Germany and Sweden, and we hide behind the Dublin convention. This dictates that refugees belong in the countries of first asylum such as Spain, Italy and Greece. Is it time for this convention to be reviewed?

The Government have done well to help rescue thousands of migrants from the ocean. Of course, the MoD is playing its part, and at its own expense. However, the Government also need to come out with new policies on migration. The only concern expressed so far is that welfare benefits must not act as a pull factor. That may be understandable: in the first debate today, we heard that the NHS may be unsustainable. Yet, to the extent that we are a healthy economy and a wealthy country, we will always be a pull factor and we also know that our economy benefits from migration. Other EU countries, whether they are in Schengen or not, need to know that we are taking our responsibilities seriously and not dumping them behind barbed wire in Calais.

What about these safe havens? We have heard some Utopian suggestions. Does the Prime Minister still consider that we can receive refugees for processing somewhere offshore—or what exactly is he proposing? We are still very short of ideas, let alone solutions. I am glad that the EU home affairs sub-committee intends to look at migration this year. Perhaps the Government should do some more joined-up research into these problems.

The Minister may remember that the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, last week made a telling point about government. He said that we used to separate domestic affairs from foreign affairs but that,

“there are no longer any issues in Britain that are domestic and that do not have an international dimension”.—[ Official Report , 2/7/15; col. 2260.]

Of course, there was no answer to that in the debate, but this has serious repercussions for Ministers answering these debates, and it helps to explain why our national response to migration is quite blurred.

My noble friend mentioned dealing with the problem at source, but how can a Foreign Office Minister be expected to deal with issues of international development, defence and immigration that belong to other departments? Do civil servants now groan under the weight of more joined-up cross-departmental meetings? These are the added pressures of foreign policy and accountability, and to help meet them I hope that Ministers will support the proposal for an international affairs committee of this House, which is long overdue.