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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 3:33 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, the potential number of refugees and the practical challenges of dealing with this issue are so huge and daunting that it is all the more important to be clear about the fundamental principles at stake. The principles may be very difficult to implement, but let us at least be clear what they are and remain true to them.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, so eloquently argued, the only long-term solution to this problem is to tackle it at its roots. This means the creation of stable Governments and economic prosperity in the countries from which people are fleeing. It is easy to despair about achieving this, but we must continue to do what we can, in co-operation with other Governments, to resolve issues of civil strife, as in South Sudan; to bring about Governments who respect human rights, for example in Eritrea; and, of course, to end the killings in Iraq and Syria.

Secondly, there is a clear practical imperative to do all we can to hunt down the traffickers. We can do this only with the active co-operation of the Governments of the countries in which they are operating. In a country such as Libya, where government has virtually broken down, this is obviously very difficult. Huge sums of money are being made by traffickers. It is vital that we halt an operation that puts so many lives at risk. I am sure the whole House will be very anxious to learn from the Minister what success the Government are having in this regard and whether they are satisfied with the co-operation they are getting from the relevant Governments, including the split power structure in Libya.

Thirdly, there is a clear obligation to help rescue those whose lives are immediately at risk. The importance of the long-term goal—stability in the countries from which people flee—and the intermediate one of halting the traffickers, must not be allowed to obscure what has to be done now. Yesterday, the Minister stressed that we must tackle the root cause, not just the symptoms, but they are not mutually exclusive. If you are in pain you do indeed want to find the reason for it and address its cause, but meanwhile you take pain killers.

As we know, 3,500 people died crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, and the number this year could reach 2,000. When people’s lives are immediately at stake, as they are for those crammed into unseaworthy vessels, the moral imperative is to rescue them. We would ask this for ourselves if we were in that situation, and they are asking it of us. We now know that HMS “Bulwark”, which was capable of rescuing 1,000 people, has been replaced by HMS “Enterprise”, a survey ship only one-fifth the size. Furthermore, the task of HMS “Enterprise” will be to gather intelligence on migrant flows to prevent the smugglers’ vessels leaving North Africa in the first place. In addition, two Border Force cutters will continue to take part in EU search and rescue operations. Is the Minister satisfied that the search and rescue operation is large enough, given that HMS “Bulwark” alone saved some 4,000 lives? Of course, as the Government stress, we must break the link between getting a boat, and life in Europe, but this cannot be at the expense of letting people whom we could save drown.

Clearly linked with the imperative to save these people—a good number of them children—from drowning is the need to treat them, once rescued, with humanity. The burden of this irregular immigration is being borne by Italy and Greece. Italy is coping with 56,000 people and Greece with 48,000. The cost to Italy is £800 million a year, but the EU is supplying only £60 million. Sharing responsibilities and burdens is fundamental to not only the whole principle of membership of the European Union but a successful policy on this issue. Does the Minister not believe there is a case for more shared support for Italy and Greece from the European Union?

Fourthly, we have a clear obligation, which as a country we accept, to offer asylum to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution and whose lives are in danger in their country of origin. It is not always easy to distinguish such asylum seekers from economic migrants, who will often, in their desperation, tell whatever story they can in order to find something better than the endemic poverty and insecurity they may have known at home. Clearly, there is a difference of opinion between the Minister, given what he said yesterday, and the view of many others such as Amnesty International, who believe that the majority of those fleeing are not in fact just economic migrants but people fleeing from countries such as Syria and Eritrea where their lives are in danger. As the noble Baroness,

Lady Kinnock, put it, there is a push factor, not just a pull factor. Even given this disagreement, there is a clear imperative to have a fair legal process in place that is able to assess the claims of those who seek asylum. Is the Minister satisfied that that is the case, and what percentage of those rescued from the Mediterranean have in fact sought and been granted asylum? The Minister is reported as saying that Britain is making the biggest contribution to the joint European asylum processing effort in the front-line states, with more than 1,000 days being contributed by British staff. That is not in fact very much, in terms of people deployed.

Finally, we can do this only with others, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, stressed in relation to Europe and the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said in relation to regional and international arrangements. The European Commission communication of 13 May, A European Agenda on Migration, sets out what this means in practice. The Government are indeed working closely with EU partners on some aspects of this agenda, but are we bearing our fair share of the burden? We have so far refused to take our share of the 40,000 refugees who are being relocated across Europe. I believe we can and should take more.