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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 9th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 3:45 pm, 9th July 2015

My Lords, I want to add my own words to others who have expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing this important matter to our attention.

As usual when I intervene in debates in your Lordships’ House, it is from a rather more flesh-and-blood gritty level that I speak. I remember how many years I spent on the north coast of Haiti, for example, working with communities that I am afraid, unlike the view of the previous speaker, had no alternative resources with which to make another life. They had absolutely nothing, and the despair that I faced in hearing them argue their need to take a boat that would cross the sea to Florida was something that I shall never forget. How many families have I supported after the breadwinner has left? How many families have I seen emaciated by hunger when there was nothing they could turn to in order to alleviate that hunger?

I have come to understand economic migration in terms other than the denigratory way in which it is referred to as an alternative to the seeking of asylum and therefore a less important objective.

People who are hungry are hungry; people who are destitute are destitute; people who are forced to leave their families need all the attention they can get, and their cry should be heard. They should not be categorised, stereotyped, put in a neat box and written out of the equation. We have a world full of people who migrate for those reasons, and in the present emanation of this phenomenon, we have to add to that not just the breadwinner migrating but his wife and children too. This issue will not go away; we have to find a way to face it and deal with it. The dams will burst and the crowds will come, and when it happens, we who have watched it for so long must not cry wolf or say that we had not seen it or heard of it. It will come through the softer underbelly of the eastern sides of Europe as it did when the Goths, Ostrogoths, Huns and Vandals—we are all capable of looking back into history—crashed into the Roman Empire and overthrew mighty Rome itself.

A very interesting, constructive thing is being done by a community with which I have contact. I am a patron of the Waldensian community living in Britain. “Patron” is the kind interpretation of the Italian word—“godfather” would be another. They have had 500 years of persecution. Jean Valdès was in Lyon until he and his followers were forced into Switzerland, across the Alps and into the northern part of Italy, and were eventually allowed to live above a certain level above sea level—and there only—in the mountains. They were only given some kind of official status in 1848, in an Italy just about to be born.

These Waldensians have currently been offered money by the Italian Government to use for their own purposes—which comes from a church tax. The one body of people you could not imagine accepting a church tax would be the Waldensians, for it was the state that persecuted them over the centuries. However, they have decided to do something different with that church tax that will account for the whole of the money they get in that way. They call that project “Mediterranean Hope”; I wish I had time to spell out a few of its details. It has four different planks. The first is an observatory, as they call it, in Lampedusa, because they are very concerned that the narrative that comes out of Lampedusa is favoured by one bias or another, while a narrative that is people-centred, needs-centred and humanitarian needs to be posited as an alternative to the narratives that come via our news media. Therefore in the first instance they seek a good narrative.

Secondly, they have set up a cultural centre on the island of Sicily where they take the women and children from those who have arrived in the way they have—those are vulnerable people, who are identified by the authorities and sent to them. There, with fun, friendship, games and food they are given a chance to integrate in the new community to which they have come and to rediscover themselves on foreign soil. An office has been set up in Rome; incidentally, this has been done by the Waldensians and Methodists, all the Protestant churches in Italy, the Roman Catholics—especially the community of Sant’Egidio—and other bodies from across Europe. In Rome they seek to help people to relocate. Only 20% of those who arrive at Lampedusa want to come to Italy, so Rome is the best place to process the stories, needs and background information and to get access to Italian Government offices, and their office there is in close contact with Sicily. Therefore the relocation desk is there. They have established humanitarian corridors in Morocco, on the other side of the Mediterranean, trying to identify people who may have a legitimate reason for going and help them to come safely to the place where they seek asylum. As I say, there are many more details.

Mention has been made again and again of going back upstream, as a diplomat would put it. I remember going to Eritrea in 1993 as a representative of Christian Aid—I was on the board at the time. Christian Aid had helped the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front with material help—over the border from Sudan, as it happens, as well as from Kenya—during the time when the armed struggle against the Ethiopians was under way. I went to represent that fine body, which had done some rather shady things to get that food in. However, I found myself on the VIP invitation list. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Kinnock here; I was between him and President Gorbachev, because that was where my name fell alphabetically. I was therefore able to oversee the plebiscite that took place in April 1993, which happened in Keren, the second city of Eritrea. A new nation came to birth after all those years of struggle; it had been the football of the international community, kicked from one place to another, before this position had been found for it. Now that same Eritrea, which fought for freedom, decency and dignity for its people, is in gross violation of its responsibilities, and 25% of people who come to Lampedusa are from there. There must be something the international community, which has messed around with Eritrea for too long, can do with that self-contained country to produce better results. The international community could be doing better things; the problems could be alleviated; practical outcomes are possible.