My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate and for reminding us that more people are displaced from their homes than at any time since the Second World War. As we have heard, today there are almost 60 million displaced people in the world. The war in Syria alone has produced 4 million refugees, making it one of the biggest refugee crises on record. Millions more are displaced inside the country.
It is right that we have a debate on immigration and the state of affairs within our own borders. But we also need to promote a broader discussion that examines the causes and the responses by the world community to mass migration. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, we must begin to establish the values that should guide our response to a refugee crisis fuelled by climate change, political unrest and conflict. We must also acknowledge that, in some situations, these two debates are linked and that previous interventions undertaken in our name have undeniably fed the current turmoil.
The world’s focus must be on finding political solutions to the cycles of violence that drive civilians from their homes, and on breaking the culture of impunity that has come to characterise brutal conflicts such as those in Syria and South Sudan. Each new tragic incident—the seizure of Yarmouk, the shipwreck off Lampedusa and the desperate plight of the Rohingya—is more horrific than the last, and must spur political action.
Strict quotas, such as those set out in the European Commission’s proposed agenda on migration will not work, but the lack of solidarity shown by this Government is immoral, in my opinion. In such situations, ours should be a generous response, not a constrained one. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, highlighted, 86% of refugees reside in developing countries. Conflicts and crises occur most frequently in poorer countries. They occur and people are compelled to cross the nearest border. Refugees often have social, economic and cultural bonds with neighbouring communities and they may prefer to remain close to home.
The UK, as we have heard, is one of the top donors to Syria and the region. It goes without saying that it is vital to support refugees where they are. Governments, donors and NGOs must take a long-term view, as many refugees will be resident for years and even decades. That also means making sure that support is given to host communities, which are often just as poor and under immense strain, as well as to the refugees. That was highlighted by my noble friend Lord Judd. By resettling more refugees, we not only offer a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people but it will give us a greater moral authority when we call on countries such as Lebanon and Jordan to keep their borders open and uphold the rights of refugees.
The Government’s decision to halt the paring back of search and rescue operations by the use of HMS “Bulwark” was welcome, but does its replacement by HMS “Enterprise” signal a reduced commitment by the UK in the Mediterranean? Can the Minister explain how the Government expect HMS “Enterprise” to undertake its dual operational functions of refugee rescue and the apprehension of smugglers? I fear that the response of Mr Brokenshire, the Minister, to your Lordships’ sub-committee, which was reported in the media yesterday, will only confirm to the rest of the world the UK’s continued reluctance to engage.
With regard to the Syrian conflict, the Prime Minister has announced a modest expansion of the UK’s resettlement programme, particularly for vulnerable Syrian refugees in the region. Can the Minister provide more detail on how many more places will be available? Of the numbers accepted from Syria, can the Minister also tell the House how many were already in the UK, including students?
My party’s view is that Britain should rejoin the United Nations official refugee programme for the most vulnerable refugees, understanding that many of these migrants will not even make it to a boat or get here on a plane; they will die in a camp without our help. There are close to 3 million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of violence and fighting in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and elsewhere. In the last few weeks, political tensions in Burundi have pushed tens of thousands into neighbouring countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which itself has close to 3 million internally displaced people. The conflict in Yemen has been so destructive that thousands of Somali refugees and other nationalities who had escaped there are now seeking safety in Somalia, even though that country continues to experience violence.
No country or region is immune, from Libya and the shores of the Mediterranean, through to the Gulf of Aden, and across the sea, where the Rohingya and Bengali families were stranded on boats for months with scarce food and water. The Prime Minister has emphasised that those people fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean were being driven—pushed—to attempt these journeys, highlighting failed states and people smugglers as the drivers. However, what he failed to mention, which we have heard in this debate, is the persistent and widespread human rights abuses directed at their people by brutal regimes such as Eritrea, and the unsustainable demands being made on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon in trying to accommodate refugee populations.
UK Ministers, as highlighted by James Brokenshire’s remarks, suggest that resolving the Mediterranean crisis is dependent on breaking a mythical link between boarding a boat and settling in Europe. However, as we have heard, the great majority of those attempting the Mediterranean crossing set off from Libya, a country experiencing a vicious internal conflict. Refugees and migrants have suffered appalling abuses. The contention that these immigrants are “economic migrants”, rather than desperate victims of human catastrophe, is inaccurate and alarming. If we are to have an honest debate, we need strongly to challenge this contention. António Guterres, the UN refugee chief, stressed that most of those attempting the journey are not economic migrants: a third came from Syria, while people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Eritrea’s repressive regime each made up 12%. Other countries of origin include Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan. The British people, who are understandably concerned about levels of migration, are more anxious about human decency when confronted with the facts.
My right honourable friend Yvette Cooper said that we should decouple asylum from migration targets. It skews the debate and frames an issue of decency in the context of political expediency. Refugees should be removed from the net migration target. Our aim should be an integrated development, defence, foreign and home policy that recognises that the global challenges we face are interconnected. It is therefore a matter of concern that the Department for International Development has been excluded from a number of cross-Whitehall committees, including the National Security Council and the immigration task force. That represents further isolation and fading influence.
We were once a nation that was proud to offer a place of sanctuary for people fleeing horrific rights abuses worldwide, but the Government’s deliberate retreat from the world stage has put our reputation at risk. The UK must stand up for the world’s least wanted people, but we must do so in a manner based on sound principles and which requires consensus. It is a debate whose urgency cannot be underestimated.