Middle East and North Africa — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:58 pm on 16th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Chair, EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee 8:58 pm, 16th September 2015

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and describing in some detail the Government’s response to developments in the Middle East and their impact. I was particularly pleased to hear the reference to the work on education for children, because given the scale, the nature and the extent of the problem it is important that there are long-term responses. Education is important in terms of economic and social prosperity for the future so that we do not have a lost generation. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could assure the House that these initiatives will not only continue but be enhanced and look at the quality of the education provided.

We have heard in this debate that the humanitarian impact of the developments in the Middle East and north Africa is unprecedented in scale, suffering and tragic deaths but the responses to this crisis have been slow and inadequate, both by the UK and by the European Union. Conflict in Syria is approaching its fifth year, and in other parts of north Africa and the Middle East the situation has been deteriorating for some time. It is only the recent tragedies that have stirred consciences and some limited action.

We heard earlier that this is a complex and challenging situation that requires, as the Prime Minister said in his Statement on 7 September,

“a comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 7/9/15; col. 23.]

However, we have to recognise that these responses to the long-term issues have to be multifaceted and we have to involve the United Nations, the USA and even Arab nations. Here, I very much associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan.

The dire humanitarian consequences that we witness daily require immediate action to avert all the suffering of refugees and the strain on some of the front-line states in the European Union and the neighbouring states. It is recognised that the UK is the first major economy to meet the United Nations target of spending 0.7% of GNI, and the UK is the second biggest bilateral aid donor for the Syrian crisis. Of course the Government’s contribution of £1 billion in aid in relation to the Syrian conflict and the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where Syrian refugees are, is commendable, as are the efforts in collaboration with others to rescue migrants and deal with smugglers. The Government’s practical assistance to EU partners, by providing assistance, expertise and support to Greece, Italy and Bulgaria through the European Asylum Support Office, is welcome.

However, the emphasis of the Government’s approach is predominantly on bilateral assistance. There is complete reluctance by them to be part of the European effort to respond to the humanitarian crisis within Europe. Greece and Italy in particular are confronted with exceptional migratory flows. The situation in Hungary, Austria and Germany is not good, either. There are humanitarian crises within Europe that are urgent and require exceptional action. Having said that, I have to say that Europe has not covered itself in glory in the way in which it has responded. Even on the question of resettlement, the Government’s policy began to change only in early 2014. Prior to that, their response was to commit large amounts of humanitarian aid to the relief effort but not offer resettlement to Syrian refugees, either as part of or in addition to their annual resettlement quota. Since early 2014, there have been incremental changes. It was only on 7 September that the Prime Minister announced an extension to the scheme, with a plan to resettle 20,000 Syrians over the next five years.

The Government have set their face against any involvement in the relocation scheme, voluntary or mandatory, proposed by the European Union. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, in response to a debate in this House on 22 July, said:

“The Government have no plans to opt into any relocation scheme, whether voluntary or mandatory”.—[Hansard, 22/7/15; col. 1202.]

The Government’s objection that a mandatory scheme will change the EU approach to asylum by reducing national control over immigration is understandable. Indeed, it is right that immigration control should be the responsibility of member states. However, it is regrettable that the Government’s approach to a voluntary scheme is negative. In the report produced in July by my committee—the EU sub-committee on home affairs, which I chair—we urged the Government to take part in the negotiation on the proposals on relocation, provided that it is voluntary and is part of developing a coherent and co-ordinated approach to current and future situations.

Collective actions are the only way in which to deal with the current humanitarian crisis facing the EU. The lack of co-operation will undermine the EU’s ability to develop a coherent and adequate response. I would therefore like to hear from the noble Baroness why the Government have set their face against participating in the EU relocation scheme.