European Union: Refugees - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 1st March 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 7:47 pm, 1st March 2016

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for bringing forward this Question for Short Debate. He mentioned that he tabled it some months ago but it is, nevertheless, extremely timely. I agree with a lot of what he said, which might come as some surprise as we are from opposite sides of the Chamber. However, nobody could fail to be moved by the sight of refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Libya or the sight of people, including children, drowning in the Mediterranean; nor could anybody fail to be moved, at least intellectually, by the sheer numbers of people who are moving. According to the International Organization for Migration, since the start of the year—in two months—129,455 people have arrived in Europe by sea. Some 418 people have died in the sea in the last two months alone.

It is very easy, from this side of the channel, to realise that there is a problem and to talk about it in very much an intellectual way. These people are coming mostly to Greece and to Italy. If you look at a map you will realise that those who will come to the United Kingdom as their first port of call are very few in number. However, the sheer scale of the refugee flows that are affecting Greece is as nothing compared with what is going on in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Western Europe has been remarkably unaffected by refugee flows over recent decades. In many ways, the United Kingdom is one of the least-affected countries.

One of my concerns, already flagged up by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is that in many ways the United Kingdom has not demonstrated leadership here. We have not been affected by huge numbers of refugees coming to our borders. We have agreed to take 20,000 Syrians from the camps but we are not on a daily basis accepting coachloads or boatloads of would-be refugees. The lack of leadership and engagement from the United Kingdom is unfortunate.

Perhaps some of that is, as the noble Lord suggested, to do with the fact that the United Kingdom is going through a somewhat existential crisis in our relationship with the European Union. However, perhaps it is more than that. The fact that we are not part of the Schengen area means that in many ways we feel we are protecting our own borders and leave it to other member states to protect their own. However, those borders are porous and there are questions about documents—which comes into the formal Question—and how far those held by people seeking asylum are verifiable. Are they genuine documents? How far is it possible to scrutinise them? That is a hugely important area that affects British security as well as security in the rest of the European Union.

Last week, the Home Secretary talked about the importance of securing European borders but she also made very clear that the United Kingdom still did not see a need to be part of a European coastguard initiative, and that somehow the United Kingdom still feels that we are separate from that. Does the Minister not think that it would be beneficial for the United Kingdom to be more engaged, supporting countries such as Greece to man European borders? Those borders are not simply ones for other countries. They affect the security of the whole continent.

The nature of the Schengen area may be one that we have decided is not for the United Kingdom but there is always the danger that people who come through the European Union from porous borders are not properly documented. They will then be able to come through other channels to the United Kingdom. Are we sure that we are able to scrutinise and filter out everybody who should not be here because they are coming for illegal terrorist purposes? How are we also scrutinising to find out whether people are genuine asylum seekers whom we should welcome, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested? How far are we working with European partners to say, “Some of these people should not be coming”, even with the very generous opportunities offered by Angela Merkel in Germany who said, “Any Syrian refugees can come”? Many people arrived in Germany legally because they were invited—or at least they appeared to be legal. If they came from countries other than Syria and were not fleeing war they do not have a genuine right to be here. How is that verified?

Does the Minister not think it would be beneficial for the United Kingdom to be part of the European Union? Would it not be beneficial for us to work more closely with our European partners to ensure that we focus on working effectively to facilitate the reception of genuine asylum seekers and to keep out those who should not be here? Would it not be beneficial to the United Kingdom in our role in the European Union to demonstrate solidarity with those countries that suffer from huge migration flows, particularly Greece, by offering to take more people?