I beg to move,
That this House
has considered UK Government policy on refugees.
It is a huge privilege to serve under your chairladyship, Mrs Main.
It is perhaps a little bit more politically correct.
Make no mistake—this country faces its biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. The civil war in Syria has cost the lives of almost a quarter of a million people since it began. The UN estimates that over half of Syria’s pre-wartime population of 23 million is now in need of emergency assistance. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt have so far received over 3 million people, with the figure set to increase by another 1 million this year. Some 1.2 million refugees have managed to navigate their way to Europe, with the estimate, again, of up to 1 million to come this year.
The total estimated figure for displaced persons as a result of the Syrian war now amounts to just under 4 million people. Syrians are now officially the most displaced population in the world, with the majority of those displaced being children. The war has not only sparked the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, but has exposed a region, already destabilised, to becoming one where chaos reigns freely on the ground. In my view, that is the core reason why so many have left their homes and their lives in search of a more secure immediate future. It is not just Syrians—Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans and others are all fleeing this destabilised region and we must recognise that the UK has played its fair share in the actions that have resulted in that destabilisation.
People’s lives and their human dignity are on the line. The perils of a journey across the Mediterranean pale into complete insignificance for them, compared with the terror that they leave behind. Only last week, more than 50 people drowned in the Aegean sea. The numbers continue to grow as the weeks and months go by and they will not slow down if we stay on our current course.
Such people are certainly not making an easy trip to claim benefits from our welfare system. Do we honestly believe that people fleeing for their lives have logged on to the Department for Work and Pensions website, analysed our benefits system and said to themselves, “Do you know what? The UK will do for me.”? To suggest so is to misunderstand completely the situation that these people find themselves in.
The benefit-chasing myth—so easy to peddle and excite UK Independence party voters with—should be dismantled here and now. These are human beings fleeing terror and likely death. They want to work in an environment where their families are safe and can be provided with a good life—that is it. These are values that we all share as human beings and I say that we should approach this problem, first and foremost, in our capacity as human beings.
I voted against UK airstrikes in Syria because I believed that the risk of exacerbating the problem was too great even to quantify, and a few months on there is little sign that our involvement has in any way stopped the war or the flow of refugees. However, because our pals were doing it, we thought that it was the right thing to jump in with them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The reason why airstrikes on Syria are required is to stop these murdering people from carrying out further murderous crimes and to keep them bottled up. That is why I support airstrikes and I hope that in the end, that is what will happen: they will stay there and be bottled up until we can find a political solution. That is why airstrikes are necessary.
Of course, I disagree with that assertion. There was a very prolonged debate on the Floor of the House when both sides had the opportunity to put their points of view across. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman’s assertion is proved correct—history will be our judge—but my view is firmly on the other side of that argument. I hope he can respect that difference of opinion.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Like him, I voted against the airstrikes for similar reasons. It is right for us to address the refugee crisis as human beings, and does he agree that a credible proposal to establish, through concerted international action, safe areas within Syria in which people could seek refuge would be worthy of international support?
Yes, of course; I agree completely with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although we must find a solution to the war, that focus should never alleviate our responsibility as human beings to do something more about the displacement and creation of refugees. I have started by summarising the current state of the problem facing us in the hope that Members present will take an open-minded approach, as human beings, to why the UK response to this crisis is inadequate and falls short of the moral and necessary minimum.
Let me be clear that nobody here doubts the efforts made by the UK in the large camps that litter the middle east. I welcome the UK’s leading role in that. I accept that the UK is a major donor to that effort, and I support those initiatives and commend the Government for their efforts in that regard. However, I make this plea to the Minister: when he sums up, will he please not waste time waxing lyrical about our efforts in the camps? We all accept that—the point of difference is what extra we can do, and I hope his comments will be restricted to that point.
I am proud to say that two local authorities in my constituency, Camden and Brent, have pledged to take in 50 families between them, despite staggering cuts in their local government budget and the fact that these families will cost between £29,000 and £40,000 per family per year. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should work with these local authorities to help them to fulfil their pledges and with other local authorities to see how many families they can take in? Collective effort will put pressure on the Government to do something about the refugees.
I agree completely with the hon. Lady. Later in my speech, I will touch on some of the alternatives that the Government could use to encourage other people do more. We have all but turned a blind eye to the crisis facing our European partners and the Government seems to have joined the race to become the least attractive place for someone to seek refuge in the hope that refugees will aim to settle elsewhere. If that is the foundation of this Government’s response, it is truly pathetic. The focus does not seem to be on how much we can help, but on how little we can get away with.
I am the first to say that we need to be doing more in Europe and many hon. Members will know that I was in Lesbos with colleagues the weekend before last. The hon. Gentleman’s statement is shameful and wrong.
Every Member is entitled to their opinion and I stand by my statement. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady and I disagree about it.
The Prime Minister and the Government have massively underestimated the scale of the problem. The UK’s response to the crisis has been a commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees in this five-year Parliament. It is a welcome contribution, but falls way short of what could be described objectively as a fair share. Oxfam tells us that a fair share would be 23,000 in 2016 alone and my simple calculation is that we seem to be taking in around 20% of what others are telling us our fair share is. Twenty thousand may sound a lot, but colleagues in the Chamber should recognise that it equates to six refugees per parliamentary constituency per year between now and 2020. If that is the extent of our humanity, I am deeply embarrassed.
The number could easily be larger, and the refugees could be accommodated through charitable initiatives and adequate partnerships between charities and local authorities. The Government could even ask people whether they can help. They may be surprised to learn that not everyone hovers between Tory and UKIP. Only this week, the Prime Minister used the incredible argument that if we left the European Union, we could end up with camps like that in Calais in the south of England. The implication was clear: it is fine if they are in France, but we do not want them here. I find that attitude inhumane.
The hon. Gentleman is making the important point that the numbers need not be large if they are spread out across the country. Will he make it clear whether his view is that it should be imposed on local authorities to take a certain number of refugees? I say that having spoken to local councils who have told me that it is important that they can choose how many to take.
The responsibility is with the Government and this place to decide what our moral contribution is. There should then be discussions with local authorities to see what capacity they have and to come to some sort of agreement. The responsibility rests with this place and its elected Members to decide what our moral obligation is.
Striking the right balance between helping people in the region and those who have fled is crucial and the Prime Minister should encourage further debate in Europe on how those currently displaced within the EU could be spread proportionately. Would it not be refreshing if the UK was the voice of humanity in the EU?
It is estimated that 26,000 unaccompanied children came to Europe in 2015. Last month, we were told by Europol that 10,000 of those little kids are missing. A third of the total number of refugees entering Europe are children. Article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights and the European convention on human rights remind us that we have a moral duty to ensure that these children receive an education. That is non-negotiable, yet the ever-likely scenario is that these unaccompanied minors are more likely to fall into the hands of trafficking rings than to attend a lesson that could inspire their future.
We fully back Save the Children’s call to the Government to give sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. If we do not do that, what will we say to them: “Oops, sorry, we are one of the richest countries in the world, but we can take only a few hundred of you”? Will that clear our conscience and alleviate our moral obligations as elected Members? I think not. The UK must act now to take more than a fair share of these kids. They are children, for goodness sake. I cannot imagine that this place will ignore that call. Surely it will not.
There are strong economic indicators and arguments for welcoming refugees into the UK, supported recently by 120 leading economists in a letter to the Prime Minister. Even the Home Office has admitted in its own reports that migrants have offered a net contribution, which runs into billions. Time and again, migrants prove that they put in more than they take out, which prompts the question: what are the UK Government afraid of? Call me a cynic, but I think it is UKIP.
I am looking at how many Back Benchers want to speak. I will call the Front Benchers at 5.23, so I hope hon. Members will do the maths and make way for their colleagues to speak. Otherwise, I will have to impose a limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate Richard Arkless on securing the debate. I did not agree with all of what he said, but he made some important points about our moral obligation and how we should raise our sights as high as we can when considering what we can do about the humanitarian crisis that is upon us. I had my airtime on this topic a couple of weeks ago, so I will be brief.
My perspective is that one cannot help but feel compassion when one sees the pictures of refugees, wherever they are in Europe, including Calais. That includes the pictures of Alan Kurdi on the beach last year and of the 70,000 or so refugees massed on the Turkish border right now. One feels that compassion, but we must approach the situation with our heads as well as our hearts and make sure we do the right thing as well as being humane. I visited a refugee camp in Turkey last year, having visited the camp in Calais, which was so much worse than what I saw in the camp in Turkey. I have spoken to several local councils to hear how they are getting on with the resettlement of refugees under the Government’s programme and how well the new arrivals who have already come to the UK are getting on.
My hon. Friend refers to “refugees”. My wife, who is a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, reminds me that refugees are people who are fleeing from a country in fear of their life, and that economic migrants are people who are trying to find a better life. Not all migrants are refugees, and the vast majority of those at Calais are probably economic migrants.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I completely agree. Some of the people I spoke to in Calais are refugees, some are economic migrants and sometimes it is difficult to determine.
Indeed. What they need to do is to apply for asylum and go through the process, when it will hopefully become clear what their right to remain is.
I want to share a few reflections this afternoon. First, although we want to bring refugees here and give them a chance of a new life—it can be life-changing—there is no point in doing so unless we genuinely give refugees a chance of a good life and a good experience here. It would be terrible to bring thousands of people here and for them to be put in an area that does not want them, in poor-quality housing, or for there to be resentment in the community surrounding them because it believes they are competing for housing and jobs, or just that there are too many people from another culture being imposed on the area.
It is critical that refugees who have come all the way across continents to come to the UK have a good experience, because if they do not, it may well be better for them to stay in the region, closer to extended family and closer to being able to get home afterwards. To ensure that refugees here have a good experience and are in good housing, that their children can go to school and that they can get jobs and are welcomed by communities, it is critical to continue the current scheme of local authorities stepping forward and saying that they believe that they can take two families, five families, 10 families or 50 families. They are the ones saying, “This is what we believe as a community we can do, and this is what our community will welcome.”
I agree with many of the hon. Lady’s points. My constituent, Alix Wilton Regan, has just come back from volunteering in Calais, and she said that the majority of people she met there were midwives, nurses, doctors and so on. Those are skills that we could use in our country; there is a shortage of such professionals in the UK at the moment. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be mutually beneficial if we could bring such people over? It would not just benefit them, it would benefit us as well.
I am surprised by that account, because of what I saw when I was there. I think that it is widely accepted that the vast majority of people in the Calais area are men rather than women. Of course, that is not to say that there will not be both men and women from those professions. It is tempting to have an asylum policy whereby we welcome people who have particular skills that we need as a country, but I do not think that would necessarily be right. I think it is better to prioritise people by their need, rather than our need. Also, I would be worried about taking people from Calais, because I think that that would create a pull factor for people to come across Europe to Calais. It is so much better to take people from the region, rather than tempting them to come here.
As I said, I have been to Turkey. The conditions in the refugee camp that I saw were pretty good. I know that many people are not choosing to be in the refugee camps, because they want to work, but for most people it is at least a safe environment. I know that it is not for all people, and particularly for some from minority religions, but for many people in the region it is safe.
By and large, I agree with my hon. Friend that this pull factor is a dreadful thing, but could there be an exception to the rule for children who genuinely have not a soul left in the world? There is no pull or push factor for them. They are abandoned. Surely we have a duty to take them.
I would defer to my right hon. Friend the Minister for a more detailed reply on that point. One’s compassion for children means that of course it feels awful to imagine children abandoned. I think that we have to be very careful, though, not to encourage a situation in which we might see families and even parents letting—no, encouraging their children to try to head into Europe, because of the chance that they might have a new life. That would be really dangerous, and I imagine that there is a risk that it could happen were we to take children. There is a risk of that pull factor, although we are absolutely right to be looking at what we can do for those children, particularly those who are in Europe in awful conditions. How can we help? I do not think that it is remotely an easy answer.
On the point about children, I want to give the Kent perspective, as I represent a Kent constituency. We have more than 1,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers in Kent at the moment. We have appealed to other areas of the country to help Kent look after those young people, as Kent foster homes and the Kent fostering system are kind of full. Only about 90 have been taken by other local authorities, so in welcoming other children and child refugees, we need first to ensure that we are doing a good job by those who are already in the UK. We need to ensure that we look after those we have, not just try to help others. Let us do a good job for those who are here now.
As I said, when I went to Turkey, the conditions in the camp were relatively good—not lovely, but pretty good. Often, the grass looks greener in Europe to refugees, and we think, “Wouldn’t it be better if we could have more refugees here and help them get here?” But the grass is not necessarily greener in the UK—it would not be if we were to take huge numbers—and we know that the British pound goes much further in the region than it does here. Therefore, we are right to press on with the strategy of taking a limited number of refugees—those we can particularly help because of their health needs and what they have been through. However, all of us as MPs can press the local authorities in our areas to work together and say, “Let’s see whether we can take more”. Maybe—let us hope—we can take more than 20,000 and do it faster, but we should do it from the bottom up, and we can all play a part in it.
Several hon. Members rose—
Diolch yn fawr, Mrs Main. I will do my best to keep to the time limit. I am grateful to Richard Arkless for securing the debate.
It is safe to say that the geopolitics of human suffering that is bringing tide upon tide of desperate refugees to Europe is the greatest ethical and moral challenge of our time. Plaid Cymru has constantly and consistently called on the UK Government to recognise the enormity of the crisis and to respond appropriately. We have also joined charities such as Oxfam and the Welsh Refugee Council in urging that the nations of the United Kingdom take our fair share of refugees. However, the number of people reaching Wales remains small. It is a distressing fact that more people lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year than found refuge in Wales.
Wales has a proud history of offering sanctuary to refugees, but we need to do more, and doing more means that there is a complex jigsaw of authorities, responsibilities and budgets to negotiate, against a background of austerity. The UK Government, the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and Welsh charities need to pull together to ensure that refugees are welcomed in Wales, that they have the means to settle and thrive and that their host communities are sufficiently resourced. There are concerns that the funding allocated to individuals for health services may not be sufficient in specific cases. I have spoken to my own local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, about that.
Both the Home Office and a given local authority might feel that individuals with certain health conditions—perhaps disabled people—should warrant humanitarian priority. I ask the Minister to consider special categories of health needs and to ensure that local authorities can afford to provide proper care. Councils and communities should not be placed in a situation of picking and choosing who to accept from the camps not on the grounds of need but on the grounds of affordability. It is to be feared that the result of that, as matters stand, will be leaving sick and disabled people in the camps, which must be the least suitable place imaginable.
With specific reference to Wales, I would also like to address concerns about asylum accommodation. The recent exposure of systematic failings by Clearsprings in Cardiff warrants an urgent inquiry. It is clear, following yesterday’s evidence session of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, that Clearpsrings was aware of the practice of using red wristbands and decided not to challenge that practice. I propose that that indicates an unjustifiable level of insensitivity to refugees’ experience that calls for an inquiry.
I would like to take this opportunity also to raise the plight of ethnic groups suffering at the hands of Daesh in countries beyond the boundaries of Syria. The media news cycle is fickle. What pulls at our heartstrings one week is next week’s recycling fodder. Two years ago, the fate of the Yazidi community was headline news when Daesh besieged thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq between August and December 2014. Daesh’s cynical demand of “Convert or die” amounted to nothing less than a veil to conceal genocide. Members of the Yazidi diaspora talk about 35 mass graves containing 6,000 dead. The Yazidis are a community of 500,000 people who have suffered extreme religious persecution. They have been displaced from their homelands in Sinjar, the Nineveh plain and Syria, where they have lived for 3,000 years. The Yazidis, as I am sure many people are aware, are not a Muslim people, and they have been treated with particular harshness because of that.
Yazidi women have been, and remain, the victims of systematic sexual violence at the hands of Daesh fighters. They are especially vulnerable to enslavement and forced sexual abuse because of their ethnicity and religion. This week, I had the honour of meeting a young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad, and learning something about her experiences. I was horrified to learn that some 3,400 Yazidi women and girls—children among them—are still held captive by Daesh.
My request is that the degree of our concern is not dictated by the latest media story, and that the quality of people’s suffering is not defined by the immediate horror of today’s news bulletin. Along with many hon. Members, I urge the Government to take our fair share of refugees from Syria and beyond, and to ensure that we provide proper care for them here in the UK. I beg the Government to remember the other ethnic groups caught up in the maelstrom, in the name of religion, in the middle east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Arkless on securing an important debate. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Lady—I am not going to insult her by trying to pronounce the name of her constituency in Welsh—who made a powerful speech about Yazidi women.
The refugee crisis facing Europe is one of the defining challenges of our time. Millions are fleeing the catastrophic conflict, and are asking and pleading for our help and humanity. So far, the UK’s response has been shamefully inadequate. While other nations in Europe have stepped up and offered refuge to tens or hundreds of thousands, the UK has committed to taking just 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. That pales in comparison with the numbers taken by other countries in Europe. Although I do not want to put an arbitrary number on how many refugees we should accept and by when, I would very much like to see the UK Government step up their efforts to support those affected by the Syrian conflict and others by providing shelter and refuge.
As an MP for Glasgow, I am proud and heartened that Scotland has led the way in welcoming refugees from Syria—a nation all but destroyed by civil war. A third of those who have come to the UK thus far have been settled in Scotland, which is down to the work of the Scottish Government, councils, housing associations and other organisations that have put a concerted effort into making that the case. These people are not simply coming to our shores in search of a better life. They are desperately seeking any kind of normal violence-free existence—the kind of life we all take for granted.
The plight of child refugees fleeing conflict zones is especially touching, and is an area in which the UK Government could and should make tangible progress. The Government have recently announced their intention to identify and help more vulnerable unaccompanied children who have already reached Europe from Syria and beyond, but that simply is not enough. Save the Children estimates that in Calais and Dunkirk alone, 2,000 unaccompanied children are living in refugee camps in horrific conditions that we would never wish our own children to be anywhere near. Many of those children already have families living in the UK, but the reunification process can take as long as 11 months to complete. Save the Children estimates that there are more than 20,000 unaccompanied children without shelter and stability across Europe, and they are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Any truly humanitarian response from this Government would treat helping those young people as an urgent priority and ensure safe refuge. Sadly, the Government’s record has been to put many refugee children back into harm’s way rather than to rescue them. This week the Home Office admitted that, over the past nine years, 2,748 young people who sought asylum in the UK as unaccompanied children were deported to conflict-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—the place we are taking refugees from. I hope the Minister can justify that situation.
It is deeply disappointing that, instead of stepping up and offering leadership in tackling this humanitarian crisis, the Prime Minister has chosen to denigrate refugees seeking asylum and to treat them as political pawns. In referring to vulnerable people desperately seeking our assistance as a “swarm” or a “bunch of migrants”, he betrays a callousness in his approach rivalled only by the UK Independence party.
Language matters. Sometimes in the debate about refugees, humanity is lost. Refugees are ordinary people like you, Mrs Main, and like me. They are people with lives, not merely pictures on a screen. They have lost their homes, their dignity and their way of life. They are scarred by conflict and are fleeing in very real danger of their lives. In October, I met people like us in Camp Newroz in Rojava in northern Syria. Many of them were Yazidis who have suffered the most catastrophic and horrendous circumstances and continue to do so. Their homes in Sinjar have been completely destroyed—their way of life obliterated. They cannot see a safe future in returning to Sinjar. It speaks of the scale of horror and destruction if it is safer in the sea than it is on land. Does our humanity allow us to turn our back on those people?
It is deeply concerning that, instead of leading efforts in Europe to find a humane and sustainable solution to the crisis, the Prime Minister has dragged refugees into an EU referendum campaign. A constructive vision of how co-operation across Europe can provide answers to major contemporary challenges such as the refugee crisis would be a far better argument for staying in the EU than his petty scaremongering that a vote to leave would see refugee camps at Dover.
The simple fact is that the refugee crisis is not going away, and the UK Government must step up their plans to support desperate people fleeing warfare and disaster. That means reviewing their refugee policy here in the UK and engaging far more actively at EU level to find a Europe-wide solution to this global humanitarian crisis. The Government still have an opportunity to act, expand their support and improve their international engagement, but they must first admit that they need to do more. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
I start on a positive note by paying tribute to the Minister for his work in resettling 1,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees. These things never operate completely perfectly but, on the whole, the resettlement scheme appears to have got off to a positive start and I thank him for his contribution to making that happen. More broadly, we should recognise that, compared with many countries, the position of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK is positive. However, the role of the Opposition is to point out what the Government could do better, and there is a lot that the Government could do better in their treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. I could probably speak all day on this subject so please do not treat this short shopping list as a comprehensive one. In the time I have, I will try to make three or four short points.
This morning we had an excellent debate on asylum accommodation and the COMPASS housing contracts. We heard about the red doors in Middlesbrough and the red wrist bands in Cardiff. More broadly, we heard of myriad complaints about poor accommodation standards and services in various parts of the UK. Many hon. Members argued that, before the Government consider renewing the contracts, there must be a thorough independent review of the operation.
This afternoon, we had a robust debate on migration into Europe and our approach to the refugee crisis. In my short speech I made the case for UK participation in the relocation of refugees around the EU. More than 1 million people fled to Europe by sea last year—about 800,000 to Greece and 150,000 to Italy. Some 84% of those people were from refugee-producing countries. Almost half were from Syria, 21% were from Afghanistan and 9% were from Iraq. On any view, hundreds of thousands of refugees are among those arrivals. Many more—probably a greater number—will be coming this year and the year after.
No two countries can possibly cope with the task of receiving, registering, checking, supporting and processing claims for the refugee status of thousands of people every day, and no two countries can reasonably be expected to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are among their number. Nor, indeed, can they take on the task of removing all those who require to be removed. Yet, in essence, the approach of this Government appears to be that Greece and Italy should have to serve as home for all several million refugees.
I agree that the failure has not only been of the UK’s participation in the relocation scheme. Even countries that, on paper, have agreed to take part in the relocation scheme are not doing so. Germany and Sweden have tried to take well more than their share and have run into difficulties. Ultimately, 1 million people among two, three or four countries is an almost impossible task; 1 million people shared around a union of 500 million is a tough challenge, but it is surmountable. I honestly think that when we look at the maths, the only reasonable approach is to share responsibility for those who have made that journey.
Two other causes for concern will suffice before I run out of time. I continue to object to the fact that destitution appears once more to be becoming a tool of choice for immigration control. My party shares the concern of the British Red Cross that certain provisions in the Immigration Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords, and particularly the end to section 95 support for families with children who have exhausted their appeal rights, will force those families into destitution and put them at significant risk of harm. It will also increase the risk that such families abscond, and it will pass significant costs on to local authorities. We also recall that a similar project by the Labour Government had precisely those results and made immigration control harder, not easier. Again, when the Government look at the evidence, I ask even at this late stage for them to reconsider their approach.
My final key point is on immigration detention. The current system is in need of urgent reform because it detains too many people, because it detains people who should never be detained, because it detains people for far too long, and because it is costly and inefficient. Our estate is one of the largest in Europe, with places for almost 3,400 people. This country detained more than 30,000 different people in 2013, which is significantly more than any of our European colleagues. Some 4,300 people were detained in Germany, which, incidentally, received more than four times as many asylum applications. We are locking up vulnerable people, including victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence, with absolutely no need.
We welcome Stephen Shaw’s very thorough report and the Government’s fairly positive response, and we will be pushing for the report’s implementation as soon as possible. On another day we could discuss the use of fast-track detention, the right to work, the problems with decision making, the policies on unaccompanied children, the inclusion of refugees in the net migration target and the Secretary of State’s rather alarming speech on redefining the concept of what it means to be a refugee, but I finish by paying tribute to the Minister’s work and ask him to persuade some of his colleagues to up their game, too.
Order. Before I call the Front Benchers, I remind Members that this debate will finish at 5.43 pm. It is customary to allow a minute or two for the proposer of the debate to sum up at the end. I will be calling Anne McLaughlin as the Scottish National party spokesperson, although she is sitting on the Back Bench—I am just explaining for other Members who are watching.
I did not realise that I was supposed to sit on the Front Bench. I will do so next time.
I am delighted to sum up for the SNP in this debate. There have been a number of interesting contributions, and it is important that those of us who are fighting for better and more support for refugees continue to say so. I said that in the debate this morning, and I am sure the Government are getting sick of the sight of us, but many refugees listen to or read these debates. Opposition Members cannot change much of the Government’s policies at the moment, and although we find that incredibly frustrating, we should not underestimate how much of a difference it makes to people seeking asylum to hear words of support from those of us who will, at some stage, be in a position to make changes.
That said, there are countries that help nobody and I acknowledge, as others have, that the UK at least helps some people—it does not help enough, but at least it does something. A number of crucial points have been made about the UK’s policy on refugees, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Arkless on securing this debate and on a fantastic speech. He said that half of Syria’s pre-wartime population is now in need of support from the rest of the world, which is frightening. He also said that the UK has played its part in causing some of the refugee crisis in some of the region, which we cannot deny.
Liz Saville Roberts gave an excellent example of some of the people we are helping, such as the Yazidi women who in many cases are victims of brutal rape and who cannot be protected in their own country. They are just some of the people about whom we are talking. My hon. Friend Natalie McGarry talked about the importance of language, and I completely agree. Some Government Members need to change the language that they are using. My hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald talked about his concern, which I share, about policies coming through now that will lead to further destitution and, disturbingly, further destitution for families.
The most powerful argument comes from the fundamental disagreement between Members of this House. Some of us believe that refugees make a positive contribution to these islands, and others believe that they do not. They may say they believe that refugees make a positive contribution, but they are paying lip service because their actions speak far louder than their words. If Government Members truly believe that refugees make a positive contribution to the wellbeing of the UK, their policies and rhetoric would be very different: as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, they would not have an ethos that asks not how much we can help, but how much we can get away with. I know that Heidi Allen, for whom I and a number of SNP Members have a lot of respect on a number of issues, is unhappy, but the way that we treat asylum seekers in this country can often be described only as horrendous and shameful. Actions speak louder than words.
We are trying to have a debate about refugees, and we all know the definition of a refugee, and still Bob Stewart felt the need to state that the majority of people in the Calais camps are economic migrants. Apart from the fact that I do not know how on earth he knows that—I am quite sure he does not—what, as they say in Glasgow, has that to do with the price of fish? We are talking about refugees, and I will not be deflected from that.
Like many Members, I was surprised when I looked back over the historical contribution that refugees have made to the United Kingdom. I was not surprised that they had made a significant contribution; I was just surprised by how significant that contribution was. When I looked at the list of British institutions and facets of everyday life shaped by refugees, I started to recognise how the nations of these islands have been shaped by people fleeing conflicts. Marks and Spencer, Burton, Hampton Court Palace and the Mini Cooper—refugees are often as British as fish and chips, which apparently also have a refugee connection, believe it or not.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution of refugees to UK society. Does she agree that the thousands of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in 1972, and who were initially the subject of much anxiety, made a huge contribution to British life and are a perfect example of why we must do more for refugees?
Absolutely. We need to get away from the idea that refugees take and do not give anything. They are not a burden; they are part of the fabric of our society. The much lauded Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the contribution made by a large number of new arrivals would cause a significant reduction in the national debt as a percentage of GDP. Helen Whately rightly said that we need to approach this with head and heart, and it is logical that educated, self-funded migrants, as many refugees are, will make a great contribution to the UK. Should we not have an asylum policy that says “We will support you to escape persecution, now let’s see what you can do to help us improve the economy and build our country”? We should be doing that, rather than leaving people languishing in limbo for years, losing their professional skills and the entrepreneurial impetus that they could have been using to benefit their host country.
I do not have time. I am being told to wind up.
In the history of the UK there are some astounding stories of people fleeing tyranny, arriving here and contributing in all sorts of ways. Refugees are not a long-term burden on society. We are lucky to have them and their contribution, and our policies ought to reflect that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairladyship, Mrs Main. [Interruption.] I am taking my lead from the SNP.
This is an important debate. We have had three debates today on aspects of the refugee crisis, which is clearly the issue of our time. I will not take up time by repeating the numbers, because I know the Minister wants to respond to some of the questions that have been put to him. Millions of people have fled Syria, as everybody knows. Millions are registered as asylum seekers in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now of course in Greece and Italy. There are millions, taken together. We stand at a moment when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the EU are calling on the international community for a collective response to a huge crisis. We have not seen a crisis of this size and order for many generations.
I pay tribute to the work of this Minister in particular—the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees—in this field, and to what the Government have done. The steps that have been taken are welcome. However, in 20 years’ time chapters in history books will be written about this moment in world history, in European history and in our own history, and I have concerns that—on reflection and looking back—our response will be judged as reluctant and limited, and in comparison with others not fair and not proportionate.
I just remind hon. Members that, back in January 2014, we agreed only to aid the neighbours of Syria in their efforts but not to have any part in the resettlement scheme at all. That work was extended in 2014 but only in relation to vulnerable persons—broadly speaking, those who had suffered sexual violence and torture—and it was expected that a few hundred people might resettle. Then, in September 2015, there was the resettlement programme for 20,000 Syrians.
Those steps were all welcome, but all of them were, in truth, a response to overwhelming pressure from the public, the media and the Opposition in this House. The same is true in relation to unaccompanied children. There has been a debate about this issue for some weeks. There was a statement just a few weeks ago, but again it was more limited than many of us had hoped for. There is the sense of reluctant and limited steps being taken, welcome though those steps are.
There are a number of questions for the Minister to deal with now and in the coming weeks and months. The first is this: can the hard stop line about Europe really be maintained any more? In other words, can we really say that we have no responsibility to deal with those people who have arrived in Europe and that we simply have to put the burden on the states where they are now, and play no part in relocation? I understand why it is important not to undermine the Dublin III agreement, but on the other hand there are countries that are clearly struggling with the number of people they have, and I wonder whether that hard stop line can be justified for very much longer.
I also raise again the question of unaccompanied children. I listened carefully to what Helen Whately said about this issue, and it is an argument that is made about the influence that our action might have on future action. However, we have to face up to the fact that these children are in Europe right now, unaccompanied, and they are desperate, and the push-pull factors do not apply to them, as others have already said. Also, a number of these children are disappearing. Are we really going to stand here and say that, for fear of what might happen in the future, we will do nothing for them now? I am very uncomfortable that, as a country, that could possibly be our position, and I think that view is shared across the House in different ways and with different forces.
I will take seconds. Unaccompanied children need to be properly processed, because if we act too fast they might never see their parents or their other relatives again. We have to get that processing right.
I am grateful for that intervention and I agree.
I will use up my remaining 30 seconds simply to say that whatever processes are applied, either to unaccompanied children or to adult asylum seekers arriving in this country, they have to be better managed than they are now. There are disproportionate burdens in different areas, and we have to address that sooner rather than later. Also, as we debated this morning in relation to accommodation, there are real concerns about the way that services and accommodation are being provided to asylum seekers.
These are big questions, but they are the questions of our time.
Thank you very much, Mrs Main, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairladyship.
I do not have time to go through everything; I would have liked to go through all hon. Members’ speeches. Obviously, I congratulate Richard Arkless on securing the debate. Unfortunately, Mrs Main, every time you said, “Richard”, I jumped up. So, the hon. Gentleman and I have something in common.
In fact, I think we have more than that in common, and I pay tribute to the partnership between the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Home Office. This is one of the things that we can say that we have all really worked together on, and I commend the Scottish people for what they have done for the refugees through the resettlement programme.
I apologise for not mentioning every single speech by every hon. Member but it really is because of time and not because I do not want to. I could probably have taken up the whole hour of the debate myself, as hon. Members can imagine.
I will try to cut out a lot of the general stuff, but I will put something on the record. I have been doing this job since the middle of September and I do not see the cold lack of a humanitarian attitude of the Government towards refugees. Those people who know me know that I am not the most partisan of people; this job is not the most partisan of jobs. However, I genuinely do not see this complete lack of humanitarianism. If anybody would like to discuss that separately, I would be very happy to do so. I am not saying that I take offence at comments about a lack of humanitarianism, but I genuinely do not see such an attitude.
The UK has a proud reputation for giving asylum to people. I myself am only two generations away from refugees and if this country had not taken my family—well, there certainly would have been another Member of Parliament for Watford, which would probably please quite a few people in this room.
It is obvious, as many hon. Members have said, that the sufferings of the Syrian people are a stain on humanity. When I think what my father saw in the second world war, and what the generation before him saw in the first world war, not to mention the movement of people after the second world war, it seems that we have all learnt nothing if this can happen in our time—really.
However, in the time I have left I must return to what the UK has done. Since the war started in Syria, we have granted asylum to more than 5,000 Syrians in Britain. We have the resettlement scheme, and I very much commend and personally thank those hon. Members who mentioned what has happened since the beginning of September, when we started the scheme.
Several SNP Members were really saying that the Government should do more, and not only in terms of the number of refugees. I agree that the number is arguable; anybody can have their views on that and it is very easy in these debates to come up with numbers. However, I can say that we have had the sort of partnership that hon. Members said has not existed. I spend my whole time with local authorities and talking to them, and the Government have included so many different groups under the strategic migration partnership—the SMP. We have always had the SNP but now we have the SMP. In every area of the UK, we have an SMP and it includes the local authority, the Home Office and nearly all the NGOs involved in this field. I will point that out.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway secured this debate. Personally, in my experience, I agree with what he said about people not coming here for benefits. Certainly with the Syrian refugees I have met, I think it has been the last thing on their minds. Unfortunately, however, I reject what he said about the Syrian bombing campaign—that it is simply something the British Government are doing to keep their “pals” happy. I would also argue that our response to what has happened in Syria has not been inadequate.
The hon. Gentleman and several other speakers wanted me to avoid going on about the camps. In fact, there are very few camps, but people can see in the areas around Syria quite what this country has done. With the exception of the United States, our humanitarian programme is by far the most significant, and it can be seen everywhere —in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Everything we do is through the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UNHCR policy is to settle people in the countries around Syria, and particularly to try to relocate children to extended families in that area. The UNHCR says that the vast majority of them—up to nine out of 10 of them, as far as we are aware—are resettled within the area that is called “the camps”, but actually it is just the area around Syria with extended families. I believe that that is the right policy, because obviously they all hope that they are going to go back to Syria. That does not mean that there are not unaccompanied minors, and the Government made a statement on that, as the shadow Minister said, the week before last. Tomorrow, the Immigration Minister and I are holding a roundtable discussion with most of the non-governmental organisations involved, including the UNCHR, to discuss where we go from here.
The Government are not doing nothing about children in Europe. Only last week, a further £10 million was announced. We are talking not just about money. There are many attempts to sort out what children are there and exactly where they are from, as well as to verify their identity and provide safe places for them to go within Europe. I am pleased to say that our Government, through the Department for International Development, are very much at the forefront of that. That is unusual for DFID, because in normal circumstances France, Germany and so on are not lower-income countries, but we are doing our bit. I know it is not what Members want, but I would not like to allow the assumption that we are doing nothing in mainland Europe to pass by, because that really is not true.
The main point that I would like to make is on numbers. It was mentioned that some economists wrote to the Government and that the bishops approached the Government. Lots of people write to the Prime Minister with numbers, and we have been both complimented and criticised about what we are doing with the 20,000 people. It is quite normal that people have their views and that they lobby. The shadow Minister said that what the Government have done is because of pressure from the Opposition and other groups, but to some extent that is how Governments work. The Government get criticised for not listening to what the Opposition and lobby groups say, or it is regarded as weakness if they do listen.
I feel that this is probably the least politically contentious part of Government. There is general cross-party consensus, perhaps not on extent, but on substance. In my life as a Minister in this field, I speak to so many groups and conferences—I am going to the east midlands tomorrow. Perhaps this is the last thing one should to a group of politicians, but I do not even know who is Labour or Conservative or Scottish National party, because that does not enter into it. The SNP Members made a political point about a fear of UKIP, but I have not seen it, and I am happy to go on the record on that. It is the last thing on our mind, and I hope that the Labour and SNP council leaders whom I have spoken to would agree with that sentiment.
This is a complex issue. I feel personally and professionally that the Government are on the right tracks. We have a long way to go. The resettlement programme alone will run over the course of the Parliament. We have to select who we take over here through the UNHCR. The vulnerability criteria are not subjective.
I am sorry, but there is not time. Otherwise, I would love to give way. The vulnerability criteria are calculated and worked out in a professional, impartial way. The criteria have expanded from two to seven, so they are wide.
We are determined that those who come here do so with the consent of the people in this country, which generally there has been. I have paid tribute to Scotland, but people have been taken in all over the country. It is not right to say scathingly that some places take one or two or three families. For a small community, that can be pretty good. Other communities, such as Bradford, are very much used to taking in refugees and asylum seekers. They have done that for many years, and they have the set-up to do so.