Refugees: UK Government Policy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:10 pm on 10th February 2016.

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Photo of Natalie McGarry Natalie McGarry Independent, Glasgow East 5:10 pm, 10th February 2016

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.