Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 3:12 pm, 1st March 2018

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon). I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee and also to Jim Shannon for securing this debate. Please note, Sir David, my interest as a member of the all-party group. I want to take a moment to express my deep thanks to Bob Stewart for sharing his experience as to why this debate today is so fundamentally important.

Human rights are bandied around. They are written and printed, and we speak about them a lot, but today we have heard evidence as to why it is so important that they go beyond words, statements and intentions and become part of what being human and civilised should really be about. Freedom of thought and belief in religion are mentioned in many documents: our own Human Rights Act, the European convention and the UN convention. Those are examples of why, as a civilised world, we can do better for our future. We have heard evidence today from across the world, and indeed from within the United Kingdom, about the great tragedy that people still use others’ religion as a reason to persecute, to be violent towards and to treat differently. They use religion and non-religion—atheism or agnosticism —to say, “You are different enough for me to inflict pain and inhumanity on you,” whether through employment for Baha’is, or through property, approach or education. As the world seems increasingly separated, we need Governments, individuals and Parliaments to stand up and say, “Together we are stronger.” Together we recognise our differences. We hold that as important in the friendships that we make.

Much has been said about the Baha’is today, and I ask to be associated with the comments that we have heard, but I want to ask about Yemen, where recent changes show the potential for another truly tragic part of history to roll out. We have an opportunity. The situation is complex and there are never simple answers, but there is a simple basis: differences in religion are never a reason for treating people differently.

I want to ask the Minster about an event that happened on 21 February when the UNHCR representative was here. I had the privilege of listening to him submit evidence about what is happening. A number of points came out that I want to raise today, which I want the Minister to take away and in due course respond to. The first relates to a statement that I have read in various places, which is that people of minority religious faiths choose not to go to refugee camps. It seems there is an obvious explanation, but I am not sure whether that is correct. I heard the UNHCR representative say that it was by choice and that the majority of refugees are not in camps.

It is important that the Government look into whether the statistics and the explanation are correct, particularly in relation to the number of refugees from minority faiths that are settled in the United Kingdom. There seems to be a difference in the percentages. It is horrible to reduce people who have refugee status to a statistic, but there seems to be a much smaller number of religious minority refugees settled in this country than perhaps there are in other parts of Europe and across the world. It might be a choice that those individuals and families make, which is fine, but I find that anomaly somewhat worrying.

The second thing relates to some of the recommendations made, particularly with regard to the Government’s role in relation to the UNHCR and the process of assessing vulnerability and protective needs and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees. The characteristics of vulnerability are gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and the language of refugees. Will the Minister comment on how much work is being done to establish religion as one of those areas of vulnerability? It seems to get raised. It is certainly within the documentation, but there needs to be an assessment of how strongly religion forms one of the characteristics of vulnerability.

My next point relates to the training that UNHCR staff get on religious persecution and the safeguarding of religious minority refugees. This country and the Government can be justifiably proud of the knowledge that sits within their Departments, and the world can only benefit by its being shared. It would be nice to know that that is being rolled out to support the UNHCR in various other areas.

We have heard some enormously powerful testimony today. The right to practise a religion or to practise no religion is a fundamental part of being a human being. There are complex questions and complex situations, but no simple answers. Using the power of communication, politics and diplomacy, we need to take our place in the world and strive to ensure that in future the powerful testimony that we have heard today can be consigned to history and we can learn to live together.