Forced Displacement in Africa — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:19 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North 2:19 pm, 4th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Evans. Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg not only for securing the debate, but for the hard work that he did, along with his staff and colleagues on the International Development Committee—let me curry some early favour by acknowledging that that includes you, Mr Evans—to produce this report on forced displacement in Africa and to hold the Government to account on one of the most important crises of our time.

I want to reflect on a few things that my hon. Friend said, because they bear repeating. He mentioned that forced displacement affects a wide range of people—the internally displaced, people in camps and people outside the country but not in camps—but the one thing they have in common is that they are vulnerable. In our drive, as he characterised it, to achieve the sustainable development goals, we will leave those people behind if we do not act to support them and help them rebuild their lives. We must acknowledge every time we have this conversation that displacement happens into the poorest countries. My hon. Friend made the point well that those countries provide an exceptional public good, but those who shoulder the greatest burden are those who are the least able to do so.

I will return to the “begging bowl” approach, but while I am reflecting on what my hon. Friend said, let me mention that I was visited yesterday by a senior colleague in a major aid organisation for a private briefing on Yemen. We talked about Yemen but, as often happens nowadays, we got on to the climate emergency. He rightly said that the climate emergency has already reached the countries we are talking about—certainly those with the very least—so the idea that we have to wait for something to happen and then run around desperately trying to get the funding to tackle it is a nonsense. Regrettably—we really should regret and reflect on this—this is the new normal, so there is no need to wait for it to happen before we act.

Everyone who spoke mentioned the role of women. My colleagues in the shadow international development team, the Leader of the Opposition and I received a delegation of Syrian women politicians, who told us about their experiences. They said in particular that they felt constantly, from the beginning to where they are today, that their roles were gendered for them. In conflict, on the road to reconstruction and everywhere in the middle, women’s roles are gendered for them: they must be peacemakers and care givers, but not leaders. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made a very strong case for the benefit we would get from female leadership in such situations. I hope the Minister heard that and reflects on it.

My hon. Friend Kate Osamor started her speech by referring to education. When we think about humanitarian crises and displacement, we think about meeting immediate needs—ensuring that people have shelter and that their healthcare and nutrition needs are met—but education is an exceptional form of immunisation in itself. That is why we want everyone in our communities to have access to it. That was really brought to life by my hon. Friend’s example from Niger: a girl is 20 times more likely to be a teenage mother than to finish school. That really is quite something.

My hon. Friend also made a really important point about the 10 years of experience in the Lake Chad basin, where 2.2 million people have been displaced, half of them children. Incidents such as the Boko Haram abduction become massive global stories but then go away. Although Kwanye was not an abductee, her story—one of lost education and lost opportunities—is just as stark and important. I do not think I can put it better than my hon. Friend did when she said that these people need solidarity, not pity and shock. That is really important as we reflect on how we engage on an ongoing basis. Our pity and shock can be useful at times, but an ongoing, consistent, bankable, reliable sense of solidarity would be a much stronger approach.

The numbers on forced displacement are staggering. Last year, a person was displaced every two seconds, and 68.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes: for every one of us living in our beautiful country, there is a person on the move, without a home of their own. We know that those millions of people fleeing conflict face poverty, persecution and other forms of insecurity. They face incredibly perilous journeys: they can be exploited, raped or attacked on the way, just seeking safety. The majority of them are prevented from getting to a safe point where they can start a new life. Instead, they tend to get stuck in so-called gateway countries such as Libya, where they are locked up and blocked from reaching their safe final destination.

Many of the people who are trapped in a third country, unable to return home or to start a new life somewhere new, face a bleak future. Last week—this sort of thing brings it home—I met campaigners from Western Sahara, who talked about the 50,000 Sahrawi people who fled Moroccan forces in 1975. The majority ended up in refugee camps in the Tindouf province of Algeria. There are now 90,000 people in those camps, many of whom are the original 50,000. That was 45 years ago. I have been walking this planet for 35 years, so they have been there, stuck in stasis, for 10 years longer than I have been around. Time has moved on for the rest of the world—imagine the changes between 1975 and 2019: the world is a completely different place—but not for them. For them, time has stood still. They have spent whole lifetimes without enough food, water, healthcare, housing or education—the things we build our lives on.

As we know, that experience is not restricted to Western Sahara. There are far too many displaced people living a life in limbo in camps across Africa—in Kenya, Uganda, Libya and Tanzania—and beyond, in Jordan, Bangladesh and Lebanon. If we do not act, that will be the future: decades-long stays in camps for millions of people on the move. That is a real stain on our conscience.

The report does so much to keep the light shining on this issue. I am grateful that the Government agreed with many of the Committee’s recommendations—that really ought to be reflected in this discussion—but I want to draw attention to three points. First, no one can do this alone. The global compact on refugees was a huge step towards international co-operation, but if Governments on the frontline of the displacement crisis are to meet their obligations, they need the money to do it.

That brings me back to what the Committee called the “begging bowl” approach, in which Governments have to ask for more every time to help them meet a new challenge. Will the Minister consider again the Committee’s recommendation to set up, with our international partners, new grants and funding mechanisms that would enable long-term, sustainable financing of international responses—again, solidarity rather than shock? Can she tell us any more about how the Government intend to approach the global refugee forum in December and the mooted UN high-level panel on internal displacement to keep up the momentum towards international solutions?

Secondly, DFID can and ought to keep raising the technical standards on international refugee responses. The UK has real influence in the UNHCR, which is a good thing, and we should continue to drive organisational reform there. Refugees must be able to get better information about what is happening in the homes they fled, especially in terms of safety, before they decide whether to go back. When voluntary return is not possible, refugees ought to be offered routes to integrate locally rather than staying indefinitely detained and excluded. I hope the Minister will commit to learning quickly some of the lessons—good and bad—from Jordan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh on voluntary returns and local integration, and to doing more in those areas.

Thirdly, I want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby and the Committee characterised as the “practise what we preach” approach, which is about honouring our own obligations here in the UK. The Committee made clear, reasonable and powerful recommendations, for which we heard support in the debate, in particular about easing the restrictions on asylum seekers’ right to work in the UK. Prior to taking up this role, I was on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and that is something we recommended. We should also increase resettlement numbers to 10,000 annually, as recommended by the UNHCR, with a quarter of those places reserved for refugees from sub-Saharan Africa; and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton mentioned, put in place a coherent cross-Government strategy.

There is pressure on global north democracies to try to keep the migration crisis away—out of sight and out of mind—because it is politically difficult. It was politically difficult for generations of colleagues before us. I hope that perhaps in my generation we might get towards having a proper, sensible and honest conversation with our voters about it.

The sticking-plaster approaches of trying to incentivise potential migrants to stay at home or funding coastguards to shut down the Mediterranean will not work. There are those who would push us towards hoping that other countries will do it, without us doing so ourselves, but that will not work. When other countries pander to the far right, we see what that means: people drowning in the Mediterranean; the captain of Sea-Watch 3, Carola Rackete, arrested in Lampedusa because her crew put saving lives before politics; choosing to build walls and put children in cages; and allowing others to drown in the Rio Grande.

We would all reflect on those things and say, “Never here,” but we must understand that no one gets there in one leap. It starts with “Go home” immigration vans, with locking up people who have done nothing but be migrants to this country, and with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender migrants being sent home to face persecution. If we go on that journey, we lose our claim to be part of the solution and become part of the problem. That is what the Government and Parliament must consider: what side of history will we be on? Will we be part of the solution, or will we contribute to the problem?

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I again thank hon. Members for their contributions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby for securing the debate.