It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on securing this important debate, particularly because recently I spoke to students at Saint Gabriel’s College in Camberwell, where I am proud to be a governor.
South London, where my constituency of Streatham is, is home to one of the largest Colombian communities in the UK, and many will have attended the solidarity protests that we saw recently in London. I was so proud of the students and their lobby, and I want them to know that, as young as they are, they have power as citizens and their words can make it directly to Parliament, so I will use mostly their words today.
Gabriel explained to me how Colombians feel the Government are not listening to them. He talked about the sheer force and unity of the protests recently organised by the country’s largest trade union, joined by teachers, university students, trade unions, Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups; about a united demand to withdraw the proposal that originally levelled a sales tax on public services and some food; and how years of inequality and injustice, combined with covid lockdowns with no support, had thrown even more people out of work and left many Colombians destitute.
Juan-Pablo was born in Cali, at the epicentre of the violence. He explained how important the place is for the whole country because of agriculture, and that that is why the paro nacional started, and that the Government were using it to make food more expensive. The students had done their research, and Juan David explained how the UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police over the past three years. They questioned how the UK, the country that some of their families had come to after fleeing human rights abuses, could be so openly complicit in the human rights abuses committed in Colombia.
Yeray, Sara and Alexia, some of the youngest in the group—11, 12 and 13—along with Manuel, explained how worried they are about family members in Colombia. Students at Saint Gabriel’s College are particularly affected. Many have family members who have been shot or injured, and some have even gone missing—one young man’s father has been missing since March. Lucas, Manuel and Alejandro spoke to me about human rights abuses and inequality, and about the widespread police brutality, sexual assault and murders. They were particularly concerned about the ongoing violence against the LGBT community, and said that even though Colombia appears on paper to have strong rights for LGBT people, those rights are not put into practice there. Women in particular are disadvantaged, with 12 in every 1,000 babies dying before their first birthday, and almost 39% of the country’s Afro-Colombian population live in extreme poverty.
Valentina was particularly concerned about not just the mental health of Colombians there, but that of Colombians in the UK who are watching their families go through many of these things and are helpless to change it. Elisa spoke with pride about Colombia, as did all the students—how they felt about the country in which some of them were born and some of their parents were born. Some, like Santiago, spoke about people their age in Colombia who did not have the same opportunities that he now has, because of the economic situation and because of how exacerbated the violence has become.
Colombians in the UK are calling on the UK Government to promote reform of the Colombian security services and full implementation of the peace accord, and to review the UK’s training of the Colombian police and suspend the selling of riot control equipment and arms exports to Colombia. That is a simple demand.
I will end by paraphrasing the words of Nicolas. He said, “As young Colombians in the UK, we are asking the UK Government to not forget Colombia; to open their eyes to the violence and injustice; and, last but not least, to remember that the United Kingdom acts as the penholder for the Colombian peace process, and to live up to what it has promised.” I ask the Minister to please live up to what the UK has promised, on behalf of those young students who lobbied me so well earlier this year.