Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
[Relevant document: E-petition entitled “Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK”, https://petition, parliament.uk/petitions/105991.]
Before I call the shadow Home Secretary to open the debate, which will run for up to three hours, it might be for the convenience of the House to know that, according to my record, no fewer than 27 Members are seeking to catch my eye. I will not impose a time limit at this stage—that will depend on the length of the opening contributions—but for most of the speeches that will be necessary. Even when Members are not subject to the limit, it would be helpful if they could show some consideration for their colleagues.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the refugee crisis in Europe.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate, and I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House to respond to it. Given the scale and gravity of the refugee crisis now affecting Europe, it is right that Parliament has given time for the statement yesterday, for the debate today and for the chance to vote on a motion on the Scottish National party’s Opposition day tomorrow.
On 21 November 1938, the Labour MP for Derby, Philip Noel-Baker, secured a three-hour debate in the shadow of Kristallnacht. It was the debate that set in motion the urgent support for the Kindertransport, helping 10,000 Jewish children come to Britain. Parliament was united that day. He won support from all sides and from the Conservative Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare.
Yesterday we were not united, though there was much that we agreed on. The Prime Minister announced new help, which was welcome, but many of us wanted him to do more. I hope that today’s debate, and tomorrow’s, is the chance for us to forge new agreement across this House and to build a consensus and a national mission across the country on the further action that Britain needs to take.
Refugees are moving across our continent on a scale we have not seen since the second world war, with a third of a million trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, many ready to pay their life savings to criminal gangs who board them on to overcrowded boats and then leave them to drown. Fifty-two people were found dead in the hull of a boat. They had been forced into an airless hold, forced to pay to come up to breathe, and those who could not pay suffocated to death. The pictures of Alan Kurdi have moved a continent—the image of a three-year-old on a beach, a picture that should have been full of life and joy and instead was a tragedy.
Thousands more are making their way by land through the Balkans into Hungary, crowding on to trains, fearful of the police who come to check them and anxious not to be sent to refugee camps—so determined to reach German sanctuary that men, women and children in their thousands have set off ready to walk 300 miles along a motorway. In Calais, on our own doorstep, 3,000 people are sleeping in makeshift camps, many having risked their lives, with nine people in the past three months alone having lost their lives trying to cross to Dover.
I commend my right hon. Friend for her leadership in securing this debate and for what has been said over recent days. Does she agree that, as in the title of the debate, this refugee crisis goes beyond Syria and affects people fleeing many terrible situations in countries including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq? The Prime Minister’s comments yesterday seemed to be wholly focused on Syria, but it goes far beyond that. Do we not need to consider those who are fleeing those situations across the whole area?
My hon. Friend is right. The situation in Eritrea, for example, has led to many people fleeing that country. Independent observers have commented on the human rights abuses that have driven people to flee their homes there and travel often many miles, through many countries, to seek sanctuary in Europe.
It is true that some of the travellers have safe homes to return to, and immigration rules need to be enforced, but so very many of the troubled travellers no longer have any safe home. Syria has indeed been responsible for much of the increase in those travelling this year and in recent months, but situations in other countries have led to the increase in refugee numbers as well.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. She has referred to the unspeakable horror of the drownings and of the suffocation in lorries across Europe. In addition, does she agree that some countries on the fringes of Europe are now at breaking point as they struggle to deal with being on the front line of the worst refugee crisis for decades? A few weeks ago I was at a refugee feeding station in Kos, where I saw conditions that I had never expected to see in modern Europe. Parts of Greece are at breaking point. It is in our common interest to deal with that situation and to help the migrants and to help ourselves. Does she agree with António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that no country can do it alone and every country must play its part?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I agree that no country can do this alone. When we have a crisis that involves people fleeing across borders, of course no country can deal with it alone. I am like my hon. Friend in that the pressures in Greece are what I am most troubled about in Europe now. They provide the strongest argument for Britain to respond within Europe and not simply to help those from the camps near Syria.
No one doubts the right hon. Lady’s humane instincts, and of course we should not be hard-hearted, but we have to be hard-headed. Given that millions are displaced in Syria and there is, quite understandably, no limit to how many want to come here, will she say exactly how many migrants Labour wants to admit to this country?
I will say more about the number of refugees that I have already called for Britain to come forward and help. By deciding that we need to help, we are being very hard-headed. This is about our hearts and our heads, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, but both should be telling us that we need to respond to the scale of this crisis because it is not going away. Just because we cannot help everyone, we should not help no one. We should do our bit.
In reality, though, it is not a case of helping no one, given our generous contribution as the second largest donor to Syrian refugees in terms of international aid. Where is the difference in terms of numbers? The Prime Minister has now rightly said that there should be more assistance for 20,000 Syrian refugees. The shadow Home Secretary has said 10,000, but the UNHCR has said that we need to get up to 30,000 by the end of 2016. Charities have said, “Let’s give hope to 10,000 Syrian refugees.” Where is the material difference? We are now on the same side in providing hope for at least the minimum number—in my view—of 20,000.
If I may, I will come on to where I think the disagreement still lies, and happily give way to the hon. Gentleman again if he feels I have not answered his point. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, which was important. I welcome, too, the huge amount that is being done in aid, where Britain is playing a leading role. I applaud the work that this Government are doing to help and provide aid to those in the camps and to do more to start to help those from Syria.
Many of the troubled travellers no longer have any safe home to return to; they do need help and we should do our bit. There is a difference between immigration and asylum. We cannot let the troubled politics of immigration paralyse us and stop us doing our bit to help those who are fleeing conflict and persecution. Eleven million people in Syria have now been driven from their homes. In Palmyra and Mosul hundreds of men have been beheaded and their bodies hung from the roofs of ancient temples. Four million have fled the country altogether and most are living hand to mouth in neighbouring countries. Another 6 million have been displaced inside the country. Many of them, and many other refugees, are fleeing a new totalitarianism, and we should help those who flee to survive, just as we did against totalitarian regimes in the past.
We agree that Britain needs to do its bit to help. We agree that Britain should do most through support in the region with the aid to the camps, because it is far better to help people nearby to prevent dangerous journeys and to make it easier for them to return if things improve. As I have said, I applaud the Government’s leadership in supporting the camps and doing far more than other countries to provide aid at a time when food rations are running short and the UNHCR is desperate for more support. We agree that the Navy should be part of search and rescue, aiding those in peril on the sea. We agree that Europol and police forces should be driving action against the vile criminal gangs who prey on desperation and put a price tag on freedom—a price tag on breathing—and seek a profit on people’s lives.
We agree too that it is right for Britain to help orphaned and unaccompanied children from Syria if they will not be better off staying with family and friends. However, debates in the other place have raised concern about whether children who came from Syria, having no family back home and having made a life here, would be sent home when they reached the age of 18. That would be inhumane. I seek clarification from the Home Secretary and urge her to assure the House that unaccompanied children who come from Syria to Britain will not be sent back to the region when they turn 18.
With regard to tackling criminal gangs and the role of Europol, I followed the Minister for Immigration to Europol two weeks ago. It is involved in an operation in Sicily to try to deal with the criminal gangs. This is not just about taking in the refugees; it is also about dealing with the criminal gangs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that the EU should increase resources to Europol to enable it, as the only strategic authority, to do a better job in tackling the criminal gangs?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The scale of the criminal challenge and the modern slavery that the Home Secretary has often talked about mean that we must have a response that matches the scale of the crisis and the scale of the trafficking that is taking place. Frankly, our response, not just in Britain but across Europe, does not match the scale of the challenge at the moment. We certainly need to support Europol and police forces right across Europe to work together to do more.
We agree that the Government should offer more sanctuary to those who are vulnerable in the camps in Syria and give them a chance to come to Britain instead. In fact, this House called for that nearly two years ago. I and Sir Menzies Campbell—soon to be Lord Campbell—and many Members on both sides of the House argued for it when we debated the issue in January 2014 and, as a result, the Home Secretary agreed to set up the programme in early 2014. That programme has so far helped just over 200 people and the Government have made a big change to their position by saying that they are now prepared to help 20,000. Even if the timetable is slow, I welcome the fact that they have agreed to do more.
I pay tribute to all those who in the past seven days have signed petitions and contacted MPs, charities and newspapers to speak out and call for action. That has changed the Government’s mind, which is welcome.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the right policy is to go to the camps in Turkey and Jordan where millions of people have sought refuge, and that the last thing we want to do is enact any policy that will act as a magnet for more people to make treacherous journeys such as that which ended with that tragic death on the Turkish coastline?
We agree that we want to do everything we can to help prevent traffickers from being able to prey on the situation and to prevent some of the problems we have seen, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman if he sees that as an argument for not helping those in Europe itself. I will come to that and will give him a chance to ask a further question later.
This is where we start to disagree. We need to urge the Government to do more. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would help up to 20,000 refugees over the five-year Parliament, but the crisis is now. Helping 4,000 refugees this year is not enough. Compare that figure of 4,000 with the 24,000 in France and the hundreds of thousands in Germany; compare it with our population of 60 million; with the 10,000 we helped in just nine months under the Kindertransport; with the 19,000 Vietnamese boat people who fled to Britain from the Vietcong; and with the 24,000 Kosovans who came to Britain in the late ’90s. We can do more than this.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that he wants to get on with it. That is good and it might mean more than 4,000 in the first year. The trouble is that when we first urged the Home Secretary to take in Syrian refugees, she said they would do it as fast as possible, but in the end the scheme proved slow—only just over 200 have been helped. If they can help a full 10,000 in the first year, why not say so and why set a cap for the whole Parliament when we have no idea what the circumstances will be in a few years’ time? In fact, why set a cap for the Parliament at all?
I am afraid that the figure of 20,000 over a Parliament has the feel of coming up with a plan to maximise the headline number but to minimise the impact year on year. That is the wrong approach. We need to know how many the Government will help this year. How many can we help before Christmas, when the crisis is now? What can Britain do to help?
I made the suggestion of 10,000 straightaway simply by asking every county and city to take 10 families. I said we should ask councils how many people they would be able to help. Has the Home Secretary asked councils whether they can help?
Swansea, of course, is a city of sanctuary and the leader of the council, Rob Stewart, has said that Swansea will help in any way it can. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is to establish the capacity available for people who will willingly take people, rather than just plucking numbers out of the air, and that there is a welcome home for many people in distress across the country, including in Swansea?
My hon. Friend is right. Swansea and other cities, including Birmingham and Sheffield, have already said that they are cities of sanctuary and will do their bit to help. I asked councils across the country whether they would help and within 24 hours, 40 councils confirmed that they would help and a further 20 have also done so. The Welsh Assembly Government have shown great leadership, saying that they will help, and the Scottish Government have also said they will help. They need support from the Government to do so, but they really want us to do our bit. Wales, Scotland and councils across the country are all saying that they will help, but only if we can work together.
The right hon. Lady is right not to pluck figures from the air. There have been pledges to deliver just over 100,000 places and the UNHCR, which is the expert in the field, says that the figure should be up to 130,000 across countries by the end of 2016. Surely if we follow its approach and play our part in the delivery of 130,000 places by the end of 2016, that will provide a focus and we could ask the Home Secretary to provide details of how we can quickly reboot the vulnerable persons relocation scheme to assess those children and vulnerable people and get them here as quickly as possible.
The hon. Gentleman is right: we should look at all the different ways in which we can play our part and work with the UN. At the same time, the EU is today asking for 160,000 people to be resettled throughout Europe. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that the UN has called for people to be resettled from the camps themselves. We should be doing that and working together. My proposal was a suggestion of a way forward by asking councils, but there are other ways to do this. The point is that Parliament should make known our commitment and view that Britain can do more to help. That is what people across the country are telling us. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should be looking for ways to do more.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that the organisations involved include not only councils, but national charities and local bookshops? We also have a local Songworks choir, and local schools are making collections. Children in Hornsey and Wood Green have been inspired to collect food and blankets and to give their pocket money, and churches and mosques across the piece are also involved. Somebody came to an advice surgery on Friday who was a refugee himself. I thought he wanted to discuss his own housing problem, but he has raised £14,000 through a local charity called Comkar. He was in tears and had a photograph of that little boy. He said, “That was my journey, but I made it and I want to do my bit,” so could we also reach out to and help civic communities?
My hon. Friend is right, because people want to help. They want to be able to do their bit and they want us to show that we are also prepared to do our bit from this Parliament. One million people have signed petitions in the past week alone and £500,000 has been raised in 24 hours for Save the Children. Almost 4,000 people have offered to open their homes for refugees. Earlier this week, a convoy of 15 cars travelled from Birmingham to Calais filled with donations for refugees in camps there. Faith groups, community groups, workplaces, businesses and councils are also involved. A business contacted me this morning to ask how it could offer jobs to refugees and give them a new start. That is the kind of country we are—this is the best of Britain. We have to now make this the best of the House of Commons as well by responding to that demand for help and action from our country.
I urge the Home Secretary to ask communities and councils how much they are able to do to help, and to call an urgent meeting with councils, community organisations, charities and faith groups to ask how we can work together to address this crisis. I will hold such a meeting on Thursday, but they could come to her instead and be part of a Home Office and Government-led programme across the country, showing the leadership we need.
We need a clear plan. We need the Home Secretary to spend the next month working across the country to draw up a serious plan for how we in Britain can help and to address the target of how many people we can take before Christmas and over the next 12 months. Britain is showing how much it wants to do; now we need a Government who want to do their bit, too, and who are ready to live up to the country they represent.
There is a second area of disagreement. The Government have said that they want to take only refugees from the camps near Syria, not those who are already in Europe. They have said—this point has already been raised—that they do not want to give people an incentive to travel through Europe in order to get asylum in Britain. The trouble is that people are travelling already. They did not wait for any asylum statement by the British Government before deciding to pack their bags and flee. Rations have halved in some of the Syrian border camps. Parents are despairing that their children will never go to school. They cannot work or go home and they are fleeing to Europe whatever we in Britain do or say.
Let us remember that Britain has already used the incentive argument in relation to search and rescue. The boats were withdrawn to deter people from travelling. Instead, many more came, and many more drowned because the boats were not there to help. Refugees are travelling and there is a crisis now.
I was an aid worker in the Balkans for almost 10 years during the crisis in the 1990s, and I saw at first hand what it took to make somebody leave their home, their loved ones and the community they love. People do not flee such things lightly; they do so because of desperate conditions and war. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those conditions and the push away from areas of war far outweigh the pull of coming to a country such as Britain?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Any of us who are parents know just how stressful it always is to travel with children; and to entertain the idea that any parent would take the decision lightly to travel with children across a continent—not knowing where they will sleep the next night, not knowing how long the journey will be, not knowing where the food will come from for their next meal—is to misunderstand the huge pressure and anxiety that so many of those desperate refugees are facing.
And they are travelling now. The UN has reported that 7,000 Syrians arrived in Macedonia on Monday alone. Some 50,000 people have arrived in Greece in just one month. In the Greek islands alone, 30,000 people are currently asking for sanctuary and help, including 20,000 on Lesbos.
To be honest, it is the refugees arriving in Greece that I am the most troubled about right now. Germany, Austria and Hungary are understandably focusing on helping the hundreds of thousands of people crossing their borders, while Italy, with help from the EU, is working to help more than 100,000 who have come mainly from Libya. But Greece needs much more help to deal with and respond to those who have arrived on its shores, and to provide them with humanitarian support.
The authorities are doing their best, but the camps are makeshift, without toilets or running water. Many people are sleeping outside, with nothing but cardboard to sleep on—and they include babies and children. There have been cases, too, of police using riot batons against refugees as tensions have risen. How on earth is Greece supposed to assess people’s asylum claims and provide them with humanitarian aid when 130,000 people have arrived on its shores this year alone?
The Prime Minister’s response yesterday seemed to be that the issues for Greece, Italy and Hungary were just a problem for the Schengen zone to deal with. Why is that? The Schengen zone did not cause millions to flee their homes, whether in Syria, Libya or beyond. The Schengen zone did not draw up the geography of Europe and its islands, by which our British islands are 2,000 miles from Syria, whereas the Greek islands are just three miles from the Turkish shore. I agree with Angela Merkel that the Schengen countries need to rethink their border controls now, but none of that is an excuse for us not to help.
Today, as we debate, the European Commission is drawing up plans to move 130,000 people into other countries. I agree that we should not be part of a quota system drawn up by the Commission, but I do not agree that we should turn our backs, and I do not agree that we should say that the crisis in Europe is nothing to do with us and that the only people that we will help will be from the Syrian camps.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that talking about whether we are or are not members of Schengen is in some sense a red herring? If the European family of nations means anything, it should mean that all European nations stand together in the face of this unprecedented crisis.
My hon. Friend is right because Europe is being tested. We are part of the Europe that is being tested now, and we should show that we are ready to respond.
That is why I think that the Home Secretary should ring up the European Commission today. While it is working out how to provide help across Europe, let us offer to do our bit. Let us offer to take 10,000 people this year, or a different number if she prefers. Let us offer to take the 3,000 children who have travelled to Europe alone, as Save the Children has suggested. Let us just offer to help—just be British, do something bold—say that we will fund the UNHCR to make assessments in Greece right now, say that we will send support to provide help and to bring the refugees from Greece to Britain to get the help that they need.
Given that the Government have made a very generous contribution in providing support in the refugee camps and that they have made the welcome commitment to take 20,000 refugees, does my right hon. Friend agree that failing to work with other European countries to deal with the immediate problems risks our losing the moral leadership in Europe that our financial contribution would merit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I want to move on to that point. This should be an opportunity for us to work with other European countries and to get them to do more, both in providing aid for the region, just as we do, and in helping the refugees.
This problem is not going away. The reason I think that this is about responding with both our heads and our hearts is that if we do nothing, this problem will simply get worse. We cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while this happens. We cannot be the generation that turned our backs. We need a bigger plan.
Will the right hon. Lady clarify? If she is suggesting that we should be taking migrants who are currently in the European Union rather than taking migrants directly from Syria, is she suggesting that we take fewer refugees from the Syrian camps than the 20,000 proposed by the Government, or that a substantially larger number of migrants overall should come both from Syria and from inside the EU?
The Government’s current proposal is to take 20,000 refugees over five years, so we assume that that means 4,000 in the next 12 months. Yes, I am saying that it would be right for Britain to take more than 4,000 in the next 12 months. To be honest, it is very hard to set a number for a whole Parliament, because we do not know what the circumstances will be in future. I think we should start with the number we want to help in the next 12 months, and then keep that continually under review. We may need to help more, and we may be able to help more. We may find other long-term solutions, but we know that that will be hard. We should start with those we can help right now, and that must be more than 4,000.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way because she has come to the nub of the argument. Is not the distinction between desperate people in one place who have made a journey and desperate people in another place who have yet to make a journey as false as it is offensive? Surely our contribution to helping people who are in need should be based on need, not on a decision that they might have made from sheer desperation.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to do both. We cannot simply ignore people who have already fled out of such desperation, been on very difficult journeys and seen many terrible things along the way, including children who have endured all kinds of difficult and degrading treatments, whether at the hands of traffickers or in the form of the abuse they have left behind. We should help them because that is happening on our doorstep: we should be providing help in European countries, as well as in Syria itself, and we need to do so as part of a wider European plan.
We need a bigger plan, and Europe should be part of that plan. We do not have time today to debate a long-term solution for Syria, the military strategy against ISIL or the Government’s current approach to the Assad regime. We urgently need a new diplomatic initiative drawing on all the countries of the region, Russia, Iran, the US and countries from the Gulf and the EU, but no one believes that there is a simple foreign policy or military intervention that will swiftly restore millions of people to their homes.
We need a serious plan to cope with the humanitarian consequences, which could be with us for many years, and a plan for the region and the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have shown great generosity. However, as long as the refugees in those countries have no proper homes and no schools for their children and as long as they cannot work and have no hope, they will of course seek sanctuary in European democracies. In effect, we need a Marshall plan for the area to provide the long-term support that we need to provide the stability that we need.
The Prime Minister himself has said that acting against ISIL is a challenge for a generation. A response is taking place in Iraq and Syria at the moment. We wait for the Government to set out any further proposals that they have, and we will need to look at those in due course. However, that does not change anything about the humanitarian response that we need for those who are fleeing the conflict—not just those from Syria, but people from other countries who are crossing the Mediterranean.
The right hon. Lady makes a very fair point about the need in the long term for what she terms a new Marshall plan. I have sympathy with that, but the Marshall plan only worked once the totalitarian barbarians in Europe had been removed. How far is she prepared to go to support those of us who think we should use every means to remove the barbarians who are currently destroying these countries?
I am in contact with Syrian families who are seeking asylum in the UK and who originally travelled to Europe through Hungary, where they were fingerprinted and photographed. Their concern is that they will be sent back to Hungary. What should we do in such cases?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about those who have travelled to Britain through other countries. That concern relates specifically to what is happening in Syria. I have said that the long-standing Dublin convention has worked well in many areas and could work well in future. However, the nature of the Syrian crisis and the humanitarian crisis that we face is straining that convention at its seams. The Government should think again about the refugees from Syria who have arrived in Britain whom they are deporting back to other European countries, even though those countries may already have taken far more Syrian refugees than we have. That is not about Britain doing its bit to help, particularly given the scale of the crisis we face.
We need a plan for Europe, not just a Marshall plan for the region, because people will keep trying to reach our shores, whatever we do—a plan that involves proper UNHCR-run assessment centres in the region before people try to make a dangerous journey, and EU funding for the UN to do the job; a plan that funds assessment centres in Europe in the places people are most likely to arrive, so that they do not start to travel in dangerous convoys across our continent; a swift system to respond to those economic migrants, perhaps from the Balkans, who need to return and to follow normal immigration rules; a plan to help the refugees get the help and support they need; a plan that takes on the vile criminal gangs; a plan in which European countries work together, rather than making life harder for each other; a plan by which the French authorities and the UN can do full assessments of those at Calais to determine how many are refugees and how many need support; a plan in which Europe stands strong in the face of the crisis in which it is being tested, rather than falls apart.
Why is Britain not leading the way in insisting on the scale of plan that we need? Why are we not demanding that Poland and other eastern European countries do their bit to help, backing up the calls from France and Germany for other nations to do more? Why are we not calling on the Commission to do more, particularly to help Greece provide the humanitarian support that is needed? Why are we not using our leverage in the EU to make sure that other countries do more to provide aid to the region? Why are we not recognising our responsibilities as one of the biggest and longest-standing EU countries to make sure that Europe responds? We should use that basic British diplomacy that we are supposed to be so good at to provide a bit of leadership on our continent at a time of crisis. Yes, that does mean that we have to do our bit to show that we are prepared to help within Europe, too.
Anybody who thinks that we can solve this crisis by pulling Europe apart is profoundly mistaken. Only by working together can we deal with the scale of this. Imagine how much harder it would be, whether to deal with the problems at Calais or the problems of people crossing borders through the continent, if we were to rip Europe apart and make it harder to work together.
In the end, this is about the kind of Britain we are and the kind of Europe we want to believe in. It is about whether we are brave enough and strong enough to act when the times demand it. When we hear the Hungarian Prime Minister—a democratically elected Prime Minister of a European country—warn that we should oppose people coming into his country because we cannot let Muslims into Europe, we should be chilled. We should remember how hard we fought to defend our democratic values, our compassion and our internationalism, not just in Britain, but in Europe; how hard we fought to build the idea of our common humanity; and how we cannot take those values for granted. In the end, these are the values that we believe in. In the 1680s, 50,000 Huguenots fled here from La Rochelle. Two hundred years later, 140,000 Russians fled here from the Tsar. In the 1930s, despite the recession and hardship our country faced, we took in more than 80,000 Jewish and European refugees.
In the Kindertransport debate 77 years ago, Philip Noel-Baker reminded parliamentarians of our common past. In his speech, he reminded the House of the Russian refugees after the first world war who were resettled in Greece, Bulgaria and Syria. Here is what Samuel Hoare, the Conservative Home Secretary of the day, told the Commons:
“There is no page in our lifetime which is so tragic as that of the sufferings of the refugees…Wave after wave of refugees has drifted across the world, uprooted from their homes, penniless, destitute, no country found ready at hand to receive them, separated from their families and their surroundings”.—[Official Report, 21 November 1938; Vol. 341, c. 1463.]
“we, the United Kingdom…are prepared to play our full part and to take our full share with the other nations of the world. We accept the responsibility that is on our shoulders…owing to our wealth and other resources, we can play an important part”.—[Official Report, 21 November 1938; Vol. 341, c. 1466.]
I hope that our Home Secretary today will respond in the same spirit, and I hope that the whole House will do so too, both in the debate today and as we vote on a motion to follow up tomorrow.
Here is what the Labour MP for Gower, David Grenfell, said towards the end of the debate:
“The House this evening has shown a wonderful unanimity of sentiment and feeling, which must gladden the hearts of Members in all parts of the House. Within the framework of a feeling of common humanity and a common standard of civilisation Members in all parts of the House have filled in a picture which shows the House of Commons at its very best.”—[Official Report, 21 November 1938; Vol. 341, c. 1476.]
Another Member stated:
“we are at the turning of the roads…We could never set our hands to a better thing. To-morrow may be a hard day for us, but I feel that, by doing the things that are morally right, we shall achieve something which is worthy of the name of the British nation.”—[Official Report, 21 November 1938; Vol. 341, c. 1456.]
Let us today be the House of Commons at our best. Let us live up to our predecessors. Let us live up to our history. Let us live up to the generosity of the country that we seek to represent. Let us decide this week that we will do more to help.
The whole House, indeed the whole country, has understandably been shocked by the scenes we have witnessed this summer. Men, women and children have taken extraordinary risks to secure for themselves and their loved ones the things we take for granted: a roof over their heads, a home for their family, and a chance to work and provide for their loved ones in a peaceful, stable country. Many have fled horrors we can scarcely imagine.
Since it started four and a half years ago, the civil war in Syria has claimed the lives of 220,000 people and forced 1 million more from their homes. They have seen their schools and hospitals bombed, their towns ransacked, their friends and relatives killed. It is a brutal conflict—one that does not shudder from the use of torture or sexual violence, and that has seen the first use of chemical weapons this century.
No one chooses to be a refugee. The families driven out of Syria are fleeing a conflict they did nothing to start and which they have no desire to see extended. Families up and down the UK, on listening to their stories, have imagined, “What would we do if we were in their place; if that was our town, our home, our children?” The awful scenes we have seen in recent weeks are all the more distressing for the knowledge that they are not unique and, sadly, not new.
As this crisis has grown, the Government have done and will continue to do everything we can to help those in immediate need, and to stop the dreadful situation they are fleeing. Such a huge task demands a comprehensive approach—one that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences. Our approach is focused on four main efforts: providing aid directly to those who need it; preventing people from putting themselves in danger as they seek our help; resettling those who most need our protection; and leading international efforts to bring the situation to an end as swiftly as possible.
The Home Secretary rightly says that no one chooses to be a refugee. That applies to refugees from countries other than Syria. Have the Government any proposals to help in any way those refugees—they do not choose to be refugees—from countries other than Syria?
As has been pointed out, people are fleeing other parts of the world. The Government take a clear approach to that. People have the ability to come to the UK to seek asylum. Those claims are properly considered, and we grant claims for asylum to people here in the United Kingdom. The UK has always been willing to welcome those who are fleeing conflict and persecution. The situation is no different today from what it has been in the past.
I have visited camps in Turkey and Jordan. I pay tribute to the support that the British Government and British people are giving to them. It is not a picnic, but my mind goes to what we can do to stop people making that treacherous journey in the first place. I accept what the shadow Home Secretary says about the hundreds of thousands who are already here, but what actions does the Home Secretary believe we can take with the international community to stop the treacherous journey in the first place?
My hon. Friend makes important points. I will come on to the support that we have been providing in the region for people who have found a place of safety outside Syria, but who are in camps in the circumstances he refers to. He refers to the treacherous journey. One reason why the Government and I believe it is important to offer people who have been displaced from Syria and who are in particularly need that safer, more direct route to the UK from those areas is that it clearly says to people that there is a route that does not entail them taking that treacherous journey. Sadly, as we have seen, many people have died as a result of that treacherous journey, despite the best efforts of countries throughout Europe to ensure that that does not happen.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the saddest things we have seen is the death of young Alan Kurdi? He was the victim of people traffickers who were prepared to put him to sea in a dinghy with his family. The traffickers departed, leaving that child at grave risk on the seas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to clamp down on those people who are so evil?
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. If he has a little patience, I should like to say something later in my remarks about what we are doing in that respect.
I set out the four main areas of effort and should like to address each briefly. The first is aid spending. Since 2011, the UK has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Our financial contribution of more than £1 billion is the largest we have ever made to a humanitarian crisis and makes us the second-biggest bilateral donor in the world. To put it in context, the amount of money we are spending is almost as much as the rest of the European Union put together.
The United Kingdom can be proud that we are the only major country in the world that has kept our promise to spend 0.7% of our national wealth on aid, and prouder still of the difference that that money is making. Our support has reached hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. It has paid for more than 18 million food rations; it means that 1.6 million people have access to clean water; and it is providing education to a quarter of a million children. Last week, the Government announced an additional £100 million of aid spending. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, £60 million of that will go to help people who are still in Syria. The rest will go to the refugees in neighbouring countries—Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. More than half of that new funding will support children, particularly those who have been orphaned or separated from their families.
UK aid from the British people is helping the victims of the Syrian conflict where and when they need it most. Without our aid to those camps, the numbers attempting the dangerous journey to Europe would be much higher. The Government have always been clear on this point: we must stop people putting their lives at risk by taking those perilous routes, as my hon. and learned Friend pointed out a few minutes ago.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one group of people who understandably will continue to want to travel to the UK is those from the region who have family members who are already settled here as refugees? Our tightly drawn family reunion rules limit the numbers who could benefit from them. Will she commit to a review, and an extension of, the family reunion rules so that more can benefit from them?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but there are alternative routes for those who are looking for family reunion here in the UK. Under current family reunion provisions within the immigration rules, those who are granted asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK can sponsor immediate family members to join them here. We have arrangements in place that are helpful to those who wish to join family here in the UK.
I want to make another point about the perilous journey. An important point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) yesterday. He said:
“If we are genuinely to help refugees, this cannot simply be about helping the fittest, the fastest and those most able to get to western Europe. We must help those who are left behind in the camps, who are sometimes the most vulnerable.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 34.]
Indeed, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has made that point herself—she made it on one occasion when we discussed the issue last year. She said:
“There has always been cross-party agreement that the majority of refugees should be supported in the region”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 881.]
The Home Secretary is clearly right about Britain’s record, both on reaching 0.7% and on the camps in Syria and surrounding areas. However, she will know that there is still a crisis of funding in those areas. The World Food Programme, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and others are talking about the strains on their resources to deal not only with the Syrian crisis, but with other crises. The Government have decided that the refugee resettlement programme on which they are embarking will come from the overseas aid budget. I understand the reasons for that, but has there been an assessment of the impact that funding it in that way will have on other programmes elsewhere?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that the United Nations is looking at how to reach the funding it requires to provide support. As he says, there has been an impact on the World Food Programme. Yesterday, I was able to speak to Stephen O’Brien, who a few months ago took up his new role in the UN. He has been spending some considerable time on the issue and talking to potential donor countries. He is looking actively at how it is possible to increase that funding. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has alerted me to the fact that the UN General Assembly will focus on the issue in the not-too-distant future. The UK has a commitment to 0.7%. Because of our growing economy, that aid budget is increasing—it is not the case that there is simply one pot of money that is being distributed. We are seeing an increase because of that growth in the economy, because the target that we have set and reached is based on a percentage of national wealth rather than on a specific figure.
I said in response to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) a couple of minutes ago that I would comment on the issue of criminality. Our work pits us against the callous criminal gangs that exploit the suffering of vulnerable people by selling them false hope. They are taking their life savings in exchange for a place in a rickety vessel, or cramped in the back of an ill-ventilated lorry. The tragic death toll in the Mediterranean—not just in recent weeks, but over the past two years—illustrates the great risks people are running and the vile disregard for human life of the gangs who encourage them, and so do appalling cases such as the 71 bodies found abandoned and decomposing last month in the back of a lorry on an Austrian motorway.
We have seen people taking dangerous risks in their attempts to cross not only the Mediterranean but the English channel. That is why we are working—not just alone but with our international partners—to smash these criminal gangs and break their disgusting trade. In Calais, the joint declaration I signed on 20 August with Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Interior Minister, cements and builds on the close working relationship of our two Governments. It builds on the important collaboration between our law enforcement agencies and establishes a joint gold command structure ensuring that UK and French officers work hand in hand, sharing intelligence and reporting jointly on a monthly basis to both me and Mr Cazeneuve.
Does the Home Secretary agree that this illustrates a wider point? Many of us will have agreed with large amounts of what the shadow Home Secretary said in opening this debate, but I think she left a faintly false impression that the British Government are not working closely with other European Governments across the board on this issue. Does the Home Secretary agree that the very close and improving co-operation between the British and French police authorities is just one part of wider and deeper co-operation that is necessary and that is now happening?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and I shall say a little more about that in a minute or two. We have very good co-operation with other member states in the European Union on these issues. As he says, the police co-operation we are encouraging is indeed a very good sign of the work that is taking place.
Does the Home Secretary not agree that rather than just looking at the borders of Europe, we need to go further into the Mediterranean? That is where people are being exploited and put in unseaworthy vessels. People, including young people and women, are suffocating to death. We need to take action there, at that point, to stop the loss of life, rather than leaving them to try to travel here and drown.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The European Union has agreed a Common Security and Defence Policy programme, to work with a Government in Libya when possible. At the moment, the situation in Libya is such that there is not a Government to provide the support to give the go-ahead for such a programme, but there are already plans on exactly the sort of point made by the hon. Gentleman.
We have established an organised immigration crime taskforce that brings together officers from the National Crime Agency, immigration enforcement, the Border Force and the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue and disrupt organised crime gangs. Some of the team are based in Europol cells in Sicily and The Hague. The rest are on standby in the UK to deploy. They will exploit every opportunity to smash the gangs’ criminal operations. Additional officers have already deployed to Senegal, Ethiopia, Greece, Malta and Tunisia to tackle the gangs at source. The taskforce will build on the progress made by the Home Office’s immigration enforcement command in tackling the gangs that target the most vulnerable. Working with the French authorities, our teams in Kent have already broken up 27 gangs in the past 18 months.
As others have said, this problem extends beyond the conflict in Syria. The UK is also a leading member of the group of European and African nations developing the EU’s Khartoum process, focused on concrete actions to combat people-smuggling and human trafficking in the horn of Africa.
I appreciate it; the Home Secretary is being very generous. I think everybody in the House will agree with pretty much everything she has said. There is a lot that we agree on, but I really must press her on the areas of disagreement. Can she give me any good reason why Britain would not help to take some refugees from Greece? We know the difficulties that Greece is dealing with—coping with 50,000 people arriving in a month. Can the right hon. Lady give me any good reason why we should not do our bit, when other countries are doing theirs, to reach out a hand and take some refugees from Greece?
If the right hon. Lady will bear with me for 30 seconds, I will come on to the issues relating to Greece and Italy to which she referred in her speech. I just want to add this on the criminal gangs: it is not only the victims of conflict on whom the criminal gangs prey; some of those making the dangerous journey to Europe are refugees, but others are economic migrants simply hoping to improve their lot. That is why we are leading the argument in Europe about breaking the link between making these journeys and achieving settlement in Europe for those who are not refugees.
The right hon. Lady, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said, put quite a lot of emphasis in her speech on portraying the United Kingdom as completely failing to work with other member states in the European Union. That could not be further from the truth. We have been working closely with other countries in Europe. The right hon. Lady referred to Greece and Italy and asked us to do our bit to help Greece. We are indeed already helping Greece. We are providing support to Greece and Italy. It is very clear to me and to the Interior Ministers of France and Germany that the European Union’s concept of providing hot spots, particularly in areas such as Greece and Italy, will make it possible to process people coming through more swiftly and give them better support as they arrive in Europe. That will make it possible to take quick action to grant asylum to those who need our protection and, of course, to be firm with those who do not. We need to get those hot spots or processing centres up and running. It has been taking too long and that is precisely why the Interior Ministers of France and Germany, with me, have asked the European Union to call the urgent Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting next week so that we can press this point and ensure we get action. I assure the right hon. Lady that I and the Government have indeed been leading in Europe on a number of these issues.
I appreciate it. Once those assessment centres or hot spots are in place, what will happen to the refugees? Will the Home Secretary go into that meeting on 14 September and pledge not only to support the establishment of the hot spots and assessment centres but to take some of the refugees once they have been assessed? That would be Britain really doing its bit. That, I think, would be welcomed right across Europe and give her so much more leverage in getting Poland and other countries to do their bit as well.
Every country in Europe is working and contributing on this issue in a variety of different ways. We are very clear that the focus should be on helping Syrian refugees in the camps and in the region. We are not part of quota systems of resettlement and relocation within Europe for those who have arrived in Europe. We are helping in relation to the problems that Greece and Italy are already finding, as I have just indicated to the House.
I want to talk specifically on resettling refugees, particularly from Syria. As I have said, we are providing aid directly to people in the region. We believe that that is the best way to provide the greatest level of support to the largest number of people. We are embracing the need to provide protection here in Britain. We have always proudly done that. We operate some of the largest and longest-running refugee resettlement schemes in Europe. We have been among those EU member states offering the highest number of places in response to the current situation. Since the Syrian crisis began, we have granted protection to almost 5,000 Syrian nationals and their dependants under our normal asylum rules, in addition to the more than 200 we have taken under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which is for the most vulnerable people—survivors of torture and violence, women and children at risk, and people in need of emergency medical treatment. As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, we will significantly increase the numbers of people resettled under that scheme—up to 20,000 over the course of this Parliament.
I apologise to hon. Members; I indicated earlier that I would not take further interventions. I took interventions from the Opposition Front Bench. I will not take further interventions, because, as Mr Speaker said, 27 Back Benchers wish to speak in the debate. It is only fair to them if we on the Front Benches try to limit our comments.
Increasing the number of resettled refugees to 20,000 people over the course of this Parliament will not replace our humanitarian efforts. However, it recognises the resettlement of vulnerable refugees as an important part of the comprehensive approach needed to address a crisis on this scale.
As the Prime Minister said in response to questions yesterday from hon. Members asking him to put a figure on the number in the first year, we will work with the UNHCR, which will identify the most vulnerable people. We will also work with local authorities, as the right hon. Lady mentioned. I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are chairing a taskforce to ensure that across Government we are getting the maximum effort on this point. My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister has already contacted the Local Government Association and the Scottish Government. We need to ensure appropriate accommodation for people when they arrive in the UK, so we will work with the UNHCR and scale up as quickly as we can, but I am sorry to say to her that I cannot put a figure on the number for the first year. If she thinks about the need to ensure that the UNHCR can identify the most vulnerable people and that the accommodation and support provided to those people here in the UK is appropriate for their needs, she will see that it would not be right simply to chase some figure for the first year. We need to ensure we provide the right support for the most vulnerable people, and we will continue to work with the UNHCR to identify those refugees.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we recognise that children have been particularly badly affected by the crisis. In most cases, the interests of children are best met in the region, where they can remain close to surviving family members, but where the UNHCR’s advice is that their needs should be met by resettlement in the UK, we will ensure that vulnerable children, including orphans, are a priority. We are already working with the UNHCR and a range of other partners to deliver these changes and to start bringing in additional people as soon as possible. As was referred to earlier, this carries a cost, but as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we will ensure that the full cost of supporting thousands of Syrian refugees in the UK is met through our aid spending for the first year, easing the burden on local communities.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend, I mean the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Yes, that was pre-May. It is only fair to those whose interventions I rejected that I continue to make progress.
The response to the situation has shown the great generosity of the British people. When there are humanitarian crises across the world, we see an enormous outpouring of generosity from the British people. We have seen local councils, companies, churches, community and faith groups and individual people offering their help. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary and I will be leading the work to ensure that those generous offers can be turned into the practical assistance that the refugees need most.
If we are to deal with the situation, however, we need to overcome this challenge in the long term, and that is about finding an end to the conflict. The only lasting solution to the problem in Syria is a political settlement to the conflict—one that rids Syria of the murderous tyranny offered by Assad as well as the warped ideology and barbarism of the ISIL terrorists seeking to exploit the violence. The Prime Minister was clear yesterday in the House that there was a strong case for the UK’s taking part in airstrikes as part of the international coalition to target ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. I hope that when the right hon. Lady winds up the debate, she will say what her position on that proposal would be if she were leader of the Labour party.
A stable Libya is also crucial to our efforts. A political settlement there will do more than anything else to help us stop people making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. We must support the creation of a credible national Government whom we can work with and who can work with us to secure the Libyan coastline and interior, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) indicated earlier, and we are working, unilaterally and through the EU, to ensure that our development work helps those source and transit countries from which people are fleeing not persecution but poverty. We need to make it easier for people to improve their livelihoods without making long and dangerous journeys or fuelling the people-trafficking gangs.
The extension of our existing schemes announced by the Prime Minister yesterday builds on the Government’s comprehensive approach to this unprecedented challenge: our largest ever humanitarian aid programme providing help directly in the region; protection for those who need it; stopping people making these dangerous journeys by breaking the link between illegal immigration and settlement in Europe; disrupting the criminal gangs and bolstering source and transit countries; and leading international efforts to end the conflict in Syria, to defeat ISIL and to give the refugees the most lasting help we can—the peace and stability of their normal lives.
This is a grim world. Dreadful events are taking place in many countries. Innocent human beings are dying and armies and guerrillas are fighting each other throughout the world, particularly in south Asia and the middle east. Only today, we read of a 27-year-old Palestinian woman murdered by Israeli extremists, leaving her four-year-old child an orphan, yet we—not me, but the Government—will welcome to this country Binyamin Netanyahu, the author of the oppression of the Palestinians and the man who will go on trying to wreck the nuclear agreement with Iran, which is one of the few bright spots in international relations.
What was once hailed as the Arab spring has degenerated in every single country in which it appeared to be taking place: Libya is one source of the tragic and pathetic people trying to get to Europe via the Mediterranean; Egypt, an authoritarian country that tries people for exercising free speech and once an attractive country even under a dictatorship, is now worse than ever; and we have Islamic State, the terrible slaughter it has carried out and the threat to historic Palmyra. But the worst tragedy is Syria, where so many people have been killed and made refugees.
What are the Government doing? They want to bomb. Bombing will achieve nothing whatsoever, but will kill more people and create more refugees. They are now following the deplorable Obama in carrying out murder by drones, almost certainly against international law. What is their response to the heart-rending refugee swarm—that is what it is—of people fleeing horrors that, thank God, we in this country will never know. In their programme for accepting—not welcoming—refugees into this country, they have imposed not a target, but a limit, of 20,000. And now the Home Secretary, in her speech this afternoon, has said “up to 20,000”; not 20,000 or more, but up to 20,000.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. When the refugees come to the United Kingdom, I expect them to be welcomed. I have received a number of emails from constituents saying that we need to do more, as I am sure a lot of MPs have. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not also accept that, in welcoming the number that the Government have proposed, there has to be some limit? Otherwise, what figure might he be talking about? Does he not believe that if there is no limit the huge warmth that the British people will show to the refugees may be jeopardised?
That would be all very well if that was what other countries were doing too, but over the last few days alone the Germans have taken in 17,000 refugees. It may well be that Angela Merkel, creditably, is motivated by conscience and what the Germans did to the Jews. That is possible, but it is not discreditable. She is to be emulated. The French are taking a very great many more. Other countries are trying. I am not saying it is universal; I am not saying it is by any means satisfactory or creditable. But we are at the bottom of the list, and I find that deplorable, and so do our constituents. The Government, if they reach the target, which is now “up to” 20,000—the Home Secretary has the opportunity to intervene and say, “Yes, definitely 20,000”—
I do not find that reply convincing. I do not think that this Government have got the motivation that other countries in western and central Europe have.
What is more, the people whom the Government are ready to take in are not enduring the present hell in Europe and on the Mediterranean; they are in camps already. I am not saying they are happy in the camps; I am not saying the conditions in the camps are good. I am not saying they want to be in the camps, but at least, with all those shortcomings, they are settled. We are looking at people in Europe who, far from being settled, do not know what is going to happen to them within the next hour. It is about time that we as a country took account of that in whatever policy we have from this Government.
Even the figure of 20,000, however it is calculated and however it is limited, is bogus. Cities such as my city of Manchester are very willing indeed to take a very substantial number of refugees, but the Government’s financial arrangement is such that they will fund the refugees for the first year and after that the local authority has to pay. My city of Manchester, which has suffered the worst financial cuts of any city in the country, is being told, “Yes, we’ll fund the refugees for a year, and after that you’re on your own.”
The Prime Minister and the Government have said this week that it is morally right to take 20,000 people, but last week it was not morally right to take 20,000 people. In the weeks to come, what number does my right hon. Friend think will be morally right, as the Government are dragged kicking and screaming in the direction of public opinion? Does he think they will shift again, to a higher figure, or will we have to make do with that?
I am afraid that the phrase “morally right” is somewhat ambiguous under this Government. My hon. Friend is perfectly right: we do not know what they will do, and one of the reasons we do not know is that they do not know what they will do themselves.
It is not only my city that will be very willing indeed to take in a far larger number of refugees than the Government would propose; it is other cities, too. I have to say, Mr Speaker, I think it is heart-rending. I do not want to dwell on my own personal experience, but my parents were refugees. When I think of people in Europe, I think of what happened to the Jews, and I believe—I am not discrediting anybody else, heaven knows—that Jews have a particular responsibility. I very much wish that the Government had that dimension of empathy that they do not appear to have.
As I have said, the Government funding is insufficient and is limited. That is dreadful. The number of refugees that this Government say they will take—although as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) has pointed out, we do not really know what that number is or is going to be—is derisory compared with Germany, which in the last few days has taken in 17,000 refugees, and with France and other countries.
We will look back on this Government’s mean response to this heart-rending humanitarian crisis and we will be ashamed. This is not the will of the people of this country. Every indication, both nationally and from our constituents, demonstrates that people want to be more generous—that they will feel fulfilled by being more generous. My constituents would be ready—just as, I am sure, the constituents of hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House would—to open their doors and receive people who are going through privations and suffering that are very difficult indeed for any of us in this comfortable House, in this comfortable country, even to imagine.
We need an international plan. We need a European plan. The Home Secretary said that European countries are dealing with this in a variety of ways. That is because there is no co-ordination. The European Union ought to have a plan and we ought to try to instigate that plan. This is not something that feeling human beings can tolerate or live with. We need an international plan—a UN plan—and we need a European plan, but above all we need what we certainly do not have: a Government with a heart.
People across Britain, including one of my constituents who was on the phone, wept when they saw that little boy’s body on the beach. Good people, such as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), scream out in empathy that we should be doing something to help these people and assimilating more refugees to help the desperate. I completely agree on the need for action and the need to help those whose lives have been crushed by war and to do, with an enormous international effort, much more than we are doing now—as she said, a kind of Marshall plan.
However, I also think that the Prime Minister is completely right when he says that receiving ever more people simply is not the answer. In fact, I believe that much of the EU, and the Germans, are completely bonkers if they give ever growing numbers of refugees and migrants, picked up in the Mediterranean or elsewhere in Europe, the right to settle in Europe. There are hundreds of millions of people in the borderlands of Europe who are poor or affected by war, wanting better lives for their families, so we have to make it absolutely clear that people will not be allowed to live in Europe if they try to get in through the back door.
Give me a couple of minutes. Just let me get into my stride.
Instead, those who are refugees should be offered a well-resourced place of safety—perhaps in Europe, but more probably in a safe place in the region where they live—and if it turns out that someone is an economic migrant, they should be taken home. This is not xenophobic: it is moral, practical, fair and sustainable over many years. As I see it, it is the only way to slow the number of bodies landing on the beaches and to allow Europe to re-establish control of its borders, which it has now lost. If we fail to achieve this, millions more people will make these journeys and we will be overwhelmed in the years ahead and less able to send resources to the region.
There are big disparities in security and economic opportunities between nations, and they will not be solved by short-term measures, such as giving hundreds of thousands of people asylum within Europe. It is not an idle exaggeration or scaremongering to say that over the coming years we are looking at potentially hundreds of millions of people seeking a better life in Europe. The numbers have grown and will grow as long as we continue to reward these journeys with the opportunity to settle in Europe.
Let us be hard-headed about this: not all migrants are refugees. By way of illustration, Al Jazeera reporting from the Greek side of the border with Macedonia showed that large numbers of Syrians were trying to dissociate themselves from people from other places. It said:
“They want to separate themselves from the other nationalities; the Pakistanis, the Afghans, the Iraqis...what they say is that all these other nationalities claim to be Syrians as well, because it is the Syrians who have the most valid claim to asylum.”
When populations flee war or famine, they generally flee together, as I saw as a television reporter and a soldier. They flee with the elderly, the infants and the women as well as the men. [Interruption.] Yes, I would. The current migrants are overwhelmingly working-age males who have paid a hefty price to make the trip. Most of the countries they came from are certainly poor, but they are not at war. It costs thousands to board a smuggler’s boat and a lot of money in the months before to travel to it.
As a TV reporter in the 1990s, I remember doing a piece about landlords in north London ripping off the housing benefit system. I was living in a house with a lot of people, including many from Congo, many of whom had been soldiers. I remember lying on my bed in this room that I was sharing with half a dozen of these guys, and I thought to myself, “Who is more likely to get to England and to north London: is it the soldier who had an AK47 and a fistful of dollars or the widow with seven children and not a cent to her name?”
Some years ago, I lived under cover for a couple of weeks in the Sangatte camp in Calais when I was working for ITV. I think there are some parallels with the situation today. Living side by side with people in the camp, it seemed to me that the overwhelming majority of the people who got as far as Calais were economic migrants. Every night, hundreds of us, all young men, would burst out of the camp as it started to get dark. We would spend the night cutting the wire, trying to get on to freight trains; we would be picked up the next morning by the French police and what we called the police taxi service to take us back to the camp.
If I had been one of those guys—then from Iran, Kosovo, the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey—I would have done exactly the same as they did. How can we possibly criticise people for wanting a better life? Most were doing just that—looking for a better life. In many cases, their families had sold land to get the money to pay the people smugglers, and they had travelled to northern France unchecked. This still seems to be the case in Calais today. Not long ago, many people got out of an unsafe country to get there and they travelled through many safe countries subsequently. What they are doing now is trying to get into their country of choice.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the information sent by the Immigration Minister to the Home Affairs Select Committee, confirming that the most common nationalities among those at Calais included Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans? Refugees can be wealthy as well. The fact is that the United Nations has been absolutely clear that this is a refugee crisis and it is very likely the majority of people at Calais are refugees. Why does the hon. Gentleman persist in peddling myths?
The hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said. I said that those people had been through dozens of safe countries by the time they get to Calais. It is quite possible to be a refugee and an economic migrant. [Interruption.] One of the appalling truths about the Syrian bodies washed up on the beaches is that they previously got to safe countries and are now choosing to come to Europe. Again, I would do the same. Likewise, people in this country have claimed asylum in this country and then they go back on holiday to the places from where they have claimed that asylum. I could not get my hair cut the other day for that reason.
Australia used to have a severe—[Interruption.] Labour Members should rise to intervene if they want to say something.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is being very unhelpful by doing what many other Conservative Members are doing in constantly blurring the lines of definition between refugee, migrant, economic migrant and asylum seeker. The reality is that he is out of step with what the British public feel about this. People of all parties in my constituency are making it clear what they feel about the issue. This is a different situation, and the constant blurring of those definitions does not help.
We will not get anywhere unless we are clear that there is a difference between a refugee and an economic migrant. [Interruption.] I said it was possible to be both. Australia used to have a big migrant crisis, but does not have one now. Why? Because the Government took bold action. As Tony Abbott said—[Interruption.] Opposition Members should not laugh; this is true. Tony Abbott said:
“If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better.”
We cannot have a rational discussion of this issue, unless we accept that not all migrants are refugees. Economic migrants should apply properly, like everyone else, before leaving home. It should not be the case that people have only to arrive in Europe to be allowed to stay in Europe.
I thank my very hon. Friend for giving way. Both he and I know that the real sadness is that some people in Syria will be petrified and unable to move because they do not have a penny. These people are refugees without being able to be refugees because they are stuck in Syria, petrified, slowly watching their families being killed.
Absolutely, and I think we have a deep moral obligation to people who find themselves caught up in the wreckage of warring nations, or who find themselves persecuted.
During the Balkan wars, I posed as a deaf and dumb Bosnian Muslim in Serb territory—from the Kosara valley, Banja Luka and over the bridge at Bosanska Gradiška. We travelled down in a great big convoy of escaping Bosnian Muslims and Croats on trains. I ended up living in a mosque with refugees and then in a refugee camp in northern Croatia, followed by a prison cell in Austria, having been arrested with the Macedonian people smugglers who were taking us into Europe. Most of the people with whom I travelled from Serb territory remained in local refugee camps until the war ended. The vast majority now remain in former Yugoslavia, if not in their old homes.
These terrified people were most certainly refugees, and I will never forget the behaviour of the soldiers, and border guards and police towards these families, including an incident in which a child was literally picked up by the hair and thrown out of a bus on to a concrete hard shoulder. With 4 million Syrians displaced outside their country, and many more within it, what will be the effect of an open door from the European Union? Can anyone tell me what number of people would understandably move west? Can anyone tell me at what point our nations would turn round and say, “Hang on, we cannot keep on taking people from poorer countries into our communities”?
The hon. Gentleman said that Germany was “bonkers”. Is he aware that after the second world war, Germany absorbed an extra 12 million people, mainly Germans fleeing from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. It has an open door for another 800,000 next year—it was 300,000 last year— and it has an ageing population so it could do with the workers. It is not “bonkers”. It has an open heart and an open mind—neither of which the hon. Gentleman has.
Well, I think it is completely bonkers. In my view, it is also immoral because we will see more and more bodies washed up. We are just going to have to disagree on this.
I think we could help a lot more people if the international community behaved a bit more like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, by trying to support as many Syrian refugees as possible through helping the many, as opposed to the few—helping all those camped out across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. That would be better than focusing on a lucky minority who will get to Europe.
Back in May, the European Commission made the insane proposal that member countries should take in migrants and refugees under a quota scheme. Notwithstanding other comments that he has made, Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, noted at the time:
“The proposal on the table from the European Commission…is absurd, bordering on insanity… It is an incentive for human traffickers and will simply tell people: yes, try to cross the Mediterranean at all costs.”
Our Government rightly ruled out the EU asylum policy as an open invitation to uncontrolled immigration. The Australian general Jim Molan put it like this:
“Europe needs to make a very big decision and to make it soon. If it does not want to control its borders then it should establish a sea bridge across the Mediterranean, let everyone in who wants to come, and not let these people die.”
Let us not forget that there are some very wealthy Sunni states with dogs in the Syrian fight. Refugees should be looked after in the first available country that they come to, or in their regions. There are plenty of very wealthy countries with land that is closer to those regions.
The hon. Gentleman has referred approvingly to Australia’s treatment of migrants and refugees. I wonder whether he is aware of an editorial published a few days ago by The New York Times, which described Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s methods and policies as
“inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country's tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.”
I myself wonder how many people have not drowned because of those policies, but, again, we shall have to differ.
We must return those who are not entitled to claim asylum to their countries of origin, and—as we heard from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford—try to find mechanisms to help the very, very large numbers of refugees in the region. We must consider establishing migration centres in safe places outside the EU, or possibly within it, for those who are rescued or those who have arrived. I believe that, in the jargon, that is called “extraterritorial processing”. In 2003, the Labour Government presented their idea for “transit processing centres”. Those proposing such an offshore asylum strategy could also learn from what the Australians have done in Papua New Guinea.
There are millions of genuine refugees from Syria alone, plus millions of economic migrants from numerous countries, whom we must discourage, and those are not numbers that it will to be possible to accommodate through dispersal within Europe. Besides, Syria needs a regional solution; relocating people away from the region does not offer the long-term approach that it requires.
At some stage, we shall have to realise that big boys’ toys—that drones, lean men with unseasonal suntans and Viking moustaches, and fast jets—do not end wars. What ends wars, ultimately, is working on the politics, and sometimes that means going into partnership with some pretty unpleasant people. However, that is for another debate.
Let me say this in conclusion—Members will be relieved to hear that. If we do not act to break the link between a journey and a right to remain, millions of migrants may arrive on European soil over the next couple of years alone. Today, if we keep sending people in poorer or less stable countries the message that once they are picked up by the Royal Navy, or walk into Hungary, or reach a Greek island, they will have a ticket to a whole new life in Europe there and then, ever-growing numbers will come. Wouldn't you?
The hon. Gentleman’s argument seems to be predicated on the idea that the fact that Australia has said no to boatloads of people has had the effect of stopping people going. Is he aware of the number of people who are continuing to drown while trying to get to Australia? Is there not just a vague possibility that the boats are not a pull factor, and that it is the need to flee for their lives that is making people take this risk? Operation Mare Nostrum was stopped in the Mediterranean because there was an idea that doing so would somehow stop people coming, but that simply was not true. People are dying and fighting for their lives; surely they deserve our protection.
They absolutely deserve our protection, and that is where I am coming from in this debate. We have to be hard-nosed and realistic. It is all very well to try to make oneself feel better, but we must do what is sustainable, moral and right in the long term.
Unless the message gets through to people in these countries, we are inviting hundreds of millions to seek a better life in Europe and Britain. Either we are a nation state or we are not. Either we are able to be serious about helping the many millions who are affected, or we are not. We should decide who comes into our country, not the German Government, and not the people smugglers. The message needs to be much clearer, or the drownings and the chaos will go on.
I completely understand the sentiments of those, here and in my constituency, who are demanding that something be done. We must do the right thing for the long term, in order to prevent the tides of death many of which we will never see in a newspaper. We need to resist the temptation to do what makes us feel better, and start coming up with some proper ideas that could solve the problem.
I intend to strike a very different note from that struck by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway).
Last week, our First Minister in Scotland convened a summit to consider the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding across Europe. She said we should be in no doubt that what we were witnessing was a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in Europe since the second world war. As the shadow Home Secretary said, the United Nations estimates that up to a third of a million people have tried to cross the Mediterranean in the last few months, and nearly 3,000 have died in the process. Desperate people are travelling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans into Hungary as they try to get to Austria and Germany.
The images of people suffocating in the backs of trucks, children drowning, and people on the very doorstep of the United Kingdom losing their lives as they try to cross from Calais to Britain haunt us on a daily basis. Those images will continue to haunt us, and our consciences and our reputation as a Union of nations, for many generations if we do not, together and collectively, act to help those who are in desperate need.
We have just heard that one of the reasons we should have little sympathy for many of the refugees is the fact that many of them are fit young men. Is it at all possible that the hon. and learned Lady agrees with me that perhaps many of those men are also fleeing from conscription into military forces whose values they abhor and whose future they do not want to support, and that they want a democracy that they are unable to find in their own country?
The hon. Lady has made a very good point, with which I agree.
I mentioned what the First Minister said last week. As has been made clear, the Scottish Government stand ready to do whatever they can to help to alleviate the crisis; but these are reserved matters, and the Scottish Government depend on the UK Government’s doing the right thing so that we can do the right thing in Scotland. To date, the UK Government’s response has been deeply disappointing. We recognise and support the funding that they have committed to the humanitarian initiatives to provide refuge and sanctuary in camps in the war zones of the middle east, but that significant effort must not be allowed to distract attention from the other significant efforts that are needed.
During our Opposition day debate tomorrow, the Scottish National party will elaborate on the action that we believe needs to be taken to deal with this humanitarian crisis. We will present three arguments. First, the United Kingdom should be part of the refugee solution, and we should accept our fair share of the refugees who are in and coming to Europe. We should recognise that these people have embarked on the often fatal journey towards southern Europe precisely because all other routes of refuge have been closed off, and we want the UK Government to assure the House that the UK will work with our EU neighbours in the European Commission resettlement programme to be announced tomorrow. Frankly, the UK Government’s refusal to work with the Commission’s current resettlement agreement to date has been an absolute disgrace.
The second point we will be making tomorrow when we elaborate our points in the Opposition day debate is that this humanitarian crisis should not be used as a cover for military intervention by the United Kingdom in Syria. The fact is that air strikes are already taking place on a daily basis by a US-led alliance, and since the advent of those air strikes the refugee crisis has not diminished; it has intensified. To bomb both Daesh and Assad-controlled areas, as the Chancellor has suggested, would not leave much of an already ravaged country unbombed, and that can only contribute further to the crisis before us.
Thirdly, the SNP will argue that the UK should sponsor a renewed UN initiative to secure and support safe corridors and camps throughout the middle east. If we base our response on humanitarian necessity as opposed to military intervention, we might help, rather than hinder, our fellow human beings. The UK must now play a proportionate role in conjunction with its European partners. It simply will not do for the Prime Minister to say that the UK will take only 20,000 refugees over the course of this Parliament, and those only from camps and elsewhere in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Germany has said that she will take up to 800,000 refugees, and in a matter of days will easily have outstripped the 20,000 the Prime Minister has said he wants to take over five years.
Who could forget the images on our television screens at the weekend of refugees walking towards the border with Germany carrying images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel torn from newspapers? How proud Germans must feel that their leader has taken such a moral lead; I wish that we, as members of this Union of nations, could have a similar pride in our United Kingdom Government.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the crystallisation of the embarrassment we on the SNP Benches feel about the UK Government approach is in the numbers? When the 20,000 over five years is stripped down, it is six per constituency per year across the United Kingdom. I have had hundreds of emails and crying phone calls from my constituents who are ready to take vastly more than this pitiful number of six per constituency. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is the numbers that are embarrassing?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and all Members in this House will probably have shared that experience of being absolutely inundated with emails and letters over the last few days.
I was talking about German generosity in the face of this humanitarian crisis, and I pose this question: on what basis do the UK Government think it is fair for Germany and our other EU neighbours to accept so many of these refugees who have arrived in Europe when the UK turns its back completely on the refugees who have arrived in Europe? There is a depressingly large contrast between Angela Merkel’s announcement yesterday of a €6 billion investment in shelters and language courses for refugees and the UK Government’s rather frosty approach.
There is also a danger that the UK Government policy of only taking those refugees who have stayed behind in the camps will label them as “good” refugees and those who have come to Europe as “bad” refugees. Such an approach is not helpful and does not begin to engage with the reality of the situation.
What does the hon. and learned Lady think about the leaders of other countries who have not given quite so much aid? We are giving 0.7% of our GDP in aid. Would she put those leaders in the same category as she is just about to put our Prime Minister in?
We are here today to debate the response of the UK Government. I have already said that the SNP accepts that the UK Government have been generous in aid terms, but that is only part of the picture. What we are here today to discuss is the adequacy of the UK Government’s approach overall.
I found it very worrying that yesterday the Prime Minister seemed to conflate issues regarding what is a humanitarian crisis with economic migration and, even more worryingly, security and terrorist issues. This seems to me to be a cynical attempt to distract people from the moral imperative presented to us by recent events. Going on the evidence of our mailbags and emails over the last few days, I do not think that cynicism is going to succeed in the face of the fundamental decency of the people of the UK.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
I should like to make a little more progress; then I might give way.
I do not believe that people in the United Kingdom will tolerate a situation in which the Government simply wash their hands, Pontius Pilate-like, and walk by on the other side of the street in the face of the desperate plight of those people who are now in Europe. The point has already been made that the UK has a proud history of taking in refugees, from the Kindertransport of the 1930s through to the Ugandan refugees in the late ’70s. Even Mrs Thatcher’s Government took in 10,000 Vietnamese boat people after a bit of pressure was applied. The people of the United Kingdom will be ashamed if this Government do not relent and take a fair share of the refugees who have come to Europe.
We should not use the fact that we are not part of the EU’s borderless Schengen agreement, or that we are not at present part of the relocation initiative, to distract from what is a moral imperative to reach out to those who are suffering and in need, and who are coming to our relatively wealthy continent of Europe seeking sanctuary. They are, of course, coming to the poorest part of Europe, the south, and the people in the south, particularly in Greece, need the support of the richer nations in the north if they are to cope with the crisis that is unfolding on their doorstep.
Another thing that the UK Government could do—I think both sides of the House could unite around this—is put pressure on other states in the region such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are supposed to be Britain’s allies, to take in some refugees. Some of those countries do not even recognise refugees in their constitutions. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the southern European states could be helped if the UK Government exerted their influence in that way?
Yes I do, but it will be difficult to have any great influence when we are not seen to be making an appropriate response to the crisis ourselves.
We are an island Union of nations, and the point has been made that we are at the northern end of Europe and therefore rather removed from the apex of the crisis. We are also Europeans, and we will continue to be Europeans even if this Government take us out of Europe following their referendum. We have been good Europeans in the past, so let us not dishonour our forebears by turning our backs on those in need who are arriving on our doorstep in numbers bigger than at any time since the second world war.
Yesterday, the House debated the European Union Referendum Bill. In the context of that debate, we should be asking what sort of Europe we want to see. The Scottish National party is in no doubt that what Scotland wants—and, I believe, what the United Kingdom wants—is a humanitarian Europe that extends compassion to our fellow human beings in their hour of need.
I should like to make a little more progress.
At last week’s emergency humanitarian summit in Edinburgh, the First Minister made it clear that Scotland was willing to take its fair share of refugees, as agreed by the UK Government, to help some of the most vulnerable people in need. We welcome the Prime Minister’s shift in attitude, and his late recognition that the UK has a role to play, as an important first step. However, the 20,000 refugees over five years should not be seen as a cap or an upper limit and, crucially, we must also play our part in responding to the crisis on the southern European coastline.
We believe that the UK should opt into the EU relocation scheme. The Prime Minister has made it clear that one-year resettlement will be funded from the UK’s international aid budget, but we are seeking urgent clarification on the impact that that will have on the work of existing aid projects. The refugee situation is now at crisis point, and stretching UK support and refugee intake over the next five years will mean that a number of people who could be helped immediately will be left without the vital help they need.
The Scottish Government want to work constructively with the UK Government, and the First Minister has written to the Prime Minister outlining the proceedings of Friday’s summit in Scotland, which focused on some of the practical issues involved in integrating those who come here seeking protection. Today, the first meeting took place of a taskforce that will bring together stakeholders from across Scotland in the areas of local government, housing, health services, language support and social services. The taskforce will try to co-ordinate Scotland’s humanitarian and practical response. These are reserved matters, however, and we cannot act until the UK Government act.
The UK is increasingly isolated in the international community over these issues, and the international community is stepping up to the job of sheltering refugees. Over the past 24 hours we have heard that the following places will increase their share of refugees: France to 24,000, Germany to more than 31,000, Quebec to 3,650, Venezuela to 2,000 and New Zealand to 600. His Holiness Pope Francis said at the weekend that every Catholic parish in Europe should take a family of refugees, as should every religious community in Europe.
Does the hon. and learned Lady not recognise that deeply seared in the collective German psyche is the memory of the 9 million or so displaced German civilians as the second world war came to a close, and so to make a comparison between this country and Germany is wrong? I do not say that in an unkind way, because when my own late mother was a five-year-old girl she was one of that number. She was forced to leave a village outside Breslau, as it was at the time—it is now called Wroclaw—where my forefathers had lived since the 1720s. To make that comparison between the German psyche on these sorts of issues and the UK is very unfair.
Let me answer this point. We have benefited in the past from being an island that is separate from the rest of Europe and perhaps we have not experienced a refugee crisis, although many people were forced to leave my country of Scotland as a result of the clearances, people had to leave Ireland as a result of the potato famine, and people have had to leave England and Wales as a result of extreme poverty. We have therefore experienced some of these pressures—
I would like to make some progress, because I am nearly finished and I am conscious that a lot of other people wish to speak.
The Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box yesterday and presented a wholly inadequate response to a truly horrific humanitarian crisis. The point I wish to make is that the international community has not thought twice about stepping up to the table and helping share the burden of refugees. That is why I have listed so many countries other than Germany that have been stepping up to the plate in the past few hours. It is a striking fact that halfway around the world from Syria, Brazil has taken in 2,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011.
I am sorry but I will not, as I do want to finish now.
Just yesterday, speaking on Brazil’s Independence day, President Dilma Rousseff said Brazil will welcome Syrian refugees with “open arms”. She said that she wanted to reiterate the Brazilian Government’s
“willingness to welcome those who, driven from their homeland, want to come live, work and contribute to the prosperity and peace of Brazil.”
That is the sort of humanity we need, it is the international initiative that refugees need and it is the moral compass that I hope will make the UK Government wake up to their now shameful position on the international stage.
It is useful to reflect that we are not starting this debate from a position in which Britain has done nothing in the past. Britain has a proud tradition of providing a home for genuine asylum seekers and refugees, and international aid around the world. According to the Red Cross, last year 126,000 refugees were living in the UK and more than 30,000 people entered the asylum system, seeking asylum in this country. According to figures from the Home Office, nearly 5,000 Syrians have already been granted asylum in the UK. That is before the announcement made by the Prime Minister that we would take a further 20,000 people, through the Syrian scheme, during this Parliament.
We have had a big debate about that number, but I have heard nothing from the Labour party to say that it would take more than 20,000. Labour may take these people from different places but it has not said it will take more. All the shadow Home Secretary would say when asked about this point was that she thought we should take more than 4,000 this year. But as we have seen from what the Government have said, they are open to the fact that we may take more than 4,000 this year, because no fixed number for this year has been set.
The hon. Gentleman should target his remarks at the Home Secretary who has given us no figure on how many we are to take this year. I started by saying that we should take at least 10,000 right now; we could do that. Government Members are trying to spread the number to 4,000 a year. That is simply not enough. We want to go further. Will they come back and say how many they want to provide for this year, by Christmas. The crisis is now.
The problem is that the 10,000 figure for this year that the shadow Home Secretary has asked for could still be only 20,000 over the lifetime of the Parliament. The Government have not given a fixed number for this year; it could be more than 4,000. In many ways, this debate about numbers, while important, gets away from the main point, which is that the Opposition are not proposing a substantially different number of people to be granted asylum from Syria. That point has not been made during the course of this debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the question is not really about figures, but about our whole approach to the asylum crisis? The figures will make sense in the context of the correct approach, and we do not believe that the approach of Her Majesty’s Government is correct.
I agree with the hon. Lady on that point, which is why I think the Prime Minister was right to focus our efforts on the region itself. We should be looking at the aid we are delivering to Syria and the support in the camps in the region where we are playing a leading role. That is where we and other countries should be making more of an effort, rather than encouraging people to make perilous journeys across Europe. I do not think that that is what any Member wants. All Opposition Members have done during this debate so far is to focus purely on the numbers and to ignore the broader contribution that this country is making. Help is needed on the ground, close to Syria. Millions of people are on the move. No one is suggesting that any one European country can accommodate millions of people. There should be a bigger international effort to provide safe havens in the region itself. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart McDonald) asked whether the Gulf Arab states should be doing more. Providing financial support to safe havens on the ground is exactly the sort of thing they can do.
I am afraid that I have very little time left. I just want to make a couple more remarks.
The Home Secretary was absolutely right to focus on the efforts that have been made by the Government in conjunction with the French Government in Calais. This is very important. Although the death of a three-year-old boy touched the heartstrings of everyone all around the world, it has not been the only death this summer. I represent the constituency where the channel tunnel enters this country. Migrants have died seeking to access the channel tunnel to get into this country. That cannot be allowed to continue. We have an obligation to protect our borders and to safeguard the lives of people seeking to enter this country. We need to ensure that the border and the frontier are secure. The Government have provided millions of pounds for proper security fencing, which has safeguarded the channel tunnel site and led to a massive reduction in the disruption of services, which has been a terrible blight on the people in the south-east of England and Kent throughout the summer. The fencing has also prevented people from breaking into the tunnel where they can not only lose their lives but endanger the lives of other people as well. That support, in conjunction with the extra policing effort from the British and French police forces, has been a huge step towards securing the site at Calais.
We all want to see proper humanitarian intervention in the camps as well. No one is advocating that we should let everyone who is at Calais into this country without any checks. If we did so, we would encourage greater numbers of people to make that treacherous journey to get to those camps, believing that simply arriving there is enough to provide them with instant access to the UK. That is not what should be done. There has to be proper processing of people on the sites to determine who are the genuine refugees and asylum seekers. Decisions can then be made about where they should go to seek asylum. That is the next necessary step.
I regretted the rather cynical approach of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). I fear that it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that some ISIS sympathisers might well be infiltrating this massive flow of refugees with a view to obtaining asylum and becoming sleepers ready to agitate and foment terrorist activities in the west in the years ahead. That is not a fanciful or cynical idea that the Prime Minister has put into our minds. It is something that we should take very seriously, especially given the large numbers that will be coming onto these shores.
I agree that we cannot ignore the security situation, which is why the Prime Minister was right yesterday to address the two things together. We cannot ignore the debate about what is causing this massive migration crisis. This refugee crisis has been caused by an out-of-control war and civil war in Syria and Iraq, which is displacing millions of people. There must be an international solution to stabilise the region and provide safe havens, but we must also consider what other tools we have at our disposal to limit the murder gangs and the genocide being committed by ISIL forces in the region.
We would be doing a massive disservice to the refugees and the people living in these countries if we refuse to consider whether using our armed forces and airstrikes in Syria as we have in Iraq is the only appropriate step to prevent likely murder, the likely displacement of even more people and even more misery. We must consider that alongside our efforts in the region, to provide safe haven in this country and to protect our borders. That is the broad strategy that the Government have set out and they are correct to have done so. I do not think that there is too much of a difference between the positions of those on both sides of the House, but we must consider seriously the efforts to provide more safe havens and ultimately, if necessary, the use of our armed forces if we are to provide a decent service and decent hope for the people living in these countries.
It is sobering to realise that one in every 122 people in the world is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) might be surprised to learn that they are not just coming from Syria. People face political persecution in Pakistan and in Iran. Those coming to us today from Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe are not a new phenomenon—the Huguenots, the Jews, the Ugandan Asians, the Vietnamese boat people and the Kosovans came before them. Every generation faces those who meet the test of being people who are
“outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution”.
One of the greatest groups of people persecuted across the world includes those of a Christian denomination or religious view. Does the hon. Lady accept that many of those who are trying to escape Syria have been given the ultimatum of convert or die? In other words, they are being asked to give up their Christianity and their beliefs. We need to respond to that welfare need, too.
The hon. Gentleman raises the point about the well-founded fear, but my point is that every generation faces the test that the 1951 convention sets us. When a person comes to us and says, “I am in danger, will you help me?”, how we answer defines us as much as it defines their future. As the hon. Member for Gravesham said, it is a moral question. When we signed the convention in 1951, nobody could have predicted the situation that we are in now, but the fact that we could not predict it does not absolve us of the responsibility to answer the question. We are not absolved when the people fleeing the murderous intent of ISIL ask, “Will you help?” Our answer should be yes. When people are fleeing sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, will you help? Yes. When people are fleeing the repressive regime of Robert Mugabe, will you help? Yes. When people are fleeing civil war in Sudan and Eritrea, will you help? Yes. How we answer says as much about us as it does about them, so when we quibble about numbers and qualify them by saying that we will take 20,000 but over a number of years, or perhaps that we will take not 20,000 but up to 20,000—
I shall come on to talk about Walthamstow and am happy to invite the hon. Gentleman, who need not come under cover, to see the welcome that we give to people in Walthamstow. It is not easy, but we do it because it says something about us as a country and a community that when people are at risk we answer the call. When the people of Germany have answered the call to the tune of 800,000, when the people of Sweden have answered the call by taking eight per 1,000 of population, that challenges us all in the UK.
Let us look at the camps, because the Government are specifying that we should take people from the camps alone. When we consider the figure of 800,000 taken by Germany, it is sobering to realise that Lebanon has taken more than 1.1 million people in a country of 4.5 million.
I am sorry, but I have taken a number of interventions.
Turkey has taken 1.9 million people. If we think that taking 20,000 over five years is big, we do not understand our own history or the scale of the challenge. The UK has taken just 1% of the world’s refugees. What does that say about us?
I know that answering that question is not easy, because we have answered it in Walthamstow. It is not an easy challenge to accept people and be able to integrate them. I am proud of the way that people in Walthamstow have responded to the situation in Calais. Many have gone there themselves with goods to help support people and show their solidarity. I am proud that that is not a one-off—we have set up our own migrant welcoming centre. Walthamstow means welcome; it is what we do in my community.
I know that it is a hard question to answer when the voices of the persecuted are sometimes quiet and vulnerable, by comparison with the other voices we hear, such as the headlines that say, “Halt the asylum tide now”, “Draw a red line under immigration or else” or “The swarm on our streets”, or calls for deployment of the Army against the people that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) has accepted may well be fleeing persecution. It is hard to hear their voices. We should also understand the consequences of not hearing their voices. We cut the funding for Operation Mare Nostrum, thinking that somehow that would stop the boats. The boats came anyway, and the lorries are still running.
Let us think about the people whose lives we have not been able to save, and of the contribution that they would have made to our world. Think of the men who might fail school exams or lose jobs and who we will not give visas to—men like Einstein, or the father of Steve Jobs. The people fleeing persecution have so much to contribute to our world, so when we answer the question “Will you help?” with a yes, we do everybody a benefit. Think of the doctors, engineers, writers and lawyers currently in those camps.
It is not the thought of life in Britain that is the pull factor. It is not the £35 a week we give people. It is not the misery of dealing with UK Border Force, or the threat that even if you are a victim of sexual violence we will lock you up in Yarl’s Wood. The pull factor is staying alive. The pull factor is being able to give your children the possibility of adolescence. That is why people are making that choice. There is no speech we can make here, no threat we can make to those boats and no lesson we can learn from Australia that will override the enduring wish of every parent to give their child that kind of future.
If we do not hear those voices, the question is not about them; it is about us. The problem is not refugees or migrants; the problem is politicians not doing their job. It is our job to ensure that the benefits of migration are equally distributed in this country. It is our job to ensure that we help those people who are fleeing persecution, and that is what we should do. Let us not be the problem; let us be the solution. If we can take 20,000 and there are 20,000 now, let us take the 20,000 now. Let us not quibble or qualify that; let us take them now. The Government accept that we can house these people, so let us do it now. Let us not make it an either-or with our European neighbours; let us help all those people. If we want to stop the boats and lorries, that is what we must do.
I want to make a final plea to the Home Secretary. Save the Children is putting out a charity single that has been set up by Caitlin Moran, Pete Paphides and Mat Whitecross. Will the Home Secretary please join me in calling for the VAT on that charity single to be waived so that the money can be used to help the refugees? The single is called “Help is Coming”. Let that be the message that comes from the House of Commons today, not the quibbling, quantifying and denying. Let us send the message that help really is coming.
Let me first offer my apologies, Mr Speaker, for having to leave the Chamber immediately after my speech; we are interviewing the mayor of Calais about the refugee crisis. No one can have failed to be deeply moved by the picture of Alan’s lifeless body on a beach in Turkey. We can do nothing for him but mourn, while our consciences cry out to act now, and to act with compassion. It is a hard-headed duty to address the root causes and ask the difficult questions.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday that on top of aid spending on the humanitarian crisis, which will reach £1 billion, we will be welcoming 20,000 refugees to the UK. Especially welcome is the news that they will be taken from the camps around Syria, because it is often the women and children who remain behind in the camps closest to conflict. Those are the most vulnerable, where duty and conscience collide. It is our clear duty to do all we can to deter the people traffickers peddling false hope by selling death in airless lorries and cramming families on to leaking dinghies that seal their fate.
We are seeing levels of migration not experienced since the second world war, or indeed since the partition of India and Pakistan, when over 1 million people perished and many millions more were left homeless and were settled elsewhere. Those were the harrowing stories that I grew up with, with distant relatives never getting over their journey and having lost their relatives.
A global crisis needs an international response. That is why it is right that our generous international aid budget will be reassigned to provide the funding to support 20,000 refugees. I would however urge us to assess how and where our money and humanitarian relief is allocated and to which agencies. We should consider assigning more of these funds to local authorities and British-based agencies so that they can offer a longer period of support and shelter.
Aylan’s father gave a heart-rending speech at the funeral of his wife and children that revealed an important truth: the family, all Syrian Kurds, did not feel welcome in Turkey. Turkey has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, but we must ask whether its attitude towards the Kurds—the one group proven to have taken the fight to Daesh—has not made the situation worse. Equally, Aylan’s father asked what the Arab-speaking countries in the region were doing. The lack of welcome for refugees across the middle east cannot be ignored any longer. Let us ask the hard-headed question: where are the Arab countries in all of this? It is not enough for them to speak passionately about Muslim solidarity but fail to step up to the plate in the midst of this crisis. We should ask why none of the Gulf countries has signed the refugee convention, and we should make our aid to them conditional on acceptance of international norms.
We must be prepared to tackle the fundamental cause of the instability wreaking havoc in the middle east. Wahhabi extremism is the cancer that has destroyed the body politic of Syria and Iraq. Daesh needs to be destroyed. There can be no political solution until that has happened. We must hold our nerve and consider effective military intervention at the earliest opportunity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the House to have this debate today. I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on her initiative in seeking the application for it under Standing Order No. 24. We will return to this subject again tomorrow in the Scottish National party’s Opposition day debate, so I think it is fair to say that it will not suffer from under-scrutiny.
I welcome and recognise the significant movement in the Government’s position that we have seen in recent days and weeks. I say to the Home Secretary, who I am delighted to see remains in her place throughout the debate, that where the Government get things right they will have the support of Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, of all Opposition parties. Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister of humanitarian visas for five years is exactly the sort of initiative that we ought to be taking. It is welcome and we commend the Government for it. I also commend them for the work that they continue to do in-country with refugee camps, especially in Syria. That work is absolutely essential and a very good use of the money that we have in our international aid budget.
I also welcome the announcement that the number of refugees to be taken from Syria is now to go up to 20,000. However, spreading this over the five-year period of the Parliament needs to be looked at again, because the need for these people to come to this country is in the here and now. The Government’s refusal to accept the urgency and immediacy of the problem requires revisiting.
The other issue that requires revisiting is the Government’s insistence on raiding the international development budget to pay for this in-country work. It has been paid for from the reserves in the past, and I do not see why it should not be again now. The work of the Department for International Development is absolutely crucial in ensuring that, in the medium to long term, the need for people to leave their country as refugees is eliminated. Using this money for spending in-country is an exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul.
As I said in my intervention on the shadow Home Secretary, I would like the Home Secretary to look again at the exclusion from assistance of those who have already made the journey and are already in Europe. The Government are right that in the medium to long term the solution will be to keep people within the country or within the region as far as possible, but does the Home Secretary really think that people are going to stop making that journey simply because we have punished those who have already made the decision to do so in the most desperate of circumstances? It brings to mind the Victorian distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor—that somehow some desperate people are worthy of support while others are not. We should help all those who need our help on the basis of their need and not on the basis of a decision they have made in desperate circumstances.
As has been said, this is a significant moment for our country. This debate is not just about refugees; it is about how we see ourselves and our place in the world. I say to the Home Secretary that it is clear that the Government have a lot of catching up to do with public opinion. The Prime Minister often speaks with dewy-eyed fondness about his support for British values. If that is true, we should consider his current position and compare it with that of the German Chancellor. When asked about the numbers arriving in Germany, she replied:
“If so many people brave such hardship to come here, this is a sign of approval for us…The world sees Germany as a country of hope and of chances. That hasn’t always been the case.”
That is masterful understatement, but the question it brings to my mind is how the people of Britain will be seen on the world stage. That is what is at stake here. It is not a question of numbers, but of our standing in the world. Although it is welcome that the Government have moved their position, that is why they now need to do a great deal more.
Syria is like nothing any of us have experienced. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who is not in his place, saw the Balkans. The situation is Kafkaesque. It is worse than anything we can imagine and terrifying for the people who live there. It is hardly surprising that so many people want to get out of the place and have become refugees.
There are two reasons for that: one is the Daesh thugs who are killing so many people, and the other is the Assad regime. Our old plan to try to help and at least get rid of Daesh was for the west—by which I mean the United Kingdom and the United States—and a few Arab allies to look at things from the air and possibly direct air strikes, which are much more surgical than people think, and for the Arab nations on the ground to sort themselves out and deal with Daesh and possibly Assad. That has not happened. The old plan has failed. By now, Daesh should be no more.
I do not have a problem with extending UK air strikes into Syria—it does not make military sense for it not to happen—but that would be a pin prick and it would not solve the situation, because the other part of the plan has not worked. The Arab nations were supposed to do something on the ground, but, while the Kurds are doing very well, others are not.
As for the idea of safe havens, I set up a safe haven in Srebrenica in April 1993. What a disaster. A battalion tried to stop people coming in and attacking innocents. It is not possible. It requires compliance by all the actors in the area, including the belligerents, and internationally. When that is achieved, people have then to be looked after properly and there has to be a plan of civil administration. It did not work in Srebrenica. Two and a bit years after my soldiers set up the safe haven, 8,373 men and boys had been murdered. Safe havens are a good concept, but dealing with them is almost impossible.
We need a short and a long-term plan to sort out what is happening not only in Syria, but in the whole middle east. We must destroy Daesh and change the regime in Syria. We have to get a Security Council resolution to give us legitimacy. We must have a plan, which will undoubtedly mean people going in with rifles to sort out thugs, because thugs do not actually listen to anything else. I do not want those people to be British; I would much prefer local nations to do it.
In the end, if this threat is spreading right across the world, the world has got to sort it out, and we may well have to play our part. The United Nations will have to give its sanction, and we may well have to risk our precious armed forces in defence of everything we stand for.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary on securing this very important debate. The International Development Committee met this morning and agreed to undertake an urgent inquiry into DFID aspects of the refugee crisis. As other Members have said this afternoon, the very strong public response throughout our country surely shows our country at its very best.
Both yesterday and today, we have seen the Government’s response with the new figure of 20,000. I support those who have said that there is urgency about granting access to as many of those 20,000 as possible. With the onset of winter, this is an immediate crisis. I particularly highlight the point made by Save the Children about the need to give the 3,000 unaccompanied children safe haven.
Part of the announcement concerns what the Chancellor said on Sunday about the use of the DFID budget to accept more refugees. That will require very careful scrutiny. The rules on official development assistance are clear: they allow for domestic expenditure to fund refugees for the first 12 months. However, I urge the Government to proceed with caution, for the reasons that Members have set out in this debate. Surely the focus of effective development policy must be to prevent crises from happening in the first place.
There is a balance to be struck. The Home Secretary spoke about the 0.7% commitment and about how, with the growing economy, the amount of cash available will increase. I seek a commitment from the Government that if the costs associated with refugee resettlement exceed the increase in the cash available, they will look elsewhere for the money, including to the contingency reserve.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, because his Committee should scrutinise such issues very closely. Does he accept that community cohesion should be one of the goals of DFID expenditure? It is right that a safe haven for people who will come to this country—I hope, temporarily—should be done under the DFID budget, rather than through the Department for Communities and Local Government or other Departments.
We will certainly examine that matter as part of our inquiry. My instinct is that the current provision for 12 months goes as far as we should. If the Government proposed going beyond that, we would want to look at it in real detail.
The hon. Gentleman brings me to my next point. I am delighted that in my own city of Liverpool, our mayor, Joe Anderson, has responded to the shadow Home Secretary’s call to take 10 refugee families by saying that Liverpool City Council will take 100 refugees. As Joe Anderson put it:
“In Liverpool, a city famous for our warm welcomes and as a safe port in the storm of global conflict, we are prepared to play our part.”
Like other cities, however, Liverpool faces very large cuts in its funding from central Government. It is important that central Government provide support to enable communities across the country to take the refugees.
One of the central themes of this debate is the prevention of and the response to conflict. There is no doubt that we can be proud as a country of reaching the 0.7% target, about which the Home Secretary was right to remind us. We are second only to the United States in what we have contributed in bilateral aid to Syria, and we should be very proud of that. We need to say to our European partners who are nowhere near achieving 0.7% that they should rise to the challenge and match what we have done.
However, I do not believe that this is an either/or situation in which we either fulfil our obligation to 0.7% or take more refugees. In the crisis that we face, we have to do both. We need to say to our European partners that they need to rise to the 0.7% aid challenge, but we need to rise to the challenge of accepting more refugees. The figure of 20,000 is a very important development, but as others have said, the need is immediate, the crisis is now and we should seek to accept refugees as quickly as possible both from the camps in Syria and from among those in Europe. It is only right that we share that burden with our European partners.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue of critical importance. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, this is the biggest challenge facing countries across Europe today.
Many people have taken the perilous journey, fleeing the ravages of the conflict that has torn Syria apart. They are fleeing the terrors of Bashar al-Assad, ISIL and other perpetrators of the terrible and unimaginable violence in Syria. The conflict has driven more than 11 million people from their homes. We have all seen and despaired at the heart-breaking photos and stories from the conflict. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the Government and Britain will fulfil their moral responsibility to help those fleeing the horrific conflict that is gripping parts of the middle east.
The United Kingdom has a long and distinguished history of helping those who are most in need, as we have heard from others this afternoon, from Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany to Hungarian refugees following the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet tanks in 1958 and those fleeing the clutches and horrors of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda. We have always, as a nation, helped those who have desperately needed to flee the persecution and terror of different conflicts and regimes.
Furthermore, we are the only major nation in the world that has kept its promise to spend 0.7% of its GNP on aid. That is a record that I am proud of and that all in this Chamber should be proud of. It is the mark of a nation that will always try to alleviate suffering, wherever it may be found.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about vulnerable people. A Save the Children briefing issued at noon today says that of the 13,000 lone children who arrived in Italy in 2014, 4,000 have already disappeared. Who knows what life they are now living, if they are still alive. Will he join me in supporting the call of Save the Children for the UK to take 3,000 child refugees now in order to take them out of the trouble that they are facing in their lives?
Save the Children does a remarkable job and I would always be open to helping with any of its initiatives.
We are the second largest bilateral donor of aid to the Syrian conflict. We are providing more than 18 million food rations, 2.4 million medical consultations and 1.6 million people with clean water. That is the largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.
I welcome the Government’s response. It is only right that we have gone further and done more to help. I will always be a supporter of our welcoming refugees who are fleeing the horrors that have engulfed their former homes. It is only right that Britain plays its part, as it always has done, to support and take in such refugees. I have received countless letters and emails from constituents who are willing to help those in need, as I am sure has everybody in this Chamber. There have been offers of support from families and communities the length and breadth of Britain. That is the hallmark of the generosity of spirit in Britain.
I am therefore sure that people and communities will strongly welcome, as I do, the Government’s proposal to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. It is a measured approach. It is crucial that our approach ensures that we not only act with our heart, but think with our head. I fully support the Government’s approach of taking refugees from camps and elsewhere in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
We must try to provide refugees with a more direct and safe route to the UK, avoiding the clutches of people traffickers. This point brings into sharp focus the current crisis in Europe. Tragically, the hazardous journey has cost many lives. When the shadow Home Secretary winds up the debate, perhaps she will say whether she agrees that resettling refugees directly from the camps in the middle east, which is the approach of the UK but not of all other EU nations, is the best way to discourage vulnerable people from making the dangerous journey to Europe.
I should add that the current situation has shown the complete failure of the EU’s borderless Schengen area agreement. I witnessed that first hand when working in eastern Europe. I have long said that that was a major problem waiting to collapse in Europe. It has exacerbated an extremely complex and difficult situation. The writing was on the wall long ago.
Simply taking refugees will not alone solve the crisis. We should make no mistake: we need a comprehensive solution that deals with those responsible for the terrible scenes we see—President Assad, ISIL and criminal gangs. We need to be tough on all those who are guilty of perpetrating the terrible crimes that we see daily. I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to invest more to tackle the causes of the crises in the middle east and north Africa. As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and one of the most important nations in the world on matters of foreign affairs, we must seek to bring all our influence to bear to provide a solution at the source of the problem.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares my pride that Britain is the only country in the world that can say that we stand up to the world’s poorest by meeting our commitment on development spending while defending our own citizens and working for peace by meeting our NATO defence spending obligation of 2%. The Government must use every tool at their disposal to achieve that.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Home Secretary, for securing the debate, and for the tremendous way in which she has led the fight. Labour Members are of the view that the Government’s response is inadequate, but the Government have responded more generously than they did a few weeks ago. The shadow Home Secretary deserves great credit for getting the Government at least to take the steps they have taken.
The tragic death of Alan Kurdi is a bucket of cold water over the whole of our nation and the Government. It was the moment at which public opinion changed and when people said we must do more. We recognise that the appalling suffering of those refugees is a moment in history. History will look back on our generation, and on this Parliament and this Government, and ask what we did when we faced this appalling moment. I believe that we are failing to live up to our historical role as a place of safe haven, and to live up to the incredibly proud role that Britain has played over many years to support refugees, whether that is the 10,000 of the Kindertransport in the late 1930s, the 300,000 Poles who came here after the second world war or the 42,000 Ugandan Asians who came to Britain after the historic situation there. When history looks at our generation and our current response to this appalling situation, it will judge us badly for the failure to take more refugees.
In the Government’s response, they not only fail to appreciate the suffering that people are experiencing, but underestimate the capacity and desire, which the harrowing pictures have evoked, to help people. I said yesterday to the Prime Minister that if ever there was an opportunity for him to make the big society something that means something to people, this is it. People all over our communities are saying that they want to make a difference.
With respect to my colleagues, I will not give way.
People are saying that they want to make a difference. They are saying, “Please let me know how I can help.” Councils in Derbyshire have offered to act as reception centres for refugees. The Labour council in Chesterfield has said that it stands willing to do whatever is needed to support people in that terrible situation. The Government underestimate the capacity in our country to make a stand in the once-in-a-lifetime atrocious situation that we face.
The Government should explore the far greater potential that there is among proud Britons who are standing ready and willing to help people in their hour of need. In our history, when the world has needed heroes, Britain has so often come forward and shown how truly great our nation can be.
Let us not let this generation, when the world is expecting so much of us, be the one that lets our country’s reputation down. Let us not be the ones who, when we tell our children and grandchildren about the roles we played, have to look down at our shoes and say that when this country was needed we did not do what we could. There is more we can do. We should be taking more refugees. In all our communities, we know we can do more. Let this Parliament and this Government be the ones to say we will do more. Let us lift what we are doing right now.
The news we read, the images we see and the stories we hear of the refugee crisis are, all too often, heartbreaking. I am sure we all agree that recent events in particular have been deeply moving. They have brought the events in Syria once again to the forefront of our minds.
Eighteen months ago, I travelled to Turkey with some other Members of this House to visit one of the camps on the Turkish-Syrian border. What struck me was the size of the camps. The one I visited was home to 17,000 refugees or guests. It was a city of tents and container homes, with a school and other facilities. This was just a fraction of the total number of those who, at that time, had escaped and fled Syria to seek refuge. Many, many more were still in their home country, but displaced from their homes by the brutal civil war. In many ways they too are refugees, but refugees in their own home.
Current figures show there are 16.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. Some 12.2 million of those are in Syria and the other 4 million are in the surrounding area. What also struck me when I visited the camp and spoke to some of the families was that they viewed it as their temporary home. They wanted to get back to their homes and their homeland. It may well have been destroyed, but they wanted to go back home and their real home was Syria. Here we are, many months later, facing this ongoing and worsening situation.
We must not let those refugees down. We have a humanitarian and moral duty to help them. I believe we are a moral nation. Last year, the UK received 25,000 applications for asylum, just over 2,000 of which were from Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis back in 2011, the UK has granted asylum to about 5,000 Syrians. Yesterday’s statement from the Prime Minister proposed that Britain would settle a further 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. We have sent the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean to help to save lives. We committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on international development, and I think all of us in this House should be very proud of that. We are the second biggest bilateral donor in the world to Syria and Syrian refugee camps. We have contributed considerably more than any other country in the EU, including food, water, sanitation and medical care to people in need. Those are some of things that I saw in the camp I visited. Our contribution is significant and it is right that we make it.
We must not let the refugees down, but we must not give in to terror. We must not do anything that encourages trafficking and we must not encourage people to make those perilous sea crossings. We need to recognise that people migrate for different reasons. It is vital to be able to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. As we seek to help in the short term, we must seek to secure a long-term solution. That is why I support the Prime Minister’s statement and the work of the Home Secretary. We can, of course, always do more; and we should always ask whether we are doing enough and what more we can do.
Over this debate hangs a shadow—the shadow of the toxic political discourse we have had on migration month on month and year on year. That is what has made it difficult to fashion a coherent approach to the migrant issue and why the Prime Minister was so slow to understand the change in the public mood. I give all credit to the Government for the money they have given to the camps and the region, and I believe that other European countries should match what Her Majesty’s Government are doing, but we should not use our non-membership of Schengen as an excuse not to step up to our responsibilities as part of the European family of nations. We should take our quota of refugees, whether from the camps or elsewhere, and we should actively support Italy and Greece, which are bearing the brunt of some of the Mediterranean migration of refugees.
I believe that refugees should apply for asylum in the first country they come to, but, for that to happen, much more support needs to be given to countries such as Italy and Greece. The Baltic states, which have been so noisy about not wanting any refugees at all, should be made to make an appropriate financial contribution. Unless we recognise that this is a Europe-wide issue that requires a Europe-wide co-ordinated response, we will fall short of what is necessary. There is also the question, raised earlier, of the regional powers. How many refugees is Saudi taking? How many refugees have the Gulf states taken? We need to make the historical allies in the region step up and play their part in helping with Syrian and other refugees.
Government Members were jeering earlier and asking some of my colleagues, “How many refugees would you take?”. Do not challenge a Hackney MP over how many refugees we would take. Hackney has been a safe haven for refugees for hundreds of years. We are proud of our position and our history of welcoming refugees, whether from eastern Europe, east Africa or Syria. Hackney is proud of what refugees have done for our community. Londoners are proud to live in an open city. Rather than worrying about what the polls tell us about people conflating refugees with migrants and not being happy about the numbers, we need to build on our history as an open and tolerant country and move towards a coherent, integrated, Europe-wide approach that will last not just one 24-hour news cycle but for decades to come.
I stand here proudly as the grandson of a refugee who came here in the 1920s. When my great uncle came as a Jewish refugee from Austria later in the late 1930s, the nation’s security was in such question that he was interned, as was every other adult Jew leaving Austria or Germany. I therefore welcome the Government’s efforts to take the nation’s security seriously while not damaging the right of refugees to come. It is right that, as we have done in the past, we balance our security with our generosity.
It is also right that we treat the cause, and not just the symptom, so I welcome the Government’s position. It is easy to say we should take more individuals, in theirs ones and twos, tens and even thousands, but unless we address the cause, we will be talking about millions, not thousands. Only 3% of the population has so far left the region, leaving 97%, and it is right that Britain has made the single largest contribution per capita in helping those people. That 97% is being helped by Britain. That is what we are doing for Italy and Greece. We are stopping the migration by supporting those in the region.
More than that, we are helping Syria. It is not enough to take the fittest, the strongest, the cleverest and the richest—those able to make the trip—and to integrate them into our societies to have them as our professors, our doctors and our lawyers. They would undoubtedly contribute handsomely to our future, but they should not be stolen like that.
Civil wars tend to last between seven and 12 years. Tragically, we are already four years into this one, but that means—I hope this is true—that we are approaching the final stages. I cannot tell the House whether that is guaranteed or not—nobody can—but we all hope very much that the war will end and soon. At that point we will want the people nearby to be able to go back and rebuild their society.
That is why I call on Her Majesty’s Government to do one more thing than they are already doing: to use the good offices of the Foreign Office and the efforts of the Minister for the middle east, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has done much already on this, to talk to our allies in the region—the Jordanians, the Turks, the Lebanese and the Iraqis—and to extract financial support from our Gulf allies and the other wealthy nations so that the camps can be used not just as refuges, but as lily pads from which we can jump back into Syria with economic development. If we can turn the camps—as others have in other parts of the world—into zones of industry and economic growth for refugees in exile, they can re-import their labour, their ideas and that drive back into Syria, so that instead of needing to have a Marshall plan lasting 30 or 50 years to support Syria, it will rebuild itself in half that time.
It is possible. The Government are making the right noises and doing exactly the right things. I would encourage them to go further and harder on that path, but I am very grateful for the work of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.
I very much welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this extremely important debate on an issue that has galvanised support right across the political spectrum. Rarely in my lifetime have I seen so many ordinary members of the public not happy with just donating money to a financial appeal, but desperate to do something themselves: to organise, to collect, to donate —indeed, to drive hundreds of miles to get to those in need.
I am sure this is common across the UK, but in Renfrewshire I have been inspired by a number of individuals and groups who were sick of waiting for their Government to show leadership and decided to stand up themselves. Over the weekend, I contacted a number of those groups to organise a meeting with a view to bringing them together to work more efficiently. I am pleased to say that Renfrewshire Aid was born out of that meeting and is now operating out of two substantial hubs, in Gallowhill and in the students association of the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley. The actions of those individuals and groups show how great and welcoming our country is. They are showing this Government how they should be acting. They are showing them that when someone is crying out for our help, the answer is not to close our eyes, put our heads down or walk the other way. The answer is to extend the hand of compassion and friendship and to help those who badly need our help.
However, this is not the first time that Paisley has come to the aid of refugees. During the first world war, Paisley played host to hundreds of Belgian refugees. Indeed, the UK took in an estimated quarter of a million, including 16,000 in a single day through Folkestone in October 1914. Sixteen thousand in a day rather highlights the complete inadequacy of 20,000 over five years. The Government’s capacity for compassion seems a little smaller 100 years on.
This absolutely should not be a party political issue. It is an issue on which parties should unite in common cause and demonstrate that such issues should be above the fray. That is certainly true at the local level, where members of many political parties and those belonging to none are coming together to help those affected. However, having listened to the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, when he attempted to muddy the waters and conflate the refugee crisis with counter-terrorism, I am not entirely sure that he shares that same ethos of solidarity. The two issues that were brought up yesterday are two of the most important topics that can be brought to this Chamber. These topics deserve separate statements and debate.
Last week I wrote letters to my local Labour council leader and to the Prime Minister. It should be noted that I received a very positive reply from the council leader, who would like to do more, but requires the funds to be able to do so. I urge the Government to financially support local authorities such as mine so that they are able to play their full part in the crisis. I still await a reply from the Prime Minister. In my letter to him, I urged him to show true leadership and accept the UK’s moral responsibility to do considerably more. After yesterday’s statement, it is clear that he is shirking that responsibility.
However, it is not only the Prime Minister’s failure or unwillingness to act that disappoints me about the way he has responded—or, more appropriately, not responded —but the language that he has used to describe those fleeing persecution or violence. Let me be clear: these are not economic migrants who, as some on the Government Benches would have us think, want to come to our country to live a life of luxury on benefits; they are human beings. They are mums, dads, grans, uncles and, yes, sons and daughters too.
No, I am afraid I have very little time.
The people affected by this humanitarian crisis are just attempting to do what we would all do in the same situation: protect their families from harm. The families and individuals caught up in the crisis are willing to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles in the worse circumstances possible to move to a new country. These are people who are willing to go through hell and high water to protect their children and flee the violence that awaits them back home. To suggest that these people are “economic migrants” is nothing short of appalling, and it shows how out of touch some Conservative Members actually are.
It saddens me to say that the Prime Minister seems uninterested, unwilling or just plain unable to act in the way that the country demands. In the biggest mass movement of people in the world for over 70 years, future generations will judge how we respond to this escalating crisis. The Prime Minister is currently facing a guilty verdict, but he has time to change course and do what is right—I urge him to do so.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the plight of the refugees, having been a supporter of our efforts throughout the crisis. I am disappointed that the shadow Home Secretary did not extend the motion. The refugee crisis is not just in Europe, and the cause of the crisis is not in Europe. This is a refugee crisis far bigger than Europe, and we should be working further with the countries of the middle east.
There are 9 million displaced people in Syria: 3% have left for Europe, but there are still 1.9 million in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, 600,000 in Jordan, while Algeria has taken in only 25,000, Bahrain 500 and Saudi Arabia 561 with 100 asylum seekers. They have given some money, but nowhere near the £1 billion that this country has led with.
This humanitarian crisis has been happening ever since the Syrian civil war. It has taken us time to start putting the aid in. I welcome the announcement that this country will take refugees directly from camps around Syria. There are 4 million in the camps, 39% of whom are 11 or under, with 51% under 18. I am pleased that the Government have said that they will concentrate on the most vulnerable people. Those are the people in the gravest danger.
We have led the way as a country in delivering humanitarian aid to people in the region, and £1 billion is no small sum. To those who say we are not doing enough, I have to say that that does a disservice to those who have been working with DFID and its partner agencies. We have been leading the world in hitting our 0.7% target.
We are absolutely right to be taking people from the camps and not to be helping the traffickers gain out of others’ misery. The best place to deliver that aid is in theatre—in Syria and the region. When the war is over, we will eventually have to tackle the problem with our international partners. I want Syria to be restored to the diverse, educated and economically stable country that it once was. The Syrian people have been afflicted by brutal and undemocratic regimes, but they are a tolerant people and have it in themselves to recover.
We must reach out to the Syrians and others affected by Daesh atrocities, including the Kurds and the Yazidis as well, but we have to be mindful of our responsibilities. We cannot look after anyone else if we cannot look after ourselves. In my own crowded city of Portsmouth, I spend a lot of time working with people who face housing difficulties or helping to resolve problems in education and health.
Many Portsmouth people have written to me, as other constituents have written to their MPs, because they would like to help by taking people in. Some have been collecting aid already and they have taken it off to Calais. I am going to urge them to keep some of it for the people who will be coming into the UK. We will need to support the care for refugees beyond their first year in the UK; the burden must not fall only on the local authorities. People want to be assured that we are not undermining our own society in trying to support others.
We must not decrease our overseas aid while we put in aid to fund the refugees here. I urge the Government to carry on contributing part of the £1 billion or more to the Syrian camps. We must give the refugees shelter now and offer them the prospect of a return home after the war. We cannot permit the collapse of society in one of the cradles of civilisation. We know Daesh has been on a campaign of atrocity against Syria’s history and its pluralistic society. Unless we restore Syria as a state and a people, we will have failed.
I am grateful for the opportunity in a couple of minutes to represent the thousand or so constituents who have contacted me, as well as the international organisations based in my constituency such as Mercy Corps.
I would like to make three brief points and not reiterate what has already been said in this excellent debate. My first point is that this is a refugee and humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. This year alone, 350,000 have crossed the Mediterranean, and it has been the worst place in the world for a humanitarian crisis. According to the Scottish Refugee Council, 2,643 people have been killed and lost their lives making those journeys this year. This is not an economic migrant crisis; it is a refugee crisis, with people fleeing persecution from places ravaged by war. They are risking their own lives and those of their families as a very much a last resort.
That brings me to my second brief point in this short speech, which concerns unaccompanied children. We need to participate in helping such children who are already here in Europe. The Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday involved only people who were directly airlifted from the region. Although there are reasons why that is desirable, we must bear in mind the children who have been coming into Europe and across to Calais looking for sanctuary. We cannot imagine our sons or daughters, our nieces or nephews, our grandsons or grandaughters, making those journeys on their own. Those children need to be given sanctuary in this country.
Let me make my third very brief point directly to the Home Secretary. When she goes to the home affairs Ministers’ meeting in Europe, she must play a full role in ensuring that Britain maintains the search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean and improves the safe and legal routes into and through Europe, that we strengthen the reception and processing of refugees, and that the burden is spread across Europe, relieving, in particular, the pressures on southern Italy and Greece. Ministers must agree to share the burden of resettlement across Europe. Twenty thousand is just a number; this must be about individual people who are fleeing persecution and war zones to countries across Europe.
I hope that the Home Secretary will step up to the mark. The Prime Minister has been shamed this week, but the Home Secretary has an opportunity to resolve the situation next week. I hope she takes that opportunity to ensure that Britain, once again, takes the responsibility that it has been known for taking throughout history.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I thank the House for a very thoughtful debate. It has been an important debate, but we have not yet heard what we need to hear from the Government. We all agree on the need to provide aid for the region, to take refugees from the camps and to tackle trafficking, but we need two more things. First, we need a commitment to providing more help this year, now, and to taking refugees straight away, because the crisis is happening now. Secondly, we need a commitment to take refugees from Europe, not simply from the camps. This year, 130,000 people arrived in Greece seeking sanctuary. Where do we think they are going to go if they cannot all stay in Greece? How are we going to persuade other European countries to help if we will not do so?
Tomorrow we will debate this issue again, and we will vote. I urge all Members throughout the House to read the report of the Kindertransport debate of 77 years ago before the SNP’s Opposition day debate, and before the vote. I ask them not to vote against the additional help that we need. We have a moral responsibility to do more. What the Government have done is good, but it is simply not enough. Let us do more.
Three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24).