I beg to move,
That this House believes that conflict resolution, climate change and the protection of human rights should be at the heart of UK foreign policy and that effective action should be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis and calls on the Government to lead international efforts through the United Nations and other international organisations to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld around the world.
We always welcome the wisdom of the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on these issues, but it is a great shame that although the Foreign Secretary has had time over the past week to act as Chancellor, as Health Secretary, and even as underwater construction engineer, he is not able to do his day job today. We hope that wherever he is heading on his travels, he is accorded rather more of a hearing than the Cabinet gave him yesterday.
The motion might be familiar to some, as it mirrors the words Labour used in our manifesto last June, in which we set out how we would tackle the causes of the refugee crisis—because some of us believe in our election promises. There is one more difference between our manifesto and the Government’s. No, it is not that ours was costed, nor that it was popular: it is that not a single one of the 25 countries that I will talk about in this speech was mentioned even once in the international section of the Tory manifesto last June—with, of course, one glaring exception: the United States.
We may differ in our attitudes towards the American leadership, but I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with me on some of the great figures of America’s past. It is fitting that this debate takes place 25 years to the day since we lost Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who, over six decades, helped to dismantle legal discrimination in America and to put human rights at the heart of its jurisprudence. It is worth remembering that his legendary legal career almost never began. As a young man, he only persuaded his grandmother to let him study law on the condition that he also learned to cook. She thought that that was a better guarantee of long-term employment. I wish someone had given me that advice—not that I would have changed my career, but I would at least be able to cook a proper roast dinner, like my nan could.
Among the many other great pieces of advice that Thurgood Marshall left the world are these words, which stand at the core of this debate:
“The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.”
That measure is similar to the Leader of the Opposition’s when he said in Geneva last month that the refugee crisis is one of
“the biggest moral tests of our time”.
Let us be clear: as a country, our greatness is currently being tested, but not all will agree with Justice Marshall or the Leader of the Opposition about the right answer. There will be those who say that amid grave economic uncertainty and domestic pressures, we need to focus on our own finances and public services, not on showing compassion to those in need elsewhere; there will be those who say that if we need global alliances to help to preserve trade and investment, that must come ahead of other considerations, including human rights; and there will be those who say that we have enough on our plate trying to manage Brexit, and that the rest of the world’s problems can be left to the rest of the world. But they could not be more wrong.
Our global leadership is needed now more than ever, not least because the five challenges that currently leave 65 million people in our world internally displaced or as refugees are getting only worse. Those challenges are: first, the state-led violence faced by minority groups in places such as Myanmar; secondly, the seemingly intractable wars in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere; thirdly, the cycles of division and violence in which Israel, Palestine and others are trapped; fourthly, the political instability that faces post-conflict countries such as Lebanon; and fifthly, the ever more stark realities of climate change.
Those five challenges may vary, but they all lead to one crisis: millions of vulnerable civilians, many of them children, left in desperate humanitarian need, either trapped, praying that relief and protection will come to them, or fleeing in the hope that they will find it elsewhere. Make no mistake: in the coming years those challenges will test the limit of our resources, the depths of our compassion, the strength of our global leadership and, ultimately, the greatness of our country.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that one of the really big tests relates to our international agencies, particularly the United Nations, and the political paralysis that results from the lack of commitment from Russia, China and the United States? We have to get that commitment back. If we are going to lead, Britain has to make the United Nations central to the solution to the problems my right hon. Friend is outlining.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I will develop those arguments later and look forward to listening to his speech, if he gets an opportunity to be heard.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the work of the International Organization for Migration, a key UN agency leading the effort to provide solutions to the refugee crisis? Will she also take this opportunity to urge the Government, and particularly the Department for International Development, to increase funding for that key UN agency?
Particularly given its current role in Bangladesh, because of the distress of the Rohingya refugees, it is clearly important to put renewed focus on that organisation. It is also unfortunate that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is not given a greater role in Bangladesh.
In my speech, I shall talk about each of those five challenges and the countries they affect—countries where the humanitarian crisis is clear and the need for global leadership is clear, but where, at present, the Government’s response is anything but.
I have not heard much in what the right hon. Lady has said with which I disagree. The difficulty as I see it is how we use the UN when Russia and China block any attempt to move forward. Of course, Russia and China are also known for using international aid as, effectively, a loss-leader for their exports, rather than in the way we use it.
The right hon. Gentleman advises the House simply to give up. We do not give up. We must work in a multilateral way, within the United Nations, and fight our corner. We should be a force for good. We should not allow the difficulties that we face make us say that it is all too hard and that we should simply walk away.
Let me make some progress. There no shortage of state persecution in our world, whether it is done by states such as Russia and Iran, which the Government rightly criticise, or those such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, whose abuses they choose to ignore. As we saw in Darfur exactly 15 years ago, when the state turns an entire group of people—even the children and the elderly—into military targets, it leaves families with an impossible choice: they must risk their lives by staying put, or risk their lives by fleeing. That is exactly what we have seen in Myanmar.
No one present needs any reminding of the horrors and hardship that the Rohingya have faced ever since the attacks in August. No one needs any telling of the desperate humanitarian situation in the camps on the Bangladesh border. No one needs any warning of the dangers of the proposed repatriation of the Rohingya. What we need to know is what action our Government are actually taking—not just to alleviate the situation, but to resolve it.
My right hon. Friend will, like me, be disappointed to hear that the situation in Darfur is worse today than it was 15 years ago. There is more conflict there but, because of other conflicts in the world, it has sadly gone off the front pages. Will she do what she can to help the bedevilled people of Sudan and South Sudan, who have known nothing but conflict for the past 40 years?
My hon. Friend, having visited the region himself, is a great expert in that area. He echoes many of the things that the shadow Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), has been telling us. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) will sum up the debate, focusing particularly on the humanitarian situation in Africa.
We know that Myanmar simply will not act without external pressure—not on consent for repatriation, and not on the guarantees the Rohingya need regarding their future security, citizenship and economic viability. Will the Minister, finally, use our role as the UN penholder on this issue to submit a Security Council resolution to ensure legally binding guarantees on and international monitoring of all these issues? Until we get those guarantees, will he urge India and Japan to withdraw their offer to fund the planned repatriation?
As we work for the future protection of the Rohingya, we cannot forget those who have already suffered and died, so let me ask the Minister this as well: is it still the case that only two of the Government’s 70 experts on international sexual violence have so far been deployed in the region, despite the vast scale of crimes that have occurred? Will he make it clear that Myanmar must allow the UN special rapporteur on human rights to carry out her investigation unobstructed, or Myanmar risks once more being a pariah state and being pushed out into the cold?
The second challenge is about the countries locked in intractable conflicts, leaving millions of innocent civilians internally displaced or as refugees. I turn to Yemen. More than 5,000 children have now been killed or injured since the war began—five children every single day. Hundreds of children are now suffering with malnutrition, cholera and diphtheria. I learned only recently what diphtheria really meant. For me, it was just about my children being injected when they were young. Diphtheria is called the strangling disease: it strangles babies. It is now stalking Yemen, and 2 million children are now receiving no schooling at all.
UNICEF usually says that such and such percentage of children require support, but last week it was clear that almost every single child in Yemen now needs humanitarian aid. Resolving this situation could not be more urgent. In that context, I do not know whether the Minister was present for the Foreign Secretary’s recent Cabinet presentation on the Yemen conflict, but, according to The Mail on Sunday, his opening line was, “We have got to do something about the Saudi war on Yemen”. Well, that is what we have been telling the Government for two years now, so thank goodness they are finally listening, even if they do so only in private.
I hope that the Minister will admit another private truth today. He says that there is no military solution in Yemen—the UN says it and even Rex Tillerson says it—but the truth is that that is not what the Saudis believe. Just a few weeks ago, exiled President Hadi said that the current Saudi military offensive would
“put an end to the Houthi coup”
and that, as a result, there was no purpose in peace talks. In other words, the war will continue until the Saudis secure victory, no matter how long it takes and no matter what the cost. That is unacceptable. If the Government genuinely want to do something to end the Saudi war, I suggest that, as with Myanmar, they take the following steps: pull their finger out, get their pen out and do their job. They should do the job that they have been given by the United Nations and submit a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks. Will the Government follow the lead of Germany and Norway and suspend arms sales for use in this conflict pending the result of a full independent investigation of alleged war crimes?
In Syria, the humanitarian situation is equally dire. The need for peace is just as great, and we face the same impasse in moving towards a political solution. From Astana to Sochi, and from Geneva to Vienna, we have rival peace processes with no agreed set of participants and no agreed set of goals or acceptable outcomes. As long as that impasse continues, the only incentive on all sides is to maximise territorial gains whatever the costs.
We see that Assad’s typically criminal assault on Idlib and eastern Ghouta is already triggering a fresh wave of displaced civilians. What we also see is the US plan for an open-ended military presence to stabilise so-called liberated areas near the Turkish border alongside a new 30,000 strong Kurdish army, which was idiotically named by the Americans as the Syrian border force. Therefore, while we condemn Turkey’s response in invading the border area and assaulting the Afrin enclave, we must ask the US how it thought Turkey was likely to respond. It is a hugely dangerous development, and it takes me back to what I said at this Dispatch Box some 15 months ago, which is that a long-term political solution in Syria must be predicated on the de-escalation of overseas forces, not a move to their permanent presence.
I have these questions for the Minister. First, what steps is he taking to resolve the impasse over peace talks? In particular, is he determined now automatically to reject any positive outcome from next week’s congress in Sochi? Secondly, can he tell us whether there are any UK personnel—military or otherwise—involved either in training the new Kurdish border force or in America’s proposed “stabilisation activities” in Northern Syria? Finally, as the violence escalates in Idlib and Rojava, what preparations are the Government making for a fresh wave of Syrian refugees fleeing towards Turkey and the Aegean sea?
The third challenge concerns countries caught in a cycle of entrenched division and sporadic violence, leaving millions of civilians trapped in poverty and deprivation. My hon. Friend the shadow International Development Secretary will talk later about the grave situations in Somalia and South Sudan.
Let me focus in particular on the millions of Palestinian refugees spread across Gaza, the west bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. For almost 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has supported those refugees and their descendants. UNRWA’s budget last year was $760 million. We could fund its work for the next 220 years with the cost of just one “Boris bridge” across the channel, and it would be a far better use of the money.
Thanks to UNRWA, 500,000 Palestinian children receive schooling every day and millions more receive healthcare. Last week, Donald Trump cut their funding by $65 million. I am reluctant to quote his Tweet, but he said:
“we pay the Palestinians…MILLIONS…and get no appreciation or respect.”
Young children will be denied education and medicine all because poor Donald Trump does not think that he gets enough “appreciation or respect”. How utterly pathetic!
I completely endorse my right hon. Friend’s point. It is simply not acceptable for the United States President to give vent to his petulance by attacking the vital services that 5 million Palestinian refugees need. Does she also agree that we need to step up to the plate now and to bring forward or to increase the UK’s contribution to UNRWA, to buy some short-term respite for the organisation? There should also be an international conference to ensure that there is a long-term solution and long-term funding for that organisation.
My hon. Friend is a mind reader: that is exactly what I was about to suggest.
The concern is that this money could trigger a domino effect. Given that most of UNRWA’s costs are local staff salaries, cuts would mean severance payments and severance payments would mean further cuts, and the vicious cycle goes on. UNRWA could face a Catch-22 situation in which it cannot afford to maintain its services, but risks bankruptcy if it cuts them, which would be a devastating scenario for Palestinian families. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making—we know that—entirely caused by the egomania of the American President.
Although we would all welcome today a commitment of extra money from the UK—I hope that that is what we will hear—we know that short-term fixes by individual countries will not ultimately solve the problem. What we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has said, is a long-term and multilateral solution to this shortfall. May I urge the Government today to lead that international effort and consider initiating a special funding conference, such as that held for humanitarian emergencies—the difference in this case being that we must not wait for that emergency to strike before acting? If it is not to be us, who will do it?
The fourth challenge concerns those countries trying to recover from major conflict whose stability and peace must be nurtured, lest they again collapse. We think of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More recently, we think of Libya, about which the shadow International Development Secretary will again speak later.
I want to focus today on Lebanon, which, for decades, has lurched from devastating conflict to chronic instability. Its peace must be preserved as it becomes the latest battleground for regional control between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In November, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was invited to take a camping trip in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Salman. When he arrived, he was roughed up by Saudi guards and forced to read a televised statement announcing his resignation. He had to beg for a suit so that he did not resign in a T-shirt and jeans. If Riyadh’s plan was to provoke instability and civil conflict inside Lebanon, that certainly backfired, because instead it triggered a wave of support for Hariri that allowed him to return and withdraw his resignation.
But if that was a bullet dodged, we must still ask, “Why was it fired?”, because Lebanon cannot afford another war that would risk dragging in Israel, along with Iran, and create a fresh humanitarian crisis in a country that is already cracking under the weight of 1.5 million refugees from the war in Syria and hundreds of thousands more from Palestine. Does the Minister know what on earth Crown Prince Salman was playing at in November? Will he urge the Saudis not to do anything more, whether political interference or financial penalties, that weakens or destabilises Lebanon further? Will he also urge Israel to recognise that any short-term urge it has to damage Hezbollah must be outweighed by the long-term damage that another regional war would do?
The fifth and final challenge concerns countries affected by climate change. Of course that means all of us, but the sad truth is that some of the poorest countries that have contributed the least to global carbon emissions will be those hardest hit by the changes that we have created. Their physical infrastructure is the least well prepared to cope with flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events, because their economies are the least well adapted to cope with long-term changes such as erosion or pollution of farmland. One example is the Mekong delta in Vietnam, which is the traditional home of the country’s agriculture and is now plagued by rising sea levels and incursion of saltwater. Livelihoods that have lasted centuries are being wiped out. Over the past 10 years, a net 1 million people have left the delta—twice the national average of migration from rural areas.
That is climate change in action, and a pattern that is being repeated across the world. If we cannot reverse these trends, regions that are currently just in trouble will in due course become uninhabitable. The carbon targets we meet in this country will matter nothing in the grand scheme of things unless we show global leadership in helping the rest of the world, including the United States of America, to face up to the challenge of climate change. Will the Minister tell us, first, where in the Government’s list of overseas funding priorities is helping poorer countries adapt to climate change? Secondly, when Rex Tillerson visited London on Monday, was any effort make to persuade the United States to recommit to the Paris agreement, or was that considered simply a waste of time? Sadly, I think that we know the answer to the second question, because we are stuck with a President who does not give a fig about the problems and the future that the world is facing.
I spoke at the outset about the Thurgood Marshall anniversary, which allows us to celebrate the life of a great human rights hero.
May I ask the right hon. Lady to put on the record a tribute to the BBC journalists and other reporters around the world who highlight to us, with great sensitivity and great honesty, the appalling conflicts, the famines, the plight of refugees, and the cruelty experienced by Christians and other minorities? Will she also pay tribute to those journalists who have given their lives in reporting these issues around the world, and perhaps urge the Minister to do something at the UN to protect them?
The hon. Lady is quite right. Unfortunately, far too many journalists around the world are killed for reporting abuses of human rights. I join her in paying tribute to them.
I was talking about Thurgood Marshall’s anniversary, which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the life of this great human rights hero. In three days’ time, we are going to mark another anniversary. Unfortunately, there is no such cause for celebration, but it is central to our discussion. On Saturday, it will be a year since our Prime Minister held hands with Donald Trump just hours before he signed the executive order banning Muslim refugees from America. That was an act devoid of compassion by a President incapable of shame, and the start of a long and painful year of similar acts on the global stage.
We have now reached the stage where Donald Trump can describe the countries of the continent of Africa, including 19 of our Commonwealth cousins, as “shitholes”—and there is not a peep of protest from our Government. Instead, they continue to insist that Her Majesty the Queen, the head of the Commonwealth, must welcome him into her home. Perhaps next time the Foreign Secretary talks about “supine invertebrate jellies” he should take a good look at himself in the mirror.
However, Donald Trump’s behaviour has had one important consequence that goes to the heart of the motion. Last week, a Gallup poll revealed that in the past year global approval of American leadership had fallen to 18%, the lowest in the history of the survey. That leaves a massive void waiting to be filled by a country—so what about us? What about a country such as ours? Are we prepared to take the lead internationally on conflict resolution, climate change, human rights and the refugee crisis? Are we are prepared not just to wring our hands about the suffering of the Rohingya, the Yemeni people and the Palestinian refugees, but to do something—to take a global lead—to end that suffering? Are we prepared to stand up to Donald Trump and tell him clearly that he is not just wrong on UN funding cuts, climate change and refugees, but simply unfit to govern? That is the action we need to take, that is the policy the Labour party stands on and that is the message that this motion sends. I commend it to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for tabling the motion, the text of which the Government have at their own heart as well. Much of what she said is agreeable with. There were a number of issues that she did not raise, and I am happy to do so. There were also a number of things that we would query, and I am happy to respond.
May I begin with an apology? A change in whipping later on enables me to leave immediately after I have spoken to take up an opportunity to see the Foreign Minister of Morocco. If I left any later, I would not be able to do that. If the House would accept, and Mr Speaker would accept, that I can slip away—
Only if you talk about Western Sahara.
Western Sahara is always part of our discussions with friends in north Africa. Having met the right hon. Gentleman over many years, in all sorts of capacities, to discuss common interests in the area, I can assure him that he will not be disappointed in relation to that complex issue.
I thank the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury for reminding us of her manifesto, which came a good second in the general election, if I remember correctly. I am pleased to say that a number of issues raised are of great interest to us.
If the right hon. Lady wants to find a force for good, which she began with, I invite her to come to the United Nations General Assembly week in September. I would like her to see how the United Kingdom is seen, treated and spoken of in that Assembly, because of our commitment to development and to human rights, and because of the things that we stand up for. There is not a room that a Minister goes into where we do not find that. That is no praise for a Minister, because it is due to policy followed over a number of years by successive Governments, and the hard work done by our officials.
The sense that people have of the United Kingdom, certainly under this Government, is that these are issues on which we not only make a substantial contribution—it was this Government who were determined to put the target of 0.7% of gross national income into law—but give leadership. If the right hon. Lady really wants to be reminded that the United Kingdom is a force for good, rather than using it as a debating point, she should go to UNGA in September, see how we are treated and ask whether that Assembly thinks that we are force for good. She will get the answer that yes, we are. However, that is something we have to live up to. That is what these debates are about, and that is what the Government are determined to do.
Within her first weeks in the job, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary travelled to Cox’s Bazar. There she met a young mother—one of more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh since August. Her name is Yasmin. Yasmin had fled Burma with her new-born baby, after her village was burned down and her brother murdered. On their journey, she and her baby were thrown over the side of a smuggler’s boat so that her son’s crying did not alert the Burmese soldiers. They arrived in a giant, crowded camp only for her son to contract cholera.
Yasmin is just one of the 65 million people around the world—the right hon. Lady mentioned them—who have been forcibly displaced. She is like those I have met in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and like those a number of colleagues have met, because the whole House takes an interest in this issue and many colleagues have visited people in such circumstances. This number of 65 million is equivalent to the size of the UK population, and it has almost doubled in the past 20 years. Each is a life uprooted, a family torn apart and a future uncertain.
The Minister will be aware that on 16 March a private Member’s Bill on family reunification is coming up, which is supported by the Red Cross, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, Amnesty and the UNHCR. Will his Government be supportive of it, bearing it in mind that the rehabilitation of refugees is often helped when children can bring in adult parents or parents can bring in adult children so that families can be reunited?
I have not seen the content of the Bill, so I cannot give a response on that. I will, if I may, say something about children and family reunification a little later.
Human rights matter because they aim to protect the innate dignity of every human being. They promote freedom and non-discrimination, fairness and opportunity, but all too often it is the absence of those rights that drives people such as Yasmin from their homes. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is right that the series of challenges now facing the world in relation to the number of people moving is immense and probably more complex than ever before. It is no longer the case that refugees move simply because some natural disaster has forced them from A to B, nor is such movement simply the result of some worldwide conflict, which is what drove refugees post-1918 and post-1945. There is a series of issues in play, from demographics to lack of opportunity and individual conflicts.
In a sense, the movement back from the post-1945 world order, with the challenge to rules-based organisations, is compounding that in that we cannot find answers. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked about what the UN should do given that if there is a veto in the Security Council, no action is taken. That has been demonstrated to be even more significant in recent times because of the conflict in Syria, but it can be raised in relation to other places. These are challenges the complexity of which we probably have not faced in our time, and they set the baseline against which we will all be judged.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional organisations such as the African Union, not just the United Nations, have an incredibly important role to play? If we think of the peacekeeping work that AU forces have done in Mogadishu and elsewhere on the continent, we see what they can do. However, they still need to do a great deal more, and perhaps we can support such work when UN action is not possible or is lacking.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he knows a great deal about the region and what he says is certainly true. The problem of the failure to deliver of those charged with these responsibilities in the past means that new opportunities have to be taken if we are not to leave more people in the circumstances that we have described. This is the way the world works: if an avenue to peace and the resolution of conflict is closed by the actions of some, we must look to open up new ones to prevent such a problem.
Turning to the some of the key challenges we face, I want to talk about conflict and the impact it can have. I assure the House that the UK Government remain committed to doing all we can to address the root causes of conflict and crises, and to redouble the efforts to find peace. I will address the particular areas that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said last month, not only is standing up for human rights the right thing, but it helps to create a safer, more prosperous and progressive world for us all. This is what global Britain stands for. Promoting, championing and defending human rights is integral to our work. Similarly, the UK’s leadership in tackling a changing climate and protecting the world’s natural resources is vital for global prosperity and poverty reduction.
Just last week, the UK Committee on Climate Change warned that we were on track to miss our international targets on reducing emissions. Unless this Government take urgent action, the effects of climate change will be felt more acutely in developing countries, causing them even more hardship and suffering. Will the Minister seek to discuss this internally and take action?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific wants to refer to climate change in his winding-up speech, but our determination on climate change has, again, provided a sense of leadership. We have played an influential role in reaching international climate change agreements, including the Paris accord, and we are among the world’s leading providers of climate finance. We are committed to the Paris agreement limits, which aim to limit global temperature rises to less than 2 °C. Wherever there are areas in which we can continue to improve, we shall do so, but on climate change leadership, the United Kingdom’s position is very clear.
On international humanitarian rights, I reiterate the UK’s commitment to international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. As a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and its additional protocol, the UK has a long tradition of providing assistance and protection to those who need it most. We are the first G7 nation to have enshrined in law our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid, and that aid provides a lifeline to millions.
The first change I want to put to the House is that refugee crises are increasingly counted in decades, not months and years, and the humanitarian system is overstretched. This is why the UK is now leading a global shift to longer-term approaches to refugee assistance and protection. It is one that restores dignity to refugees and offers them a more viable future where they are, and one that ensures sustainable jobs, livelihoods and access to essential services both for refugees and the communities that host them. We aim to embed this approach in the UN global compact on refugees due to be adopted later this year.
One graphic reminder of the global refugee crisis is the plight of refugees, particularly unaccompanied minors, in Calais. Will the Foreign Office Minister encourage the Home Office to deal more quickly with cases such as that of the 14-year-old brother of one of my constituents, who is still waiting for the Home Office to respond to his application to come and rejoin his brother, my constituent, under the Dublin III convention? If I write to the Minister, will he take up the case with the Home Office for me?
The hon. Gentleman should keep in direct contact with the Home Office in relation to that case. In 2016, the UK transferred more than 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from Europe to the UK, including more than 750 from France as part of the UK’s support for the Calais camp clearance. I have some figures to give later about the 49,000 children who have been settled in the United Kingdom since 2010, including a number in the category that the hon. Gentleman has raised. However, processes have to be gone through, and I am quite sure that the Home Office intends to carry out its resettlement work as swiftly as possible. We have resettled a substantial number—that number is often not appreciated by the public at large—and I will talk more about that in a moment.
When we are talking about the dignity of people seeking asylum, is it worth considering, and will the Government consider looking again at, the current rules denying asylum seekers in this country the right and the ability to work during the year, or perhaps even longer, when they are seeking asylum? Would that not save the taxpayer a lot of money and put an end to much of the indignity—and, frankly, the destitution—that exists in our asylum-seeking community?
I have spoken for 12 minutes already, and I could speak for a lot longer. If I was to go into asylum support and the benefit system, I would be at the Dispatch Box for a lot longer. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, that matter has been taken up by the Department—it is a complex issue, as he knows very well—and I do not intend to go into it now.
For people contemplating the perilous voyage to Europe, our long-term focus has been on improving conditions where they are, so that they may decide to take up opportunities locally, rather than to undertake dangerous journeys. At the same time, we are taking steps to assist vulnerable people who are already on the move. I share the deep concern and alarm expressed by Members of the House about modern-day slavery. That was not a key part of the speech of the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, simply because one cannot cover everything. The conditions migrants face in Libya—we have seen them most recently in the CNN reports on modern slavery and slave auctions—have been appalling, and they have reminded us how acute the crisis is.
We welcome the Libyan authorities’ commitment to investigation. I met the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister recently to discuss the issue. I assure the House that the Government are doing all they can to go after the criminal gangs and networks of traffickers who profit from this human misery. The Royal Navy has destroyed 173 smuggling boats and saved more than 12,500 lives since Operation Sophia began, and Border Force vessels have provided vital search and rescue support, rescuing more than 4,500 people to date.
We are protecting the most vulnerable people on transit routes, including through a new £75 million migration programme focused on the route from west Africa via the Sahel to Libya. So far, our programmes have enabled 1,400 migrants to voluntarily return from Libya and reintegrate successfully into their home countries, while providing much-needed emergency interventions for more than 20,000.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) mentioned the International Organisation for Migration. I met Bill Swing, the charismatic director of IOM who will, sadly, complete his final term later this year and who has done so much to manifest the qualities of that organisation. We had a conversation about what we are all doing in relation to that process from west Africa through to Libya. If we are to challenge these gangs, we have to tackle every part of the process, as well as think more directly about what we can do about them when they reach Libya. It is important to cut off and prevent the process. We discussed the different ideas that different agencies are contemplating and already doing. This is a serious issue to which the House will return.
Before the Minister leaves the issue of Libya, I am sure he will agree with me that the most fundamental right of all is the right to life. There are people in the United Kingdom who suffered grievously as a result of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA Semtex bombs. Will the Minister assure me that, as well as the other human rights crises in the Mediterranean, that human rights issue, which affects people right across the United Kingdom, is still discussed with the Libyan Government?
I assure the hon. Lady that that is indeed the case, and we have discussed it with MPs from the area as well. It is absolutely not a matter to be forgotten. The Foreign Secretary and I have already met colleagues to discuss it. It was part of the conversations I had with the Libyan Government when I was previously in office, and there is still the opportunity to discuss it further. We can try to get to an agreement to find some accommodation that recognises the part played by the Gaddafi regime in the violence, but also to find a solution that brings people together, because both the Libyan people and the people of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, suffered grievously from the attacks. Something that binds people together as a result might be the most effective answer. It is very much still on all our minds.
I will say a little on the issue of children, which the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury did not focus on but I want to raise it. [Interruption.] Okay, a little bit more—the right hon. Lady cannot cover everything and that was not a criticism.
Aren’t children in Yemen dependent on aid?
Yes. I never had the right hon. Lady down as being thin-skinned. I do not want to get into that too much.
The UK has contributed significantly to hosting, supporting and protecting vulnerable children. We are the largest contributor to the Education Cannot Wait initiative, the first global movement and fund dedicated to education in emergencies. That builds on our extensive work in the Syria region through the No Lost Generation initiative.
In the year ending September 2017, the UK granted asylum or another form of leave to almost 9,000 children—in that year alone—and has done so for more than 49,000 children since 2010. We have committed to transferring 480 unaccompanied children to the UK from France, Greece and Italy under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, and last week the Home Secretary announced an amendment to the eligibility date to ensure that the most vulnerable unaccompanied children can be transferred to the UK.
We will resettle 3,000 vulnerable refugee children and their families from the middle east and north Africa by 2020. That is in addition to the commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. So far, we have welcomed more than 9,300 people through the scheme, half of whom are children.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. I praise the fact that children have been resettled in the UK; some might say that the numbers are not what we had hoped for, but, even so, some have been resettled. If some of those children who have been resettled in the UK have an opportunity for family reunification, will the Minister try to take in those other family members and allow them to join those children?
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s position, but let me say that we of course support the principle of family unity and have several routes for families to be reunited safely. Our family reunion policy allows a spouse or partner and children under the age of 18 of those granted protection in the UK to join them here if they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country. Under that policy, we have reunited many refugees with their immediate family and continue to do so. We have, in fact, granted more than 24,000 family reunion visas over the past five years. Family reunification really matters. Of course, colleagues will always argue for more, but that is a substantial figure. I will certainly suggest to colleagues that they look very carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.
Let me speak about one or two of the crises mentioned by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury. We have committed £1.3 billion to meet the needs of refugees and host communities in the Syria region, and it is here that we have pioneered a more comprehensive approach to refugee assistance, which includes a refugee compact with the Government of Joran that aims to create 200,000 jobs for refugees.
Of course, resolving the conflict remains the top priority. We are using all our diplomatic tools to call on all parties to protect civilians from harm, to open up humanitarian access and to support UN political talks aimed at ending the conflict. I was in Paris yesterday and met Secretary of State Tillerson in the margins of a meeting to find accountability for those who use chemical weapons in Syria. I met Staffan de Mistura in Geneva just the week before, and of course my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is doing even more at his level.
Syria is incredibly complex. The recent incursion by Turkey into the north of Syria complicates matters still further, but it is a crisis that can be resolved only by further political talks through the Geneva process. Our approach to Sochi is to say that it has a value only if it directs people towards the Geneva process. That is the determination that we and others have made.
We remain deeply concerned by the Rohingya crisis, where people are still crossing the border every day with stories of unimaginable trauma. This is a major humanitarian crisis created by Burma’s military. There has been ethnic cleansing and those responsible must be held accountable.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, welcome the fact that the proposed repatriation has now been suspended, as announced on Monday? The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) did not refer to that. I welcome it because absolutely no guarantees have been given on the safety of any returning Rohingya.
The honest truth is that people are having to recognise that we are talking about a long-term, protracted refugee stay in Bangladesh. There is no quick return. We cannot ask people to return to a situation after they were expelled with maximum force, violence and horror. Although the agreement between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to return people over a two-year period is a welcome sign of intent, it cannot possibly have any serious basis unless we know that people are going to be safe. People cannot be returned on any other basis. The honest truth is that we have to be prepared for this to take time. We are pushing not only for the work that we do in Cox’s Bazar itself, but for a role for the international community in monitoring any return, with the UNHCR taking the lead.
We are one of the biggest donors to addressing the crisis. We have provided an additional £59 million since August and our aid is making a huge difference on the ground. The first tranche of funding to our partners includes support for emergency shelter for more than 130,000 people and counselling and psychological support for survivors of sexual violence. That is not an add-on to work that is already done. Counselling those women who have been victims of gender-based violence is absolutely crucial. We and other parts of the international community now give much more attention to psychological support for those who have been caught up in it. We are already co-ordinating work on the ground. We do not have as many people there as we would like. It takes time to get people in, but it is a matter of great concern and interest to us.
The Bangladesh Welfare Association Cardiff and friends of the Rohingya in Wales are in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, unloading trucks full of food parcels, blankets, baby food and medicines. They have encountered devastating scenes of hardship and heartbreak and have heard first-hand accounts that no one should experience: people losing loved ones, suffering violence and experiencing squalor, overcrowding and deprivation. Some 48,000 babies are due to be born in the refugee camps this year. Does the Minister agree—
Order. If the hon. Lady wishes to make a speech, there is plenty of time later. The Minister does not have plenty of time.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. The scale of the crisis is extraordinary. I have not been able to visit the refugee camp, but a number of colleagues have done so, as well as the Secretary of State for International Development. We are not only trying to provide for what is already there but we are planning for the future. We recognise the number of births that are due. In addition, we have taken pre-emptive action on disease. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned diphtheria in a different context, and I shall come on to that. I pay tribute to the emergency medical team that was sent by the Department for International Development in December. Two waves went out over the Christmas period to provide support for people suffering from diphtheria and to prepare vaccinations to prevent others from being infected. We have an outstanding record on that. The work that we are doing is looking ahead, as well as looking back.
The Minister has mentioned, as have other speakers, sexual violence in conflict, and the Government have taken a number of initiatives in this area. Can he say whether or not the prevention of sexual violence in conflict will appear on the agenda of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London?
As far as I am aware, the agenda for CHOGM is not yet set. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the horror of violence against women, particularly in areas of conflict with which Commonwealth countries have a connection, is well understood. Without speaking about the agenda, it is a matter of the utmost importance to the United Kingdom, as has been demonstrated a number of times, so I take the point that my hon. Friend is making.
In looking ahead on Bangladesh, may I make a call for other donors to step up support? We are working closely with the Bangladeshi Government to identify acceptable solutions that protect and respect the rights and freedoms of the Rohingya people, as well as those of their Bangladeshi hosts.
The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury raised three issues: Yemen; the Occupied Palestinian Territories; and Lebanon. Yemen remains a matter of determination for the United Kingdom to seek a political solution. She opined on the opinions and views of Saudi Arabia and those who lead it—that is not a matter for the United Kingdom. We have made it clear publicly that a negotiated solution is the only answer. We support the UN process, and we are working towards that. Owing to the efforts of many, not least my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for International Development, the opening up of Hodeidah port for 30 days, reconfirmed yesterday, has made a significant difference to the passage of food and fuel. Again, that is another complex dispute that involves people from outside who have launched missiles towards Saudi Arabia and others, so achieving a negotiated end is complex, but it is the most important thing, and the United Kingdom is fully determined to do so and is working hard to secure it.
On the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, I mentioned during questions last week the fact that United Kingdom support this year is £50 million. I saw the director of UNRWA a month or so ago, before the US decision, and we have expressed concern in relation to that. We support UNRWA; we are working hard through it; and it remains a determination for us. We are talking with others about whether or not there can be further financial support, bearing in mind what the United States has said, but it has only withheld money at this stage. There is still an opportunity for this to be passed through to those who need it, and we sense that the consequences of not having that support at a crucial time are deeply worrying.
On that, you are saying that the United States has put it on hold. I hope you will commit to continue to apply pressure on the United States, and in the meantime will you consider increasing our contribution—
Order. I let the hon. Lady do it once, but three times she has called the Minister “you”. Now that we are well into this Parliament, I have to start clamping down. There is a very good reason why we use the third person and not the second person. The hon. Lady has to say, “Will the Minister do this?” She should not say, “Will you do this?” There is nothing wrong with her question, but will she phrase it properly?
My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister do his best to continue to apply pressure on the United States, and will he confirm whether or not we will increase our contributions to UNRWA?
In answer to the hon. Lady, the Minister will certainly continue to engage with the United States, despite a number of recent occasions when we have not been in agreement. We have made our disagreement clear, but the United States remains in many other respects a key partner and donor in some of the greatest crises in the world. I shall indeed take note of what the hon. Lady said, and we are considering with partners how to respond if the money is withdrawn rather than being withheld. Above all, in relation to the Palestinian Territories, the most important thing is not to let the opportunity for the middle east peace process go. No matter what has been said in relation to Jerusalem, that must not derail the ultimate determination to see a negotiated solution between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. The United Kingdom will do as much as it can to bring people together, and when proposals are introduced, we will try to see that that opportunity is not lost.
There can be no greater friend of Palestinians than the hon. Gentleman who is going to speak.
I am grateful to the Minister, but will he be more specific in relation to UNRWA? One country has already agreed to bring forward its contributions to UNRWA to get over the short-term financial crisis that it faces. First, will the UK do so, too, or increase its contribution? When can we expect a firm answer on that? Secondly, in talking with other countries, will the Minister agree to an international conference—
Order. I stopped the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). The hon. Gentleman cannot make two interventions at once.
I gave a response on UNRWA. We are in conversation with others about resources. We are concerned about any withdrawal rather than withholding of funds—that is a matter of great concern. Our contribution this year was £50 million. Other contributions have not yet been assessed, but it is vital that UNRWA’s work continues.
Finally—the House has been generous with its time—may I conclude on Lebanon? I have been to Lebanon and have seen the work that DFID is doing there, particularly in relation to education. I met Minister Hamadeh, the Lebanese Education Minister. A number of colleagues may have seen mention this week of the Lebanon education forum. Lebanon, like Jordan, works double shifts to accommodate Syrian refugees in its schools. We have provided substantial support for this process, and our work is orientated towards supporting refugees where they are as much as possible, because that gives them the best chance to return. The stability of Lebanon matters hugely to the United Kingdom. It has come through a difficult time, and it appears that Prime Minister Hariri’s position has been strengthened as a result of recent experiences. There are elections to come; the security of Lebanon matters; and it is important that Hezbollah does not increase its influence in relation to that or other regional issues, which was the purpose of a dissociation agreement that was recently signed.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific will respond to the debate, and he will deal with climate change in more detail. I have mentioned violence against women and girls and modern slavery. I could also mention lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which are increasingly important for the United Kingdom to stress—we will continue to do so—and freedom of religion and belief. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is in the Chamber, but her colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), a consistent advocate on this issue in the middle-east region, is not. If he were, he would want to hear again that the UK is determined to make sure that freedom of religion and belief assumes even greater importance.
All our experience in the middle east shows that a lack of tolerance is at the heart of so much and that the lack of tolerance of one faith for another is the breeding ground for so much that can then be exploited. This is not a minor issue of interest only to those who have faith, but a matter of interest to those who understand that this is a region where faith matters so much and impacts so much on everyone and that it has to be much further up our agenda in the west than perhaps it has been. We are determined to do all we can on that.
In conclusion, humanity is measured not by the strength of the strongest, but by the vulnerability of the vulnerable. The Government’s vision is of a world where no one is left behind and where all women and men, girls and boys—no matter who or where they are—have equal opportunity to realise their rights, to achieve their full potential and to live in dignity, free from extreme poverty, exclusion, stigma, violence and discrimination. That is central to the UN’s global goals and to securing a prosperous world. We are a big-hearted, open-minded and far-sighted nation—all of us—and our foreign policy reflects that.
I welcome the choice of debate and the motion, and I particularly welcome the call for effective action to alleviate the refugee crisis. With 23 million refugees worldwide and more than 40 million displaced internally, this is indeed, as has been said, one of the toughest global challenges of our time. There is no silver bullet to solve it, but Governments working together can achieve a great deal to alleviate the dreadful suffering and misery that it has brought—through efforts on conflict resolution, international aid and crucially, through the provision of safe legal routes for those fleeing persecution.
In my view, the report card on the Government’s response is mixed, with significant room for improvement. Let me start on a positive note with the role of the Department for International Development. As the Minister said, there is no doubt that UK aid in countries such as Lebanon has been hugely significant. In that respect the UK is playing its part, and long may that continue. However, it cannot and must not be the case that playing a part through international aid absolves any country of the responsibility of hosting a share of those who have fled persecution. In fairness, I do not think anyone is arguing with that, but on the question of whether the UK has played its part in sheltering its fair share of refugees in response to the crisis, I still believe that the Government have fallen short. Can we and should we be doing more? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.
From the outset, the Government’s approach to resettlement and relocation of refugees and asylum seekers went essentially from strong resistance to extreme reluctance, only then to find that once the programmes were up and running, they can be genuine successes and make a genuine contribution to the international crisis. A case in point is the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, which the Minister pointed to. It was introduced by the previous Prime Minister following what can only be described as a summer of resistance from the Home Office. Only after immense public and parliamentary pressure, magnified by the tragic pictures of little Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach at Bodrum—who can ever forget them?—did we finally see a hugely welcome announcement that the UK would accept 20,000 vulnerable Syrians by 2020.
No scheme is perfect, but as I think everyone in this Chamber would agree, once up and running it has proved an extraordinary success. Across the UK, we have been very pleased to see more than 9,000 refugees arrive. As part of that, we were delighted to see the 2,000th arrival into Scotland just last month, and our thanks and congratulations go to all involved in making that happen.
Resettlement works and can make a crucial contribution to the task of the UNHCR. I hope that the Government’s initial reluctance towards resettlement schemes is now a thing of the past. As the Home Affairs Committee recently recommended, it is important that the Government establish a more general resettlement scheme for the future, echoing calls from the UNHCR, which estimated that 1.19 million people were in need of resettlement globally in 2017. It has asked the UK to aim for 10,000 places each year.
Whereas the Government’s report card on resettlement would say, “Solid start but could do better,” their record on solidarity with our European neighbours has fallen further short. It is worth remembering that at the outset, the Government even opposed the introduction of the Dubs scheme before being forced to accept a watered-down compromise. Despite that scheme having been significantly watered down, it is another example of one that can work and transform lives, as we saw when the Home Office was eventually pressed into urgent action by the impending demolition of the camps at Calais.
Although the recent change to the cut-off date applied to the Dubs scheme is a step in the right direction, this Parliament should insist on revisiting some other restrictions that the Government have placed on it, including, most obviously, the desperately inadequate “specified number.” We should insist on the necessary investment to make it work properly. We should find the children in Greece and Italy, and not make them resort to using people smugglers or travelling to Calais.
It is not only children who need protection, but men, women and children all require safety. Long before the Dubs amendment was tabled during the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, my party argued for UK participation in EU proposals to relocate refugees and asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other member states. It is to our huge regret that efforts at establishing a relocation scheme have continued to flounder.
As we have heard, what does exist is Dublin III. It is far from perfect, but it is there and must be made to work much more quickly and effectively. The recent agreement that the Government reached with France seeks to significantly reduce the processing times for take-charge requests, and that is very welcome. However, huge problems still exist with accessing the asylum system altogether. We should not be waiting for children to come to us, but actively seeking out those who may have grounds for transfer to the UK. Otherwise, it is inevitable that there will be further deaths as young people and children undertake hazardous trips to join family here.
We need to work faster in other countries, too—notably in Greece and Italy, where it can take up to a year for the Dublin process to run its course. If we can do more to fix delays here and to find potential applicants in those countries, we will undoubtedly save men, women and children from hazardous onward journeys, people smugglers and exploitation.
Resettlement, relocation, and Dublin are three examples of safe legal routes that we support that can help to prevent dangerous journeys and alleviate suffering, but let me mention one more: family reunion. Scottish National party Members have repeatedly argued that rights to refugee family reunion in the UK are simply too restrictive. People with family in the UK are clearly the ones who are most likely to try to get here, but by making it virtually impossible for too many categories of family members to qualify for family reunion, including siblings who are over 18, too many are left with no choice but to make dangerous journeys.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point about family reunion. Does he agree with me and my constituents, including children from St Mungo’s Academy and Garnetbank Primary School, who see the absolute logic of being reunited with their family? They do not see the difference between someone being a day under 18 or a day over it—they are their family. Does he agree that we need to do so much more to ensure that those families can stay together? If children at primary school and secondary school can see the logic, why do the Government not see it?
I agree, and I urge hon. Members to support the private Member’s Bill that has been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I very much hope that it is passed. He has support from the Refugee Council, the UNHCR, Amnesty International, the British Red Cross and Oxfam, among others.
Indeed, the Red Cross, Oxfam, the Refugee Council, Amnesty and the UNHCR have said that having this Bill is their priority. Does my hon. Friend also welcome the warm words that I detected from the Minister regarding this Bill on family reunification—for codifying what is happening and giving people the legal right and assistance from legal aid, which is also in the Bill? That important part of it would enable the rights that hopefully the law would bring. I think the Minister is warm to it, at least.
My hon. Friend makes a series of valuable points. In Scotland a degree of legal aid still is available to support these applications, which are not straightforward, as a recent report from the Red Cross made absolutely clear. Ensuring that those who need legal aid have access to it would be a hugely welcome development.
On another day we will debate our asylum system for those who seek protection once they are here. Suffice it to say that on the SNP Benches, we see massive scope for improvement. Regular reports are critical of asylum casework, with backlogs and under-resourcing contributing to poor decision making. The Compass contracts for housing are little short of a disgrace. Levels of support are shocking, the right to work is ludicrously restricted and the move-on period after a positive asylum decision is a shambles. In Scotland, we recently launched our second refugee integration strategy. The Welsh Government have one and it is now time for this Government to produce one. Talk of a two-tier asylum system must be shelved, as must dangerous talk of seeking to redefine the very concept of what it means to be a refugee.
The crisis is not going away anytime soon. As the motion says, conflict resolution must be central to our foreign policy. I highlight, for example, the Scottish Government initiative to train women from conflict zones around the world on peacekeeping and conflict resolution as the sort of initiative that Governments across these islands can take. And we have barely begun considering what climate change will mean for migratory flows. New Zealand is considering a humanitarian visa category for people displaced by climate change. That is the sort of conversation we will have to have here as well.
I neglected to say in my initial intervention—it is perhaps worth an intervention on its own—that my private Member’s Bill will be considered on 16 March. I encourage Members to be here to support it and constituents watching to write to their MPs to make sure that they are.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I hope we see a busy House on that date.
In conclusion, I wish to make one further point. Sometimes in these debates we speak as if hosting refugees is necessarily a hardship for our country. It is important to put it on the record, therefore, that, given the chance, refugees far more often go on to make incredibly positive contributions to their communities and new countries and to bring great joy to their new friends and adopted families.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the response from the refugee families who come and live in our communities, but may I also point out what it does to the communities themselves in rejuvenating a sense of civic responsibility, caring and community, which is vital to our future as a society?
I welcome that intervention and agree with it wholeheartedly. These refugees are determined to take advantage of the amazing second chance given to them to live a life free from persecution. We can make that happen—the UN convention on refugees is the framework that allows it to happen. I simply urge the Government to work harder than ever to support that system and to deliver as many opportunities as they can.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon, but there is limited time because we have another debate afterwards, so I am afraid I have to impose an immediate time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches.
Given my role as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh, I will confine my remarks in this short time to the experience of those fleeing persecution in Burma and living in Cox’s Bazar. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) seemed to imply that the Government needed to get their finger out, as if this were something that had just happened. I think the House needs a little history lesson. The first major push against the Rohingya was in 1978. Then the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 left them out of the list of 135 ethnic minority communities, thus denying them their state—so this has been going on for a very long time. In 1992, their political party was also outlawed. I understand that by that point 47 individuals—four of them women—from the Rohingya community had served as MPs in the Burmese Parliament.
This process has, then, been going on for an extremely long time. Those of us who have visited the sites and camps—right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House—have seen the atrocious conditions these people are being forced to live in. We would all accept that a basic human right is the freedom to worship as we see fit. The one thing that joins the Rohingya in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Bangladesh is their religion. Unfortunately—it is a sad story to tell—the Buddhist community is complicit in and accepting of the driving out of the Muslim population that are the Rohingya. Yes, some Hindus have been forced out as well, but overwhelmingly it is the Rohingya, who are Muslims, who are being driven out. It is that link—of humanity and religion—that opens the arms of Bangladesh.
I am pleased that repatriation is no longer being considered, because the memorandum of understanding did not mention the word “Rohingya”. How can there be no voice for the Rohingya at the negotiating table? It is totally unacceptable that the oppressors, who are land-mining the border and driving people out with machine guns, and who have denied these people their rights since 1982, should be divvying up the role of the Rohingya and their future. It is no surprise that there have been marches and resistance on the camps to any talk of repatriation. How can anyone accept being asked to go back to a country where their existence has been denied since 1982? That needs to be dealt with as much as anything.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern at the British Government’s involvement in the last census in Burma, which we paid for but which made no mention of the Rohingya? We should be exercising our duty as the census payer to make sure the Rohingya are included.
It was an international effort, I believe, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is unacceptable that they are not on that census. This is not a simple problem, however. I mentioned that there were 135 ethnic communities. That is part of the issue: Burma is a fractured country. It is not a case of just getting our finger out. This could be a very dangerous situation for some of the other groups in the country. I am concerned that this be dealt with appropriately. My plea, given that they have been shattered for so long, is that somehow the Rohingya be given a voice. I understand that Ata Ullah is not an acceptable voice, as he is leading a resistance group, but there must be someone who can speak up for the Rohingya. They are a “talked about” and “done to” group, and that cannot be right.
I encourage the UNHCR to do all it can, but the reality is that Burma is blocking, and while I can understand Bangladesh’s need to solve this crisis, it is not a signatory to the 1952 convention; it is acting out of humanity and love for its fellow Muslims. That said, it is a poor country. It is in receipt of a lot of international aid, but it cannot continue with this on its shoulders. We must keep driving forward to find someone who will sit at the table and say what the Rohingya want to happen, otherwise the rioting and unrest in the camps will continue. The worst thing we can do is insist that people go back to a country where they are denied even their existence.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). I agree with what she said, particularly on the importance of the Rohingya voice being heard in this debate.
In September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the New York declaration for refugees and migrants, which seeks a commitment by member states to strengthen and enhance their mechanisms to protect people on the move. It is a significant achievement, but the challenge is to turn words into action. As the International Development Committee report, which we published last week, pointed out, the Rohingya crisis has tested these commitments to destruction.
I echo what others have said today about the Rohingya crisis. One lesson we must surely learn, which is relevant to the excellent motion before us, is that prevention is always best. As the hon. Lady reminded us, this did not come from nowhere: we have known for years about the threat to the Rohingya people. In recent years, there have been early warnings from Human Rights Watch and the Holocaust museum in Washington. I also echo what others have said about repatriation. It cannot be on the agenda in the foreseeable future, and I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that in his closing remarks.
In the case of the Rohingya and others, such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, the increasing rhetoric about refugees being expected to return to countries that are simply not safe to return to is deeply concerning. We need to recognise that in many cases people are going to be in these countries for many years. One of the ideas given to the Select Committee was that we learn from the Jordan experience with Syrian refugees and look at whether Bangladesh could adopt a special development zone to provide economic prospects for both the Rohingya refugees and the local population to limit the danger of resentment among local people towards the refugees.
The average time someone can expect to be a refugee is 10 years. Many are refugees for far longer. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said in opening the debate, we have an increasing number of complex and protracted crises. We need to learn from experience elsewhere, and I want to cite again the example of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. It is vital that its crucial work be maintained, but I want to make a slightly different point. We can learn from it in responding to protracted crises in parts of Africa or the Rohingya crisis, for example. UNWRA’s amazing work to support Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the west bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan over almost seven decades is something from which we can learn lessons for other crises.
An aspect of this debate that is sometimes overlooked is internal displacement; there are more internally than externally displaced people. The situation may be much harder for an internally displaced person than for a refugee. Syrians who are still in Syria may have a much tougher time than those who make it to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. That needs to be a larger part of our focus.
The theme of the global sustainable development goals is “Leave no one behind”. Disabled refugees often face some of the biggest challenges. The Select Committee has taken a great deal of evidence on that subject—for example, when we looked into the Syrian refugee crisis during the last Parliament. DFID is about to publish its policy refresher on education, and it is crucial for the educational needs of children who are living as refugees or IDPs to be at the centre of that.
As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who brings so much experience to debates such as this. I was, however, slightly disappointed by the disingenuous tone of the motion. The Government do work very hard on these matters, and I think we should adopt the “credit where it is due” approach.
I particularly appreciate the opportunity to speak this afternoon, given that when I was a Home Office parliamentary private secretary I was not able to speak about the subject on which I now wish to focus: the Syrian refugee crisis, and the issues that flow from it—because it fell within the Department’s responsibilities. I am proud of the holistic approach that the Government have adopted. Since 2012, we have given £2.6 billion to tackle this crisis. That is our largest ever contribution to deal with a humanitarian crisis, the largest contribution made by any country other than the United States, and a larger contribution than that of the rest of the European Union combined. However, I am sometimes rather frustrated when we end up talking so copiously about money. I believe that we should concentrate more on the outcomes and the impact that that money has, which have been very considerable.
We have been right to focus our effort predominantly in the region as part of that holistic approach, because for every person whom we bring to the United Kingdom, we can help 20 in the region; it helps to reduce the needless deaths in the Mediterranean, which none of us wants to see; it helps to keep families together; it assists the fight to stop human traffickers and criminal gangs from exploiting the most vulnerable people in the world; and it keeps the refugees close to home, which means that when the crisis and conflict are over, they will be best able to go back to their countries and help with the rebuilding process.
I, for one, have always argued that countries in the region ought to be doing more to help that process. However, it is also right for us to bring the most vulnerable refugees here. I am pleased that we have a defined route: we take vulnerable people, particularly children, directly from the camps. We are committed to taking 23,000 of those who find themselves in this most desperate of crises. That prevents them from making the perilous journeys that should be made unnecessary. I appreciated the commitment, made last week during President Macron’s visit to the United Kingdom, to extend the scope and the criteria that we have been applying, including the date, so that, as part of the wider effort in relation to France, Greece and Italy, we are now in a position to take more of the young people—especially children—who turn up on our continent.
All that ties in with the remarkable charitable effort that we have seen in this country. I can think of examples in my own constituency, such as the clothing and toy collections in Oundle, and the relocation in our town of a refugee family who have been made to feel incredibly welcome and part of our community. I am very proud of that. I am also proud of the fact that the Government have been matching the charitable donations that have been made throughout the crisis. As a country, we have a long history of standing up, being counted and doing the right thing. I believe that our response to this crisis lives up to the expectations and obligations upon us.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). I rise to support the motion, and I also speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees.
Taking a human-rights approach to refugees means treating them as human beings who have rights, but who also have skills and experience. We in the Labour party can be proud of the leading role that we played in the creation of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, fulfilling our legal obligations. The current Government have provided financial support for refugees in conflict zones, and that is welcome, but aid and charity, although admirable, are not a human-rights approach. They do not honour fully the spirit or the letter of the 1951 convention, and they deny the humanity of refugees and of ourselves.
The convention made it clear that refugees should be able to provide for themselves and their families by being allowed to seek work, take part in education or start up businesses. It explicitly did not seek to establish a culture of dependency, or structures of confinement or imprisonment. In Uganda, for example, more than 1 million south Sudanese refugees are being helped to get into education or work. There is an economic as well as a legal argument for a human-rights approach. Those refugees are not dependent on aid, are able to keep up the skills that will help them when they return home, and contribute to the local economy. Moreover, they are probably potential customers for our exports.
As well as the legal and economic arguments, however, there is a moral argument. In an ever more closely connected world, we are all neighbours. On this tiny rock in a corner of the universe, we may all need each other one day. I hope that if we in this country were ever to experience the difficulties faced by people in Syria, with record numbers of civilian deaths from airstrikes, we would receive the help from our neighbours that we should be proud to give to others. Do we want to be seen as the one who is ready to help when tragedy strikes, the one with the emergency food who will also help our neighbours to get back on their feet, or as the one whose doors are closed, whose walls are high, and who does not stretch out a helping, enabling hand? I know which I would like as to be seen as.
I respect the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, but time is limited.
I hear criticisms of the human-rights approach, and I have read them on social media. People say that when we welcome refugees we are letting in terrorists, and we should beware of the pull factor. For a start, there is no good evidence of a pull factor; there is evidence only of the determination of refugees to support themselves and their families, and to escape to wherever they can best do that. I strongly urge Members to come to the House on 16 March to support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, which will be presented by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).
It is important to unpick the argument about terrorism. The 1951 convention makes a clear distinction between refugees and criminals. Being a refugee is not a crime, but being a criminal, or of criminal intent, means that a host country is entitled to restrict or cease its hospitality. However, leaving people trapped, with their movements restricted and their human rights held down, risks turning once desperate people into very angry people—and anger is a breeding ground for those who would recruit followers to ideologies of hate who wish to harm us. So my fifth and final rationale for a human-rights approach to refugees is a national-security one.
On the basis of moral, legal, economic and national-security arguments, and also for the sake of our standing in the world, we urgently need the Government to take a human-rights approach to foreign policy in general and refugees in particular. I think that we in the United Kingdom are proud to be instinctive humanitarians. We all represent people who want us, in Parliament and in Government, to take every opportunity to broker peace, promote human rights and treat refugees as human beings. I urge the Government to support the motion.
In the limited time available to me, I want to cover three points.
First, I am proud of the help that we have given to refugees in the region. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), I will focus my remarks on Syria. I also listened carefully to what was said by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire). We have indeed been very generous: we have helped 5 million people to have access to clean water in the region, and our money—the £2.5 billion to which my hon. Friend referred—has helped millions of people there.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chairman of the Select Committee, referred to disabled refugees and those in need. I am proud that we are taking people directly from the camps. If we take only refugees who make the dangerous and perilous journeys, we largely take only fit young men, not the more vulnerable and those who need our help. I am pleased that we have chosen the approach we have. In addition, a clear case is made for meeting our international aid obligations so that in crises we are able to be generous, as the hon. Member for Bristol West said, and to help those who need our help, without having to take money from domestic budgets.
I do not think the shadow Secretary of State answered the question put by her hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) about the United Nations and what we do when a conflict is supported by one of the permanent five members of the Security Council with a veto. One of the features that has made the UN almost useless in dealing with the Syrian conflict is that one of the P5 is an active supporter of the Syrian regime. We have tried hard and the British Government continue to try, but we have to confront what happens when the UN ceases to be useful. George Osborne, the former Member for Tatton, drew attention in a powerful speech in this House in December 2016 to the fact that, although there are costs and risks when we take action, there are costs and risks when we do nothing. One could argue that, on Syria, the decisions this House took—or rather, did not take—on sending a clear signal to the Assad regime have made the crisis worse and made sure that there would be hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—more refugees, who we will have to deal with.
Finally, I want to say a little about our asylum system. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who expressed great concern about the system, was not concerned enough to trouble himself with the debate or to stay to hear an answer to the point he raised. Despite the fact that not a single Liberal Democrat is in the Chamber, I will answer his question. There is a clear reason why we do not allow asylum seekers to work: if we did, unfortunately, a lot of people would then come to Britain as economic migrants claiming to be asylum seekers.
To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol West, when we accept that someone is a refugee, we let them work, we give them education, and we make them welcome in our country. If an asylum system is to command public support, it must be generous and welcome those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. When people are not fleeing persecution—when they do not have that well-founded fear referenced in the 1951 convention—and they are not given the right to stay here, they should leave, and they should do so voluntarily. They should not insist that the taxpayer has to spend a lot of money removing them from the country; instead, they should accept that their case has been listened to and that there was an appeal mechanism. If they are found not to have a case, they should leave. That is how we will command public support.
I think most of us here in the House entered politics to help to ease the suffering of others. We represent our individual constituencies, but as elected representatives of the United Kingdom, we have a wider duty too. It is that sense of wider duty that makes me speak today. I back the motion tabled by my great colleagues, calling upon the Government to stop turning their back on the reality faced by millions of dispossessed, injured, separated and suffering refugees across the world.
As an island nation, we have never really had to face millions fleeing into our country as other nations have and have done throughout history, but although the land we stand on may well be surrounded by sea, we must remember those famous words, “No man”—or woman—“is an island”. For each person who endures suffering and persecution anywhere in the world, we have a duty to help. Being part of mankind is to be just that: kind. As my colleagues have pointed out, there are now more refugees and displaced people around the world than at any time since the second world war. Untold millions have been killed, injured and displaced through recent wars, terrorism, extremism and sometimes unjustified military intervention.
In my constituency of Canterbury, which is one of the closest to Calais and the other refugee camps in France, there are some excellent groups, such as the Kent Refugee Action Network, working with people who arrive in our corner of England. We also have the Whitstable Calais Solidarity campaign and the excellent Refugee Tales, whose volunteers make sure that we hear the lost or forgotten voices of refugees. The young men and women I have met through those organisations often arrived here frightened, lonely and in need of kindness, welcome and care. I am humbled by the wonderful people of Kent who, through organisations such as these, offer their time, resources and expertise to help to settle people into a new place a long way from home. We as a nation are not overburdened by refugees. Refugees should never be seen as a burden. We must remember that more than eight refugees in 10 are being hosted by the world’s poorest countries. What must they think when they look across the seas to this land of relative plenty?
I went to a wonderful photography exhibition last year in Whitstable. The photographs were taken by a very talented constituent of mine, a photographer named Marcus Drinkwater. He spent a month on an Italian rescue boat in the Mediterranean, rescuing refugees from Libya whose boats had often been cast into international waters, without power, by the smugglers. His photographs capture the survivors, and indeed the terror of those crossings—I urge hon. Members to look online to find his work.
Smugglers set off from Libya in the darkest parts of the night. By around 8 am, their boats have reached international waters. The smugglers themselves go back to shore, leaving the boats choking full of people to be found drifting. What I remember most from Marcus’ exhibition is not the facts, but the determination and the terror in the eyes of his refugee subjects. Many of the people he photographed have been refugees since the Darfur crisis—since 2003. They have been without a place to call home for 15 years.
In Libya, the breakdown of effective government means that the rule of law has been absent for years. People escaping from parts of Africa further south are often captured by slave traders when they get to Libya. There are slave markets in car parks and public areas in Libya now. Young women are forced into prostitution to earn their freedom and their boat fare to Europe. I therefore join with my hon. Friends and colleagues here today in calling upon the Prime Minister and her Government to take more action—to offer more homes to more persecuted peoples and refugees from across the world. I urge the Government to lead international efforts through the United Nations and to allow Britain to set an example that other western nations can follow.
On 29 October 1992, I was the British United Nations commander in Bosnia. Outside my camp, I saw an increasing flow of people passing. The sentries counted 10,000 before I told them stop. There were women, children, old men, people in suits, people in carts, people in overloaded cars—I even saw a woman pulling a goat along. That sight gave me the main reason why we were in Bosnia: to save lives. I reckon that is a pretty good mission for the Department for International Development.
In the time available, I will mention my escort driver, so that his name is remembered. On 13 January 1993, I gave him instructions to take four women to hospital through the front lines. As he did so, he was shot and killed. The women made it to hospital and were saved. They were refugees. I remind the House of his name because he died doing perhaps the noblest thing anyone can do: saving people’s lives.
The refugees we helped in Bosnia normally stayed in the region, and that is important for refugees, because the chances of their getting home again are in inverse proportion to the distance they travel away from it. That is the reason for having the camps.
Will my hon. and gallant Friend tell us the name of his escort driver?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My escort driver’s name was Lance Corporal Wayne Edwards. Forgive me, I was emotional enough to forget to mention it. When Wayne died, I was there. We tried to save him. I thought he was alive, but he was not. He is commemorated in Bosnia by a bridge called the Lance Corporal Wayne Edwards bridge, and I was lucky enough to be there to open it with his family. I have lost my place, thanks to that intervention!
I shall finish now, because I know that many people want to speak. I have dealt with refugees and displaced persons, and I believe that we have a duty to care about those people and to ensure that they are protected. We have a duty to ensure that they get food, clothing and shelter. I commend the Department for International Development and our Government for ensuring that they also get education in the camps in the middle east, because that is crucial for the young people’s future when, as we hope, they go home. It is crucial that we do our very best to look after people. I commend the Government for trying to keep them near their homes, but if we get refugees here, we have an equal duty to look after them.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I thank him for sharing his story; I think we all felt quite emotional on hearing it. The plight of refugees across the world remains a deeply tragic and often shameful summation of our ability as an international community to create a safe and prosperous environment. The individual circumstances of a conflict that causes displacement, or of the threat posed to vulnerable citizens, can seem insurmountable, given their different causes and effects. The conditions that lead to the movement of people across borders to seek sanctuary will not go away anytime soon. Those conditions include persecution, war, climate change and other complex economic and social factors.
Britain has the power to play a leading role in setting a co-operative, internationalist agenda that puts human rights at its centre. The plight of Syrian refugees is a prime example. The more recent resettlement schemes announced by the Government are to be commended, but we still are trailing in comparison with our European neighbours. It will be almost a decade since the civil war in Syria started by the time the UK is even close to meeting its targets, while an overstretched region handles the crisis from afar.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
Time is short, so I will not.
As the Member of Parliament for Battersea, I must mention the work of a previous MP for the area, Lord Alf Dubs, whose tireless campaigning for child refugees will, we hope, finally undo the Government’s refusal to change the family reunion rules. Mothers and fathers in the UK are unable to sponsor their adult children to join them here. Refugee children in the UK are forced to live apart from their parents, and refugees are unable to bring elderly relatives to live here with them in safety. In my own borough, I have seen the failure of Conservative Wandsworth Council, which has housed a mere two Syrian refugee families.
I spoke recently in a Westminster Hall debate on the enslavement of black African refugees in Libya. The Minister has spoken in detail on that subject. I must also briefly mention the refugees in Yemen. We are creating that situation ourselves through our arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
I cannot talk about UK foreign policy and refugees without mentioning one of the oldest United Nations refugee missions in existence: the refugee camps in Palestine. I have visited the camps in Bethlehem, part of the occupied west bank, where three generations of displaced Palestinians continue to face statelessness. Now more than ever, it is important that Britain shows itself to be a team player internationally: tolerant, open and a champion of human rights. In an age of division, we cannot look for short-term solutions. We must be principled leaders.
It is great to have this debate today given that Saturday is Holocaust Memorial Day and that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights.
I came to this place after having stood for election on a platform of local issues, but my eyes have been opened over the past three years through travel and by speaking to other people. There was the woman in a Rohingya camp who had seen her sons murdered and the man who had had the back of his head staved in with a machete that morning. There was the Yazidi Christian who had made a dangerous boat crossing with a 10-day-old child during which the boat had been capsized before the navy cutters came to pluck them out of the water.
I have spoken to a CNN journalist who had risked her life by going undercover to film slave auctions in Libya. I have met Venezuelan opposition politicians who had been beaten up due to their political beliefs, and there are now a reported 140,000 refugees in neighbouring Colombia. I have of course been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where I saw the hall of names of those who died in the Shoah, which really goes to the crux of things when we talk about suffering.
I do not have the time to do justice to the Government’s policy on Syria, where we are the second-biggest donor to the camps in neighbouring countries. We are supporting people as close to their homes as possible in anticipation of them being able to return, which they want to do, when it is safe to do so. By doing that, we are able to help hundreds of thousands of people there, including many children, instead of waiting until they attempt a boat crossing.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not due to the time, and I know that the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill is coming up on 16 March.
I do not have enough time to talk fully about the Rohingya. If we use too blunt an instrument in our diplomacy, we risk the country closing off. Ethnic conflict is already intensifying in northern Shan state and Kachin state, where the situation is actually backed by the popular support of the Burmese people, who already do not believe what the western media is telling them about the ongoing atrocities.
I cannot do justice to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who responded to the recent debate on the petition on the slave trade in Libya. He is making proactive moves to consider the petitioners’ demands and to speak to as many people as possible to address the causes, which include the migrant path from sub-Saharan Africa.
The conflict, security and stability fund, which has been allocated more than £1 billion for this year, aims to stabilise areas, but only by sorting out conflict, such as ending the war in Syria and appealing to the Burmese Government to ensure that the commander-in-chief ends the situation for the Rohingya, can we start to tackle some of the ongoing situations in Nigeria and other countries and prevent people from feeling the need to leave. It is through soft power, trade where appropriate, quiet and calm diplomacy in the UN and the Council of Europe, where the UK delegation is working this week, and all manner of other ways of mobilising the international community that we will start to succeed.
It is of course a pleasure to speak in this debate. The global refugee crisis is one of the world’s greatest challenges. The unthinkably large number of displaced people across the globe—approximately 65 million were recorded in 2016, and I imagine that the figure has only increased—is daunting and obscures the human story behind each man, woman and child who has had to leave their home, and I am sorry that more people are not here to debate this important subject.
With my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and the previous Member for Glasgow North East, I travelled to the camps in Calais, and it was without a shadow of a doubt the most heartbreaking experience of my life to witness men, women and children—some of the most vulnerable people imaginable—in destitution, desperation and horrible conditions.
The situation is abhorrent and unnecessary. The Government must accept that they have a vital role to play, and they must play that role on the world stage. It is worth remembering that refugees are often fleeing persecution—persecution often sanctioned by the state—for having certain political or religious beliefs, for belonging to certain social groups, for expressing their identity, such as being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, or for their ethnicity.
I am proud that Scotland has been able to take many refugees, and we have already made a significant contribution to the UK’s Syrian resettlement programme. Scotland met its target by the end of last year, and it has now more than met its target. It is incumbent on all local authorities across the UK to exceed their current ambition and to try to ensure that more people can be resettled in local boroughs in areas that, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House, have failed to step up to their duty.
Although the motion addresses the international aspects of conflict resolution and tackling climate change, many aspects of domestic policy here in the UK could be improved. I do not stand here simply to beat the drum, but it is worth the Minister accepting that the UK has a role on the global stage and that we are one of the more privileged, fortunate and well-off nations, so we have a responsibility. Both the Scottish Government and the Home Affairs Committee have recommended on many occasions that the move-on period of 28 days is not sufficient and should be extended. I hope that the Minister will give that some consideration.
The refugee crisis goes beyond race, identity, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and sexual identity, and I take this opportunity to recognise the staff and services across South Lanarkshire that have played such a vital role in ensuring that the resettlement programme is such a success in my area.
Scotland is doing good work in this area, and we have built a system that has inclusion and fairness at its heart. However, as this is a reserved area, Scotland’s progress constantly relies on the asylum policies of the UK Government, so I must ask the Minister to keep in mind the words of today’s motion and of this debate. Will he please consider the UK’s global role and lead? Many others should then follow.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. The motion calls for the Government to lead international efforts to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld across the world. We have global influence and reach, and we have a moral obligation to ensure that freedom is not just a notion of which people dream but one that they live.
Our freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom to practise our own religion—we take all those things for granted in this country. I am proud of all this Government’s great work, and I believe it is imperative that we improve lives in countries across the world.
We are leading the way, but we need more nations to follow our lead. Today, I will concentrate on the situation that has been endured for five harrowing months by the Rohingya people in Burma. A few months back, I met a group of local Muslims in my constituency who showed me some of the distressing images taken on mobile phones—images that were much worse than those shown in the media, including of a cart full of the severed heads of young men. The images still haunt me today.
I can only begin to imagine what life is like for those who have been forced to flee their home with nothing and for those who have been left behind to continue living out the nightmare in Burma. Ten thousand people have been confirmed dead, but the actual figure could be immeasurably higher. Some 830,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed over to Bangladesh, which is 11 times the number of people in my constituency. Those refugees must be allowed to return to Burma, but only when it is safe, which is far from the current situation.
Currently, 95% of refugees are drinking untreated water, risking cholera; 40% of children are malnourished; and women and children who have suffered rape or assault are forced to continue without the support they need. That is why I am proud that the Secretary of State for International Development did the right thing in prioritising this situation—this humanitarian crisis—and I welcome the £59 million that the UK has committed since August.
We do have a vital role to play, and we are playing it, but we also need to continue to encourage other nations to do more. The UK was the quickest to act, with a third of all aid pledged by November 2017, and we are in fact one of the largest donors, while Bangladesh has opened its doors and is now at breaking point. It is estimated that international funds will run out by February. February is next month. That was why I was delighted that, in response, the UK provided £12 million for urgently needed food. But the reality is that international funds will run out, and our Government have repeatedly pressed the Burmese military to end the inhumane violence and guarantee unrestricted humanitarian access. However, we must also use our international position to demand greater action from our international partners, particularly India and China, to support their neighbour.
The UK cannot turn its back on people suffering, and we must continue to send a clear message. We must not tolerate the humanitarian crisis in Burma, and we must continue to lead the way with aid and action, but other nations must follow our lead, and soon, as money is running out. It has been 70 years since the universal declaration on human rights, and now we must all honour that declaration, work together to save lives and protect humanitarian rights and freedoms for our fellow humankind.
In camps from Calais to Cox’s Bazar, there are hundreds upon thousands of people who have fled persecution, violence and disaster. They have not left their homes out of choice; they left their homes, their countries, everything that they know, because they were forced to. Many have suffered beyond our worst nightmares, with children burying their parents and parents burying their children.
I have worked for many years in refugee camps, but as an MP last year, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan. The people I spoke to there had one simple wish: to return home, to the home that they knew and the lives that they had—to return home to who they truly are. So, when the Bangladesh and Myanmar Governments say that plans are in place to return the Rohingya to Myanmar, it may sound like the first move to returning peace to the country, but we in the UK must be very clear that it is not.
Forcibly repatriating the Rohingya to Myanmar would be tantamount to sending them back to their deaths. Who will ensure their protection—the very military who killed their babies, tortured their menfolk, and who have systematically raped the women? The military who forced parents to make the decision whether to go and rescue their children from burning fires or—the ones who are still alive—to run and flee? We cannot once again turn a blind eye to human suffering—to people living in an apartheid state where citizenship is unattainable and where religious persecution has long been the status quo.
The challenge to the international community and to us is clear: how do we create the conditions, not just for the Rohingya, but for all stateless and persecuted minorities, to rebuild their homes without fear of persecution? This country’s response to that challenge goes to the essence of who we are as a people. I believe—I know—that British people are kind, courageous, brave and compassionate. Our Government should be acting to live up to that idea of the very best of Britain, but too often they have failed in the courage of their political convictions. Too often they have turned a blind eye.
I welcome the £59 million in aid to support the Rohingya refugees, but that is tantamount to putting a sticking-plaster on a gunshot wound and allowing the shooter to roam free. When will our Government have the courage to take the people who are the perpetrators of these atrocious crimes to the International Criminal Court?
Creating the conditions for refugees to return to their homes will have been achieved only once the fear they have in their hearts has gone. We can really lead the way through fierce, active diplomacy, and our Government must use all their leverage to bring about peaceful resolutions.
Our position on the world stage comes with immense responsibility. I hope that hon. Members across the House will join me in calling on the Government to take a much more active role in bringing the international community together, to provide those across the world fleeing war, facing danger and suffering in squalid camps not fit for the inhabitation of insects with the dignity and humanity they deserve.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who made an excellent speech. For the past two decades, Great Britain has had an excellent track record of putting its money where its mouth is on human rights and refugees. We are the second biggest contributor to the United Nations and the sixth largest donor to its peacekeeping budget. We operate one of the world’s largest conflict resolution funds and we are at the forefront of the global fight against female genital mutilation and modern slavery, not forgetting the seminal work done on eradicating polio.
The international aid budget does have its critics, though. Anyone among us who knocks on doors regularly knows that the country’s commitment to 0.7% of GNI is significant. In certain circles, perhaps owing to misinformation from the likes of the UK Independence party, it is seen that any problem could be solved by redirecting that cash. It is politically brave not to have listened to those siren calls over the past seven years, and we should pay tribute to the Government in that regard. I am proud of our commitment.
Well-judged humanitarian interventions help not just to combat immediate suffering but to head off acute crises that may require much more expensive—perhaps even military—responses. The reach of our aid and our help internationally has very positive effects; we have no idea what could have happened if that was not there. Investing in overseas development can build alliances, change attitudes and help to place British values at the heart of a 21st century in which the west will probably not play as dominant a role as it has in past centuries.
I turn to the effects in my constituency. Although Solihull is far from Calais, it has plenty of experience with refugees and asylum seekers. Birmingham airport is nearby—indeed, it is an important employer for the town. We are also home to one of England’s 14 immigration reporting centres at Sandford House. I am proud to say that, in my experience, that has elicited only a positive response from local residents, many of whom go out of their way to provide comfort and support to people going through the asylum process.
The leadership of the 0.7% pledge has filtered through into the charity community and also within the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. I am involved with several local charities such as Sewa UK that look for DFID’s support in bringing about projects in countries overseas. The challenge is being met and carried on by all groups within our society, and we need to welcome that.
I want to add to the hon. Gentleman’s point about what is being done here on the ground. I do not know whether he knows about Freedom from Torture, which I was lucky to volunteer with for a number of years. I worked with torture survivors in a writers’ group, where there might be a person whose children had been taken from them by a child soldier alongside another child soldier, eating and working together. Does he agree that asking torture survivors to go through their torture to prove they have been tortured is a problem because it might raise their post-traumatic stress disorder?
I did not realise that was going to be such a long intervention, but I thank the hon. Lady. I am aware of and really welcome the work that she mentions, and what she does in support of that group is absolutely fantastic.
One group that I wish to mention briefly is Solihull Welcome, a project run by Churches Together in Central Solihull. In the hall of St Augustine’s Catholic church, a team of volunteers regularly offer refreshments, friendly conversations, advice and even children’s clothes and toys, to people who attend the nearby UK Border Agency centre. I visited one of their sessions recently, and it was really inspiring to see local residents taking such positive, practical action to help those who come through the church’s doors.
I should also mention the Reverend Tim Fergusson and his congregation at Olton Baptist church, who offer practical advice, including legal advice. I am happy to say that my office has helped with that work on several occasions, as did my predecessor, because we recognise the good that comes from ensuring that people have a proper hearing. The church has not only been highly engaged in the asylum policy debate but administers practical programmes such as Crossing Points, an allotment project with the aim of helping members of the church to befriend asylum seekers.
Partnerships such as those I have described, involving civil society groups and local government, are vital if the Government are to fulfil their stated ambitions for the resettling of asylum seekers and refugees.
This debate is as relevant and important today as ever. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean continues apace, with more than 3,000 people estimated to have drowned in 2017 and the number for this year already exceeding 100. On the international stage, we see refugees being attacked by President Trump, Nigel Farage and other notable buffoons like them. People of all ages who are fleeing war and persecution do not deserve to be abused or shamed by us; instead, they deserve and need our help and friendship.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned, Scotland has managed to adopt a different approach to the treatment of refugees. In fact, the UN has endorsed Scotland’s vision for refugee integration in our New Scots strategy and praised the way the Scottish Government have fully involved refugees themselves in crafting our inclusive vision for Scotland. The UK Government should follow the lead of the SNP Scottish Government. That is not my suggestion—although I completely agree with it—but that of the all-party group on refugees.
So far, Scotland has accepted one in five Syrians who have come to the UK through the vulnerable person resettlement programme—that is more than double the share for our population. Scottish councils have been important and willing participants in the UK Government’s VPR scheme. My own local authority, Renfrewshire, has welcomed and resettled 28 families since the scheme started, and more than half of those resettled are children under the age of 18. The families have had the chance to rebuild their lives, with the support of the local authority and other support services. They have been able to resettle successfully and, importantly, they are able to live independently in local communities.
All the children are now settled into school, and many of the adults, young and old, are attending college, doing work experience or have secured employment. A number of the Syrian teenagers have been volunteering in the local community. In return, the local community has been keen to step up to support the families, by themselves volunteering to provide homework clubs, football coaching and fun clubs for the children, along with social groups for the adults. That is just a small example of what can be achieved when refugees are supported properly and the local community gets involved.
Those who look to make the UK their home are economically active and want to make a positive contribution to society. Giving people the opportunity to work helps asylum seekers to settle in the local community and improve their language skills, and it often allows highly-trained professionals to keep practising their profession. It seems entirely nonsensical to leave working-age people, many of whom have valuable skills and are motivated to work, to sit on their hands doing nothing for several years while they wait for a decision on their asylum application. Refugees and asylum seekers can add real value to our country, in both financial and societal terms. We should treat these people appropriately and give them a chance to fully take part in society.
The UK Government could do so much more. I hope that they will support the well-trailed private Member’s Bill on family reunion, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). Many schools in Renfrewshire have been working on a project on refugees and family reunification. This week, I was sent some of the comments of pupils at Bargarran Primary School in Erskine, and I would like the Minister to hear them. Holly says:
“Refugees should have the right to a normal life.”
“Please give refugees a family. They still have a right to a family.”
From Ryan, we had:
“Every child has a right to be safe and happy.”
“Refugees should have the same rights as us.”
I could not agree more, and I hope that the Minister was listening.
It is a pleasure to follow my former friend from the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). [Interruption.] I am glad to hear that he is still my friend. I welcome this debate. To be fair to the Opposition Front-Bench team, it is welcome that the motion is one on which we can reach relative consensus, while we discuss the many issues that it raises.
When we discuss human rights—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is in Westminster Hall talking about the freedom of religious belief—it is important that those of us with a faith of our own stand up for the right of those who do not have a religious faith to hold that belief as well. It is as much a right to say, “Actually, I do not have a religious belief.” as it is to practise one’s faith. Sadly, as we saw when Open Doors published its latest watch list last week, there are still far too many countries where the simple act of professing one’s faith as a Christian can bring death or severe retribution and punishment. The point I make regularly is that it is no coincidence that the regimes where leaders like to put themselves in God’s place are also countries that clamp down on every other form of personal freedom and on human rights.
I wish to focus on conflict resolution, which, rightly, is mentioned in the motion today. It is easy to look at what has gone wrong in the international system—some of the intractable problems with which the UN does not seem able to grapple—and miss the greatest achievement of the UN, which is that the major industrialised powers have not gone to war since 1945. There has not been the same type of major conflict across the globe in which, sadly, our grandfathers and great grandfathers had to fight, and in which those on the home front also had to suffer. That has been achieved by the creation of a clear rules-based system that allows many disputes to be resolved, including working in regional groups such as the African Union and also the western military alliance in the form of NATO. We can think of the role of peacekeeping. Our own forces have spent many decades in Cyprus as part of the mission there. Although there is not yet a permanent solution and there are still long-running and very serious issues to be resolved, our forces are still working effectively to ensure that the fighting and killing in that dispute are now, thankfully, a distant memory.
Importantly, we should see conflict resolution as about not just ending warfare, but being part of long-term rebuilding process, which is where our aid budget comes in. There is little point going into a place where there has been conflict and instability, with whatever has motivated that, and almost enforcing a peace in the hope that everything will turn out all right. It is about making sure that we have a long-term commitment to the area as well.
Let me look now at how things have changed. On Friday, I will be in my constituency with a lady called Isabella Webber, who is a holocaust survivor—one of the last ones still living in Torbay. It is hard to think that, in her lifetime, as she was growing up, she saw a situation in which might was seen to be right. It was a time in which a Government thought that they could legalise genocide and in which its main actors could hide behind the system of international law, and just walk out the door and abandon the situation completely. Thankfully, the Nuremburg tribunals set a new basis for international law, as did the UN Charter and the way in which the main nations of the world have related to each other since then. That is why this motion is welcome. There are still challenges, but we have come a long way in conflict resolution. I welcome the work that the Government and other nations do to make this a reality for so many people today.
I support the motion but I also believe that we have a special role to protect those who seek refuge and support in the UK. We see many countries in the headlines and in the briefing materials, including northern Africa, Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar, but others are on the move, too. Some people from those countries are trafficked while others, such as the Palestinians, feel like refugees in their own country as more and more of it is illegally annexed.
Our Government need to be a leading voice in efforts to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld around the world, but I worry that we could be shifted to the margins as we take decisions to work less co-operatively and even to cut back on the resources to play our full role.
While I stand in solidarity with the millions of refugees fleeing conflict and war, and urge this Government to do more to stand up for those refugees, I would also like to see a greater focus on the injustices faced by many refugees and victims who seek help here in the UK. A young woman in my constituency is a victim of sex trafficking and is now a refugee as a result. She had travelled to western Europe hoping to pursue her goal to work as a model—a goal shared by so many young people across the world—but it was not to be. She was abducted by two men, kept captive for two months and raped, and then trafficked to the UK. She found herself in another country that she was not familiar with, where she was once again used as a slave for sex—right here in the UK, where it is our responsibility. Yet when she escaped, the British authorities refused her the status of a trafficked victim until my team set them right and she started to get more of the support that she needed.
That young woman now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is seeking refugee status. One would think that any compassionate Government would do everything they possibly could to help somebody like that through such a horrific ordeal, yet her case has been refused on the grounds that her home country is judged to be able to provide protection against the persecution of its own nationals. This is not good enough. The Home Office has ignored our arguments that she believes that her own father will kill her should she return home, and that the trafficking organisation has the ability to find and recapture her. Not only that, but she has faced numerous barriers when fighting for the right to stay in the UK. It took 15 months for the Home Office to reach its decision, which means that my constituent has been unable to settle or begin to rebuild her life after going through huge trauma.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Sadly, I have dealt with very many similar cases, and Home Office statistics show that delays in asylum applications have been going up steadily over the past few years. That is why it is so important that we have community groups that support these people. In my constituency, Oasis Cardiff and Croeso Penarth are working to support refugees and those seeking sanctuary, particularly when such delays are occurring.
I appreciate that intervention. I think that many of us on both sides of the House could write books about the problems faced by refugees.
How can any Government who supposedly support human rights and the protection of vulnerable people be sending a woman like the one I have described back to her country, in fear, and at a time when she is battling mental health problems?
Justice First in Stockton backs the Right to Work campaign, which calls for everyone to have the right to work after six months of lodging an asylum claim. This provides dignity and respect for those who want to make a contribution yet whom we still expect to live on a pittance. I share the concerns of Justice First that Brexit may well result in our withdrawal from humanitarian legislation and treaties, and the European convention on human rights, as well as the dismantling of the Human Rights Act 1998. This will have a detrimental effect on its clients and my constituents, and many others too.
Others have talked about examples of voluntary work. Stockton Parish church, Stockton Baptist church and Portrack Baptist church in my constituency, to name just a few, are providing clothing, shelter, English lessons and meals for vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, really helping them to integrate into their new communities and providing support in their hour of need. Where the Government fail, the volunteers pick up the pieces.
I am an outward-looking person, I am an internationalist, and I share the need of colleagues in all parts of the House to stand up for the vulnerable. We do have that need to play a role on the world stage, influencing, persuading, and often directly intervening to try to bring peace to our world and an end to the conflicts that result in the international crisis we have today. Refugees and asylum seekers are treated like numbers, and it is often forgotten that they are people—people who have been through things in their life that many of us in this Chamber could not even begin to imagine, although some of us have seen that suffering personally. Every one of the 22.5 million people confirmed as refugees is an individual, whether a single young woman trafficked for sex or one of thousands fleeing a war zone. Yes, let us influence at international level and show a lead on human rights, but let us not forget that we also have a duty of care to those who end up on our shores.
The motion is one that no one can disagree with. The fact is that the UK already leads international efforts in the field of refugees. Listening to some of the speeches by Labour Members, people might wonder whether they have actually looked at the briefing on this subject. There are many aspects of Britain’s reputation around the world in this field about which we should be very proud. We should also be very humble about the fact that we as a country have the resources and the compassion to be able to play this important role on the world stage. I very much come to this subject on the basis that I sincerely believe we are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
I want to mention my own constituency. We have taken some refugees—not as many as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) mentioned in Renfrewshire, but it has nevertheless been a positive experience for the people of Stirling. This came about because of the leadership from the community, as well as the support from the local authority. In Stirling, we have a company about which I would like to share some information with the House. It is a geographic information system company called thinkWhere. It does an amazing job, working with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, in providing mapping services in areas that have been hit by disaster or conflict. Such maps are vital in providing help and support for aid agencies on the ground—and the work on the ground is the most vital.
As has been mentioned, the UK is one of the main contributors to refugee camps across the world—we pay for support and help for refugees where and when they need it—and we can be proud of the work that we do on this issue as a country. However, we should never forget, as has just been said, that the people behind the numbers mentioned are actually individuals, just like us and our families. They are people who are fleeing for their lives from conflict and oppression, from genocide and natural disasters. Their personal stories are harrowing, and put into perspective all we say and do in our own station in life.
When I intervened on the Minister for the Middle East, I should have mentioned my involvement with the all-party group on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. I stress to the Minister for Asia and the Pacific the importance of that subject. I congratulate the Government on the initiatives they have taken, but I implore them to continue to put impetus behind this matter. The subject is uncomfortable and distressing, but addressing it is an issue that we as a country should champion. Lord Hague and Angelina Jolie have been instrumental in raising its profile, and the Government need to continue to do that. I would like that subject to be on the agenda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit coming up in a few weeks’ time.
To go back to the point about how well we are doing as a country, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that the United Kingdom is doing “remarkable things”. There is infinite demand for the compassion of the human race, because that is the kind of race we are. We are a welcoming country, and we have a long history of looking beyond our borders to provide help around the world. Many of the international charities that help in this area were founded here and operate from a base here. However, we as a country must constantly renew our commitment to aid refugees and support global initiatives to prevent people from becoming refugees. We should never turn our back on the world, and we must remain outward looking to build on the legacy of what is a proud history in this area.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, but the current climate raises serious questions about our ability to uphold those human rights in an ever-changing world. We have seen a rise in populist nationalism across Europe, and particularly in the United States. Some of the traditionally liberal democrat states have increasingly treated refugees very poorly and overlooked state-led human rights abuses for financial benefit. Such is the case with our Government’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
It is the UN’s responsibility to uphold human rights around the world, and the UN is weakened by the membership—and the vetos—of Russia and China. It is the UK’s responsibility to prioritise human rights in our policy towards refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has recently announced that he will not be seeking a second term because, as he stated, that might involve bending a knee and lessening a voice. His view seems to be that the UN’s founding members and key human rights advocates are favouring at best silence, and at worst complicity in the current state of affairs.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya face forced repatriation and a return to state-sponsored violence in Myanmar. Thank goodness that a pause has been put on that—for now. The Yemeni people face slaughter and starvation, already displaced people in the Central African Republic are being killed, and 5,000 children have died, including of diphtheria.
There are also known to be 500,000 Palestinian refugee children living in the west bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Last week the US Government cut their financial support for those children by half—$65 million gone from children in desperate need, all because the President felt he had been shown insufficient appreciation and respect. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) wrote to the Foreign Secretary about the issue last week. I was going to ask what measures he plans to take, but the Minister advised my right hon. Friend earlier about the efforts to encourage the release of the $65 million and to augment it with finance from other nations. That is desperately needed.
We must stand up and fight for the fundamental human rights that equalise us all and for the refugees, among the most vulnerable people on earth, who need us to advocate for them. The world has changed, and it has changed substantially. The bipolar world is long gone, and multipolarity has replaced it. The UN must adapt accordingly and we must work collectively to sharpen its teeth when it comes to human rights.
The UN declaration of human rights was conceived at a time of consensus about the direction in which the world should head. We may never see its like again, but no matter how fast our world may be changing, and no matter what technology may be designed in the future, that does not mean that we should abandon those ideals. We need to explore how we can change, and we need to adapt. I therefore call on the Government to show strong leadership in the UN and to work through international organisations to uphold those rights.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am glad to see you back in the Chair.
I will start by sharing with the House the case brought to me by the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, a charity that works tirelessly to support asylum seekers in Leeds and for which I used to be a short-stop host for asylum seekers who were destitute. Network staff told me about a freezing cold Friday afternoon in December when they were phoned anonymously by a member of Home Office staff, tipping them off that the Home Office had just sent a woman on to the streets of Leeds, where she was wandering around crying. When they arrived they found a woman named Akifa holding a piece of paper in her hand with a map of Croydon, which was some 230 miles away.
After some effort by LASSN and other charities, they managed to locate an interpreter and they heard her story. Akifa did not know where she was. She spoke of looking for a maternal aunt in the Netherlands, but the person who had brought her to the UK was no longer around. This was a story that LASSN had heard many times before—a textbook case of trafficking. Because of her unclear immigration status, no social or homelessness services could take her and keep her safe. Some hours and 20 phone calls later, the police arrived. To their great credit, they did not arrest Akifa for illegal entry to the UK, but instead took her to a place of safety, which was a great relief as arrest was a very real possibility.
Akifa was Eritrean. She was trafficked into the United Kingdom, where she did the right thing and reported to the Home Office. She was then turfed out on to the street and left to fend for herself. How did we get here? How do we end up in a situation where a vulnerable person is abandoned first by her own nation and then, sadly, by ours?
Eritrea, like so many other countries across Africa and Asia, has experienced a sharp increase in the number of people attempting to flee in recent years. Despite there being no ongoing war in Eritrea, huge numbers of men and women trying to escape national service in the country resort to routes that take them through war-torn countries and deserts and across deadly sea crossings. That is because, unlike military conscription, boys and girls aged 16-plus are often expected to serve indefinitely, with many refugees equating conscription to a life sentence of forced labour.
Physical abuse, including torture, occurs frequently, as does forced domestic servitude and sexual violence by commanders against female conscripts. There is no redress mechanism for conscripts. Attempts to flee are sternly punished. On 3 April 2017, new conscripts trying to escape from a convoy in Asmara were shot at by guards, killing several. President Isaias rules without institutional restraint. There have been no elections since 1991 and no legislature since 2002. The judiciary is subject to Executive control and the constitution is unimplemented.
UNHCR reported 475,000 Eritreans globally to be refugees and asylum seekers—that is 12% of the population—yet the UK policy has been to pass the buck to countries already facing problems of their own, shirking our own responsibility under international law. As The Guardian reported last year, Home Office documents obtained by the Public Law Project detail efforts by the Government to seek more favourable descriptions of human rights conditions in Eritrea. The notes relate to a high-level meeting that took place in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in December 2015 between senior Eritrean Government officials and a UK Government delegation. A diplomatic telegram, written by the then UK ambassador to Eritrea, said that a meeting was held to “discuss reducing Eritrean migration”, and sought to find evidence on human rights
“to evaluate whether we should amend our country guidance”.
We should be ashamed of those actions. It took a tribunal case to overturn that guidance.
We accept that there is a problem, yet we have failed to provide a solution. The case of Akifa and Eritrea presents a broad problem with British refugee policy. Akifa should never have been left at the mercy of dangerous traffickers. She should never have been able to escape death only to risk her life. Akifa should not have been abandoned in Leeds—she should have been able to reach the UK through safe and legal means. The UK needs to stand up, not just for Eritreans but for all those fleeing conflict and oppression. The refugee crisis is bigger than Britain, but we can work with the UNHCR and other organisations to fulfil our moral, legal and human obligations. Let history remember our country not as the one that chose to look away but as the one that worked hard to create a better alternative and encouraged other countries to follow suit.
As Nelson Mandela said while addressing the US Congress on 29 June 1990,
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
Today, as we debate refugees’ human rights, we must remember his words. Refugees’ rights are human rights—it is as plain and simple as that. We as a country have a proud history of standing up to dictators and those who wish to take those rights away from individuals. Today, we have a duty to stand up for the rights of refugees too. No one should face being trafficked to a strange country. No one’s family should be ripped apart by war. No one should profit from human suffering and hurt.
We see the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Palestine—and it also affects the stateless Rohingya Muslims. We see the bodies washed up on the beaches. Those people face devastating human rights violations. We say that human rights are refugees’ rights. As a country, we must take the lead. We must make sure that we use our place in the world to make the voices of the vulnerable heard: their rights should be defended. Protecting the rights of people who seek asylum in the UK allows them to participate fully and to flourish.
I would like to commend the work of Sanctuary Kirklees and Destitute Asylum Seekers Huddersfield, known as DASH, for the work that they do in Kirklees to support asylum seekers and refugees. I offer a warm welcome to the newest members of our community, who settled in Kirklees after their arrival from Syria last week as part of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
For the next minute or so, I want to talk about the Buzz Project in Marsden in my constituency of Colne Valley. It is a great example of how we can support people who are fleeing persecution. It was set up by Dr Ryad Alsous, a world-renowned bee-keeping expert and former professor of agriculture at Damascus University. Ryad came to Britain as a refugee, escaping from Damascus in 2012. With help from Kirklees Council, Sanctuary Kirklees and the Canal and River Trust, he set up a bee-keeping project. The aim of the Buzz Project is to help local refugees and job seekers to find a place and purpose in the community by keeping bees.
When I met Ryad at the opening of the Buzz Project in my constituency of Colne Valley, he spoke about how those 10 wooden hives represented hope for the future and proof that second chances sometimes come in the unlikeliest places. Ryad’s words on this subject are far more powerful than mine can ever be:
“I know how hard it can be when you are displaced. You carry with you an emotional tension, and the experiences and memories of what went before can make you feel isolated.”
A number of Members have contributed to the debate, and more wish to do so, so I will finish quickly. Let us remember the words of Nelson Mandela in 1990:
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
We need to stand up for refugees’ human rights, but we also need to give them a second chance in life, just like Ryad is doing with the Buzz Project.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker). As the last speaker before the winding-up speeches, I will keep my remarks short, but I want to take a moment to talk about unaccompanied child refugees. Although they have been mentioned, it is worth our focusing on them in this last Back-Bench contribution.
At this very moment, unaccompanied children are sleeping rough in Calais and across Europe, desperate to be reunited with their family in the UK. The kids in Calais are just an hour away from this place. It takes longer to get to Plymouth than it does to get to those children, but they are too often out of sight, out of mind. I am still horrified and genuinely haunted by my experience of visiting them in northern France in September, with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith). Many of the children I spoke to have most likely experienced, or continue to experience, hunger, sickness, depression, police violence and, in many cases, sexual abuse. Research by UNICEF showed that the No. 1 fear for those unaccompanied children is rape. That is only an hour from where we are now. It should be unacceptable to our entire society.
I welcome the progress that was made last week at Sandhurst between the Prime Minister and the President of France, but we need more information about that. The detail is important, because the Sandhurst treaty represents a step forward, but only if the brave words can be matched by actions. I understand that the Minister does not necessarily have all the details, but I would be grateful if he answered the following questions.
When will the remaining 250 places on the Dubs scheme be filled? Will the Government drop the mean and embarrassing cap of 480 places on the scheme? Will the Minister tell us how these young children will move from waiting eight months to be reunited to 25 days? That seems an awfully big jump, so what extra resources will be put in place to ensure that those children can do that?
Extra money is being given to France for border security. What oversight can this place have over that money? I met young accompanied children who told stories about how the French police were tear-gassing them in their tents, stealing their tents, taking their sleeping bags and deliberately making them feel unwelcome. If it is true that the funding for those police officers comes from the UK Government, how can we in this House have proper oversight to make sure that our money is being spent well? Keeping young unaccompanied children safe is absolutely vital.
Will the Minister also look at what support is being given to those children to help them to understand that the process is being speeded up? Mohammed Hassan is a child who died under a truck last year trying to reach his family in Britain. When he was stopped by the UK Border Force under a truck in Dunkirk—just two days before he eventually died under the wheels of another truck—he was not asked whether he had family in Britain or informed of his rights under Dublin III. There is much confusion about Dublin III and what will happen with Brexit. It is important to provide clarity for Members of the House, the public out there and unaccompanied children in particular to enable them to understand what their rights will be on being reunited with their family in the UK. An awful lot of warm words are said about this issue, but I hope that the Government can match those with action, because these children are depending on us.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. This afternoon, we have had a broad, well informed debate on the global refugee crisis, which continues to grow and which can at times seem intractable. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) spoke with his customary passion and authority on this issue, as Chair of the International Development Committee. When he said that prevention is always best, I believe he spoke for all parts of the House. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of Palestinians, again made a powerful case for renewing our resolve and taking ambitious action.
As an illustration of the cross-party concerns on these issues, we heard forceful and eloquent contributions from the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who told us that the rights of the Rohingya must be at the forefront of future negotiations; the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who mentioned the importance of supporting disabled refugees; and the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who gave a first-hand account of refugee camps. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Solihull (Julian Knight) spoke about the desperate need for a human rights approach when helping refugees. They and the many others who have spoken in the debate are united in desiring an end to the death, suffering and sexual violence, an end to the lost generation of refugees unable to leave the camps.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) spoke eloquently about the terrible impacts of crisis and conflict in Myanmar, Yemen and other countries in the middle east. I want to turn briefly to the situation in Africa. Conflict has displaced millions of people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and other countries across the continent. One million refugees are now in Uganda in one of the most progressive arrangements anywhere on the planet, but last year at a pledging conference, international donors could provide only a quarter of the funds needed to sustain it. In Libya, hundreds of thousands of refugees from across Africa live in detention camps, in brothels or on the streets, facing the believable risk of being sold at the market into slavery—this in the 21st century.
The crises we have talked about today are still only the ones on the tips of our tongues. CARE International recently released its report, “Suffering in Silence”, and profiled the 10 most under-reported crises around the world: North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Vietnam, the Lake Chad basin, the Central African Republic and Peru. We must not forget them.
Who can forget the picture of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi? If we fixate on the suffering, that can be overwhelming. We in the House have a responsibility not simply to promise charity and express outrage at the crisis of the moment, but to redouble our efforts and resolve the long-term situation. Our humanitarian work cannot and must not depend on the ebb and flow of pity and shock. That is why today we need international action and respect for international laws and norms more than ever before. Let us remember that we already have the universal declaration of human rights—70 years old this year—the 1951 refugee convention and the sustainable development goals.
Then along came the President of the United States. In a matter of months, he has withdrawn the American people from the Paris climate agreement, which is the only thing standing between us and massive climate displacement; tried to turn the USA inwards with his Islamophobic travel ban; and cut, just recently, $65 million from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—the lifeline for millions of Palestinian refugees and workers.
The world’s long-term plan for managing migration and forced displacement sustainably and fairly is due to be crafted and signed up to later this year at the UN, through global compacts on migration and refugees. That is the only and best plan we have, but in December Donald Trump pulled the USA out of that as well. It is absolutely shameful.
If it was not already clear what the supposed leader of the free world thinks about refugees and migrants, Donald Trump then uttered his worst words of all about African and central American countries. I am loth to repeat them in the House, but I must as they have to be quoted directly and refuted: “shithole countries”. That is racist, and it sows fear, not hope.
The Britain that I believe in stands shoulder to shoulder with those countries and not against them, so let me say something about the UK’s role. A Government who consistently stand with Donald Trump, a Government who refuse to stand up against him, a Government who invite him on a state visit, a Government who on every occasion make the expedient choice and not the right one will be called out by Labour Members.
Our party believes in hope, not fear. We take pride in the UK’s pledge to spend 0.7% of its national income on aid to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable and to save millions of lives each year. Labour is committed to a foreign policy that has human rights at its heart, in defence, diplomacy and development, reinforcing rather than weakening that fragile international order.
I call on the Government to do more. I call on them to plug the funding gaps that are hindering refugee responses, to localise humanitarian funding—as we said we would do in 2016 at the world humanitarian summit—to double the UK’s efforts to negotiate and agree ambitious global compacts for migration and refugees and to put the needs of the world’s poorest before short-term national interest when it comes to spending our aid budget.
The truth is that these multiple crises are preventable. Their symptoms are solvable. The motion makes a simple case, which we hope can command the support of the whole House. Let the message go out from the House that the UK will put refugees at the heart of its foreign policy and uphold human rights around the world.
The Government welcome such a heartfelt parliamentary debate on subjects as topical as conflict prevention, climate change and the protection of inalienable human rights. I have listened carefully over the past few hours to the contributions from Members in all parts of the House, who have underlined the fundamental importance of those matters. I shall try to summarise what the Government are doing and respond to some of the points that have been made today; I fear that I shall have to deal with others in writing.
I thank all Members who have spoken, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and my hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main), for Corby (Tom Pursglove), for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Solihull (Julian Knight), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr).
Human rights are the guarantors of freedom, non-discrimination and the innate dignity of every human being. The UN’s universal declaration of human rights makes clear that those rights and freedoms are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible, and they apply equally to the whole of humankind. Promoting, championing and defending human rights are, and will remain, part of the everyday work of all British diplomats across the globe. It is the right thing to do, legally, ethically and morally, but it is also firmly in the national interest. Societies in which human rights are restricted tend to be less stable, less democratic and less prosperous. By contrast, those that protect collective opportunities and freedoms tread the path towards long-term prosperity and security.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights report gives examples of our work, concentrating on some 30 priority countries. Our 2017 report will be published during the next few months. In the context of today’s debate, it may be helpful for Members to know that it will include a section on migrants.
To achieve the maximum impact, we are prioritising our human rights efforts in a number of specific areas, including promoting girls’ education, tackling modern slavery and promoting and defending freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom from all aspects of discrimination.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made combating modern slavery, which has an intentional impact on some of the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings, one of the UK’s top foreign policy priorities. That is why she convened world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September to launch a call to action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking. More than 40 countries, working together, have already endorsed the call to action, and the number is rising. As a number of Members have pointed out, heart-wrenching, shocking instances of this crime occur here in the UK. Indeed, they occur within a short distance of the House, in my own constituency. The UK’s stance on modern slavery is not some patronising plea to the developing world; it is a recognition of the global reach of this most tragic issue.
The UK also leads international initiatives on ending conflict and promoting stability, including through our permanent membership of the UN Security Council, where only last week in New York I represented the UK in debates on Afghanistan and nuclear counter-proliferation. Research has shown that countries with the highest levels of gender-based discrimination are more likely to be afflicted by conflict. That is why our work on conflict has a strong focus on the role of women and sexual violence.
Climate change presents the most urgent and existential threat. It is indisputably one of the major drivers of migration and global insecurity. In 2016 alone, three times as many people were displaced by natural disasters as by conflict. In recent months, we have seen many extreme weather events, from drought in Somalia to hurricanes in the Caribbean and floods in India and Bangladesh. Last week at the United Nations, I heard impassioned pleas for help from the representatives of small island developing states, whose countries are already being affected by climate change.
We must change how we live our lives to prevent climate change from accelerating; we must adapt to the changes that have already taken place; and we must build resilience for the future among the world’s poorest communities, which suffer a disproportionate impact. That is why climate change remains a foreign policy priority. We are helping to maintain international momentum to raise our ambition. We have consistently encouraged robust international action on climate security, and as part of the Paris agreement, we pledged to provide at least $7.5 billion of international climate finance over five years.
I would love to say more about other elements of the debate, but there is no time. Throughout, we have heard moving testimony about the situation facing many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Burma in recent months. Since 28 December, the UK’s pledge of some £59 million has helped to fund an emergency medical team of 40 doctors, nurses and midwives, paramedics and firefighters, who have been deployed to the frontline of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, to help to combat the diphtheria outbreak.
In my role as FCO Minister for Asia, I remain persistent in our lobbying the Government of Burma to allow the Rohingya back to their homeland with sufficient guarantees on security and, importantly, on citizenship that they will be able to rebuild their lives. As I have said before, that can begin only when conditions allow for a safe, voluntary and dignified return. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans spoke passionately about the importance of Rohingya representation in that process. If the returns are to be genuinely voluntary, there must be a consultative process to establish the refugees’ intentions and concerns. This was raised by the hon. Members for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). We are encouraging the UNHCR to develop a more systematic process for consultation with refugees, and we will call on Governments to incorporate the refugees’ views in repatriation processes as they develop. I assure the House that I am also working within the international community to develop a coherent strategy that will begin to hold to account those who have committed what independent observers regard as crimes against humanity.
Opposition Members are understandably frustrated—the shadow Foreign Secretary expressed that frustration in her speech—but, as I have learned in the past eight months as a Minister, diplomacy requires patience. Progress can be slow and painstaking. The frustration can be unbelievable, but we have to work within the framework we have got. We have to compromise. I will not stand here and criticise the United States because we have to work with that country, and Presidents come and go. One of the biggest frustrations arises from the simplistic view of politics—that we can compromise easily and that people can easily express their views in tweets. The process is painstaking and requires patience. For all its failings, the United Nations is the only game in town. We have to work with the international community. All the issues that have been addressed here today and all the problems around the world can be solved only if we work together as an international community.
Rest assured, it has always been the UK’s role to take a lead on these matters. Today’s debate has been fierce at times, and there are many here who wish we could do more, and more quickly. I am aware of that concern, and my door is open to everyone who has concerns, particularly those relating to my own brief of Asia and the Pacific. Please be assured that we are doing our level best, quietly and painstakingly behind the scenes. Sometimes we take three steps forward only to have to take two steps back, but working within the international community is the only way forward if we are to bring about some sort of peace to ensure that human rights are properly protected.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House believes that conflict resolution, climate change and the protection of human rights should be at the heart of UK foreign policy and that effective action should be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis and calls on the Government to lead international efforts through the United Nations and other international organisations to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld around the world.