I beg to move,
That this House notes that 18 to 24 June is Refugee Week; further notes that many families throughout the world have been torn apart by war and persecution; welcomes the fact that the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No.2) Bill was given its Second Reading without opposition on 16 March 2018; and calls on the Government to support the provisions of that Bill.
It is a great privilege and pleasure to open the debate. I thank its co-sponsors, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Refugee Week is an important time at which to consider these issues and, indeed, the contribution that refugees make to societies around the world, although many left their own lands in very difficult circumstances. Many, of course, did not want to leave, and many now wish to return home but, sadly, will not realise that dream.
Last night, an event was held at Speaker’s House to mark Refugee Week. Indeed, yesterday was World Refugee Day. It was a fantastic event. The National Theatre, in co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, organised a number of sketches and another performances. The aim was to convey in a more engaging manner, and sometimes with humour, the feelings of refugees and the difficulties that they experience, and the choice that they have had to make to flee their homelands. Celebrities were present, including the actors David Morrissey, Cate Blanchett and Colin Firth—“Colin”, as he is now known to Nikita Harkin from my office, as she had to accompany him to Speaker’s House. It was great to see that people who were probably some of the most fortunate in our global village had the empathy, the social responsibility and the simple concern to give of their time to press the issues of refugees, in particular as UNHCR special ambassadors.
A great point was made by the right hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), whom Members may well know better as Mr Speaker himself. He observed that the presence of celebrities was invigorating, but also reminded people that there was a “we” as well as a “me” when it came to the issue of refugees in our world. Such events are important, as are debates like this. I know that this debate will be watched by not just many people who work with refugees, but refugees themselves who are looking for hope and some changes, and perhaps some warm words from the Government, which I am sure will come at some stage.
An unprecedented number of people—68.5 million—have been forced to flee from their homes, and 22.5 million of them have become refugees. Amazingly, 50% of those 22.5 million are under the age of 18. I have become more aware of this subject as a result of my private Member’s Bill, the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, which had its Second Reading on 16 March. The more one delves into the subject, the more one finds out, although I do not think that anyone—even a refugee—can really be an expert, because everyone has a different story.
The refugees who may be watching the debate should know that they are definitely not alone, and I know that from the organisations that worked on my Bill with me. Jon Featonby of the Red Cross has been fantastic. I am also grateful to James Bulman and Laura Padoan of the UNHCR, Seb Klier of the Refugee Council, Lucy Wake of Amnesty International, and Sam Nadel of Oxfam.
I have mentioned those people as individuals, and also to gain further recognition for their groups. The Red Cross, the UNHCR, the Refugee Council, Amnesty and Oxfam are not just abstract bodies; they are bodies that contain dedicated people who are working very hard to make the lives of others better. I consider that laudable. I wish that I had the abilities, and perhaps the time and the inclination, to do the same. Sometimes in life one thinks to oneself, “There are definitely people who are doing better things with their lives than I am with mine.”
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s praise for the people who are making that contribution, but does he recognise that throughout the country, in civil society, a huge body of people are making a contribution in every one of our towns and cities? He will know, I think, that Sheffield was the country’s first city of sanctuary, making the positive statement that we welcome those who flee persecution and war. Does he agree that that sanctuary movement, which has now been taken up by many other towns, can make a very positive statement to refugees?
That is fantastic, and Sheffield can be very proud. Becoming the first city of sanctuary is one of the proudest badges that any city can wear, and it is something for all other towns and cities to emulate. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the contribution is not made just by organisations, as is clear when we drill down further in society. I think that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), who was present for my Bill’s Second Reading on 16 March, is very pleased by my mentions of her city. The tabloid newspapers often tell us that there is overcrowding in the south-east, or a lack of welcome for refugees, but in fact the people of Canterbury have been very welcoming, which is a great credit to them. However, I am sure that they are not alone. The hon. Gentleman has made a great point about the city of Sheffield. Many people—in charity shops, for instance—are doing whatever they can to make a better life for the refugees who come to the United Kingdom, and that is very welcome.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that organisations such as Bath Welcomes Refugees in my constituency are not only supporting refugees, but raising their profile and our awareness of the terrible fate that many face in countries across the world, and making us more sympathetic to their cause?
Yes, and the more we are aware of and we see the big tide of support for refugees, the quieter the more mean-minded voices become. I think it was the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) who mentioned in a previous debate that when we drill down with the public—and engage with and talk to them about refugees, and are not afraid of the arguments—we see that, despite what some in the media would like to say, the public do come on board, and that in fact they are doing that anyway. We need to catch up in our public discourse and debate with what members of the public are doing in Sheffield, in Canterbury, in charity shops in Stornoway, Orkney, Shetland, Land’s End or wherever, or in Ireland and other countries. People are doing this everywhere, and people do have an understanding of, and sympathy towards, refugees.
When I was dealing with my private Member’s Bill, it became clear to me that it gave hope to people, even when it had completed just its first stage in Parliament. That brought home to me the responsibility I had. First, I had to deliver the bad news that we were only through the first stage, because there are many stages for Bills to go through, and that it therefore might not become law. We must still wait for a money resolution. I am sure that the Home Office will be generous and make sure we do have that money resolution, but we must then get the Bill through Committee and guide it through the Lords. There are therefore other steps to take, and in addition to that—this is probably strange for Opposition Members to think about—we do need parliamentary stability, because if we have another election in the next wee while, that private Member’s Bill will be gone, which will affect refugees who are looking for hope.
I thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) for giving way, in part because it gives me an opportunity to practise my pronunciation of his constituency.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in redoubling efforts to encourage the Minister to commit today to urging her colleagues to bring forward that money resolution? After all, if the Government do not like the Bill, they can always vote it down at a later stage, but to block it due to the lack of a money resolution, particularly in Refugee Week, would feel very frustrating.
The hon. Lady’s pronunciation of my constituency was excellent. Some Members might feel they are a bit of a refugee in this Parliament when trying to say the name of my constituency, or indeed they might think I am the refugee. Either way, the hon. Lady’s point is absolutely on the money.
I hope that the Home Office will take this point on board. I have had some discussions with Government Whips about the money resolution, and the lights so far have been going green. We have yet to move on to the Home Office itself, but that is coming, and I am hoping for further green lights.
In 2012, legal aid was taken away from refugees, but that did not happen in Scotland. Moreover, if Scotland were independent, I am sure we would be in line with other European countries, and I hope that the UK as it is at the moment ensures that child refuges have the same rights as adult refugees. That is what my private Member’s Bill tries to do. Some Members have expressed a strong concern about children being sent ahead as anchors, but that does not stack up at all, given the rights that adult refugees have anyway and the fact that that does not happen in other European countries. Anyway, who uses members of their family as bargaining chips?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. He is right to draw attention to children’s rights. Does he agree that we have an absolute obligation to allow children to be reunited and to bring in their parents and family members because we have signed and ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states:
“States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child”?
How can it be in the best interests of a child for them not to be able to bring their parents and other family members to live with them?
That is absolutely correct; I could not have put it better myself. I thank the hon. Lady, who is co-sponsoring this debate, for that invaluable intervention pointing out our international obligations.
I agree that it is in the best interests of children to be with their parents, and I must make a remark about the utter revulsion and disgust many of us feel about what is happening in the United States of America, with migrant children being taken from their parents. I am at a loss as to whether that is stupidity or evil—I cannot decide which, but it is certainly not a good situation. I think that all of us know that when children are being ripped from their parents in such a way, we do not need quotations. The American Administration have used biblical quotations, but we all know in our hearts that that is wrong. We do not need to quote and counter-quote, and make arguments about this. If those in the Administration of the United States of America do not know in their hearts that there is something very wrong with that, there is something wrong with their moral compass, and I do hope that that all changes.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I am sure everybody in the Chamber thinks what has been happening in the US is abhorrent. Would not the best reaction from this Government be to set an example on family reunification, and to take away the threat and anxiety of young people, in particular, who fear being sent out of the country when they approach their 18th birthday? If I was not in the Chamber, I would be at the weekly refugee lunch that Refugees Welcome puts on in Hammersmith. Voluntary organisations are doing a fantastic job, as the hon. Gentleman says, but we need leadership from the Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for missing his lunch to be here. He makes a fantastic point about the fear that people feel. When we speak to and get to know refugees, what we learn can seem almost mundane, given the big picture we are trying to sort out legally, but when we drill down to the personal level, we see that people are not sleeping at night due to fear and worry. Their fear might not even be for themselves; it might, as I know from one case, be fear for a sister in a refugee camp in Sudan. The fear is that the sister will try to do what her brother did and go through the Sahara with people traffickers, when he saw unspeakable things happening to women. The fear is of the sister being so desperate in the refugee camp that she will jump from that frying pan into a very horrible fire.
I have talked about my private Member’s Bill and what an independent Scotland would do, but I hope the Government will take these matters forward in an immigration Bill. It would be to their great credit if they did, and that could mean that my private Member’s Bill would be seen as redundant in the next few months. I know that an immigration Bill is coming. [Interruption.] I see a smile from the Minister. Perhaps it is a rueful smile, but we might see some progress in that Bill. I am sure that the Minister and many members of the Government agree. Indeed, there is now a new broom at the Home Office—we have seen some fantastic things happening.
I give credit where credit is due: the Financial Times pointed out a week last Monday the difficulty in getting doctors to come in, and by the following Friday that seemed to be resolved, much to the benefit of doctors themselves. Everybody in the health service was a winner, and the Government are getting the credit. If we could now also sort out the issue of work visas for crews of fishing boats on the west coast of Scotland, that would be fantastic. Everybody in Scotland wants that to happen; we are just dealing with a person or two in London who does not let it happen, but it is damaging our economy. Interestingly, these migrant workers would not be included in the migration figures, and boats would be back fishing and there would be processing going on. But I digress; that was more of a personal conversation between me and the Minister. Some of my constituents at home will be pleased that I have raised this matter, however, and they will see the link between all these issues.
I know that many Members want to speak, and it was flagged to me that some wanted to intervene—most of them have done so. When working with refugees we become aware of many things, and the point made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside that I mentioned earlier was very valid: the public are absolutely onside when politicians are courageous enough to make a case, and do not run for the quick populist hit of just talking numbers, but instead start talking about human beings.
I am coming to the end of my remarks, but I want to give the final word to a refugee who recited a poem last night at Speaker’s House. Being from Scotland, and particularly Gaelic Scotland, I know of the poets who have communicated to people in many ways that speech makers and any number of orators cannot. I am thinking back into history of Alasdair mac Mhaighstir, Somhairle Maclean and Iain Lom, who Max Hastings credited as being perhaps the first war journalist ever. Iain Lom was hiding behind a rock at the battle of Inverlochy in 1645 when Alasdair Mac Colla came up and asked what he was doing behind a rock. Iain Lom said, “Well, if I get killed today, who is going to be praising your heroism tomorrow, Alasdair?” There is a great deal to be said for poets generally, but the poet last night absolutely blew my socks off. He was fantastic at communicating his issues among the other refugees I met in Speaker’s House last night. Some of them consider themselves to have been refugees all their lives. I have tried to think of “refugee” as a temporary status before the person becomes a welder—like Yohannes from Canterbury, whom we spoke of on 16 March—a doctor or another productive member of society.
I met a woman from Somalia who, although she was a refugee, dreamed of going home. I asked her whether she would maintain her language skills and pass them on to her children and she said she would, which is a good thing. People in Gaelic Scotland—probably also in Wales and, indeed, in England—are pleased when migrants go off to countries such as Australia and New Zealand and maintain their language skills. We in Gaelic Scotland are very pleased when people come back from Nova Scotia, Ceap Breatainn in particular, and have maintained their languages. If we want that as a set of values for ourselves, surely we could allow, enable and help refugees to maintain their culture and language. Wearing my Chair of the International Trade Committee cap, it is important that we have such skills in the UK going forward, so that when those countries become more prosperous and trade with us, we can trade with them using citizens who still have those language skills.
I want to indulge the House awhile with J. J. Bola’s poem from last night because—with the greatest of respect to today’s speakers—he puts into words what it is like to be a refugee much better than any Member here today could and certainly better than I could. He asked me to point out that he was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the dictatorship has led to 6 million people being killed and many more displaced. I think he said last night that he arrived in the UK at the age of six. I will finish off with his words because they are worth thinking about. He wrote:
“imagine how it feels to be chased out of home. to have your grip ripped. loosened from your fingertips something you so dearly held on to. like a lovers hand that slips when pulled away you are always reaching.
my father would speak of home. Reaching. speaking of familiar faces. girl next door
who would eventually grow up to be my mother. the fruit seller at the market. the lonely man at the top of the road who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street
lit up by a single flickering lamp
where beyond was only darkness. there
they would sit and tell stories
of monsters that lurked and came only at night to catch the children who sat and listened to stories of monsters that lurked.
this is how they lived. each memory buried.
an artefact left to be discovered by archaeologists. the last words on a dying family member’s lips. this was sacred.
not even monsters could taint it.
but there were monsters that came during the day. monsters that tore families apart with their giant hands. and fingers that slept on triggers. the sound of gunshots ripping through the sky became familiar like the tapping of rain fall on a window sill.
monster that would kill and hide behind speeches, suits and ties. monsters that would chase families away forcing them to leave everything behind.
i remember when we first stepped off the plane. everything was foreign.
unfamiliar. Uninviting. even the air in my lungs left me short of breath.
we came here to find refuge. they called us refugees so we hid ourselves in their language until we sounded just like them. changed the way we dressed to look just like them.
made this our home until we lived just like them and began to speak of familiar faces. girl next door who would grow up to be a
mother. the fruit seller at the market.
the lonely man at the top of the road
who nobody spoke to. and our house at the bottom of the street lit up by a single flickering lamp to keep away the darkness.
there we would sit and watch police that lurked and came only at night to arrest the youths who sat and watched police that lurked and came only at night. this is how we lived.
i remember one day i heard them say to me
they come here to take our jobs
they need to go back to where they came from
not knowing that i was one of the ones who came. i told them that a refugee is simply
someone who is trying to make a home.
so next time when you go home, tuck your children in and kiss your families goodnight be glad that the monsters
never came for you.
in their suits and ties.
never came for you.
in the newspapers with the media lies.
never came for you.
that you are not despised.
and know that deep inside the hearts of each and every one of us
we are all always reaching for a place that we can call home.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and I pay tribute to his work in this area. It is fitting that the Member for such a constituency, which is beautiful and has wonderful people, is acting and leading the charge in this area, not least because it has been the site of forced emigration in the past.
I welcome this important debate in the middle of Refugee Week. The subject is important all over the world—in Germany, in Italy and in the US—and I welcome President Trump’s decision to change course on the policy of separating children from their families at the border. This issue is also important in my constituency, which has welcomed all kinds people fleeing persecution in other countries. For example, in the 1970s, we welcomed the Ugandan Asians. I pay tribute to how they have made a new life in this country, building amazing businesses, creating an amazing sense of community and integrating into our community. They are amazing people.
Others have come to my constituency more recently. I meet many of them because Kennedy House in Wigston in my constituency is a centre for people seeking asylum and new refugees. I pay tribute to those who volunteer with those people, helping them to integrate into our community and in other practical ways. They often bring some of them to my surgery, so I hear about some of their problems. I also pay tribute to the groups, such as Market Harborough Helping Refugees, that raise funds to help refugees in this country and overseas with practical things such as blankets to help them as they seek a new home.
Today’s debate is about the importance of family reunion but before I turn to that, this being Refugee Week, I hope the House will not mind me briefly mentioning a few things that we could do to improve the lives of refugees. I have three suggestions that have sprung from the work done by the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness, of which I am a member, and from my constituency experiences.
The first thing that the Government should do is clarify the rules on refugees and asylum seekers doing voluntary work in the community. I understand the arguments against allowing asylum seekers to do paid work and the arguments about pull factors, but they should be able to do voluntary work. By doing such work, they can express their strong desire to do something helpful for the community that is hosting them, but they can also integrate and learn English, so it can play an important role in them becoming part of our country. Unfortunately, refugee charities tell me that the rules are not clear and that people have lost out as a result of doing voluntary work, so it would be good to clarify them.
The second thing that we could do to improve the lives of refugees living here is to help more of them to get a decision within our target time. Probably the most common reason that asylum seekers come to my surgery is that the deadline that they were given for a decision on their application has passed and they are wondering what is happening. It is clearly difficult to make decisions on complicated cases involving people who have fled from war zones where public records may have been destroyed or otherwise made unavailable, but, if we could speed up decisions, that would help many people who spend a long time unable to do anything but wait, which is a painful experience for them.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions the delays in getting a decision. A group of refugees from Refugee Voice recently visited me in my constituency to make exactly that point. Living with indecision and uncertainty, sometimes for years, puts incredible emotional pressure on people.
Relating that to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point about access to paid employment, does he agree that, increasingly, decisions are taking a very long time to be made, through no fault of the claimant, and that asylum seekers should be allowed to work after a certain period if delays in decision making mean there is a failure to give them a decision on their status?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have heard that argument, which is an intriguing one. It would be a big step to do anything that suggested those people would be able to work in this country, so we should be very careful when we think about it. However, I understand the argument that, if people have to wait a very long time, perhaps something about their treatment should change at that point.
I support everything that has just been said. However, there is a real problem with identifying people and it has to be clear. I have been dealing with people who claim to be someone they are not. The danger is that you will get the wrong person and the wrong country. So it is very important to ascertain the facts. That is the reason it takes so long. I agree it should be speeded up, but that is the reason.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely difficult and no one should downplay or minimise the difficulty of the task facing the officials who make these difficult decisions and who are trying to investigate very complicated cases.
My third suggestion for improving the lives of refugees in the UK is to teach them English. When I meet people who have come here as refugees and hear their stories, I am particularly struck by what it is like to arrive in a country where they do not know anyone. It is often a very different culture, and they are navigating quite complicated bureaucracy without speaking any of the language.
I am always amazed and impressed by how quickly some people pick up English, having started with absolutely nothing. I met an amazing Burundian woman the other day at the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness. She talked about her story and spoke in brilliant English, even though only a few short years ago she spoke no English at all. None the less, despite the success of many people in learning English when they come to this country, it can be very isolating and very lonely for those who do not have the language.
The fiscal environment, notwithstanding the welcome investment in the NHS, remains difficult but, working through community and voluntary groups, it need not cost a huge amount to help more people to learn English more quickly. The benefits in creating an integrated society in which more refugees can work and feel that they really belong would be enormous.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar quoted a number of excellent Scottish poets. When I meet refugees, I am often struck by the words of Grace Nichols’s poem “Epilogue”:
“I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
from the root of the old one
a new one has sprung.”
I am always reminded of that poem because it is an incredibly impressive thing to have come to this country with nothing and to have learned a language, which I would struggle to do under ideal conditions. The power of the language to make people feel properly part of this country is very strong.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way he is making the argument for learning the English language. I come from Gaelic Scotland, and Plaid Cymru Members come from Welsh Wales. Rather than the idea that refugees must learn our language because that is what we speak here and they must fit in, the idea of learning our language to stop them feeling isolated and lonely is commendable. I can get behind that idea, rather than demanding that people speak a language that I do not think is one of the original languages of the British Isles, but that is a minor point.
The hon. Gentleman might say he makes a minor point, but it is an entirely fair one. I have been to some of the pubs in his constituency where other languages are spoken, and I certainly did not feel isolated or lonely—in fact, they were extremely sociable and very pleasant places to visit.
On family reunification, this country has a proud record of welcoming persecuted people from all over the world who have come to this country in fear for their lives. I think back to my childhood in Huddersfield: we had Chilean family friends who came to this country because their kind of politics was no longer welcome in Chile. My childhood in Huddersfield was enriched not only because those people had come here and worked hard as social workers but because they brought culturally interesting things to us. Family Christmases in Huddersfield involved empanadas, as well as the traditional turkey roast.
The resettlement schemes in this country have been a success. I have met people who have gone through those schemes, and they have had a much better experience than many people who have gone through the asylum route. We can learn a lot from the success of some of those schemes.
To summarise the current situation, as the hon. Gentleman has approached it, refugees can bring their children here if they are under the age of 18, but adult children are not included. Children under the age of 18 cannot bring their parents here. There are also powers for leave to be granted outside those rules in exceptional circumstances.
I can see the arguments both for and against changing those rules, and it sounds as if Ministers are thinking about it carefully. The question is whether we should go down the route of changing the rules, or whether we should instead use the exceptional circumstances rules in a more generous, more humane way. By way of analogy, I think of the people who are working on the Windrush generation. We need a high-calibre team with enough time to think properly about processing difficult cases. One way or another, the hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. The question is how we solve it.
I am not saying the hon. Gentleman’s idea is necessarily a bad one or the wrong one, but I will rehearse the downsides for a moment because this is a debate. We need to think carefully about whether we would be creating an incentive for young children to be trafficked. He rightly asks: who would use their children as bargaining chips? When people make the argument that the proposed change might lead to more unaccompanied children travelling to the UK irregularly, it is not a criticism of those children’s families, and we do not necessarily know anything about their circumstances. The children might be completely on their own, and it is almost certainly the case that, if they have parents, they will be desperate parents in a warzone who fear for their lives. We need to think about whether the change could lead to children being exploited by unscrupulous people smugglers.
In my own area, I am reminded of the case of Ahmed, a young Afghan boy who, in 2016, saved the lives of some 15 people. He was being smuggled into the UK and he arrived at Leicester Forest East services. He and those 15 people were trapped in an airtight lorry and running out of oxygen, and he had the presence of mind to text a charity, Help Refugees, which had given him a mobile phone. That text saved his life and the lives of those around him. They were much luckier than the 70 people who, just a few months previously, had choked to death at the hands of people smugglers in an airtight lorry in Austria. There are some truly wicked people in the people smuggling racket.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a live debate on these issues, which is why the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) tabled his private Member’s Bill in the first place. We can engage in that debate only if the Bill goes into Committee and is given a money resolution. Will the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) join me in gently encouraging his colleagues on the Treasury Bench to do exactly that?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I am sure Ministers will have heard his important argument about the process.
In general, we must stick to the principle that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to. Our policy can definitely affect the secondary movements of people who are fleeing conflict. We see from policy decisions such as Angela Merkel’s that one can affect the flow of people. Whether we think her policy is right or wrong, it has certainly changed the flow of people. The decisions we make on the questions raised by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar have the potential to affect the movement of people and we have to think about the secondary effects. None the less, I absolutely agree that they are raising an important point about the families of young people who arrive in the UK.
Today’s debate is important. There are many different things we could do to improve the lives of people who come to this country as refugees or as claimers of asylum. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has raised some ways in which we could do that, although there may be different ways of addressing those issues. Those who come to this country as refugees are often very impressive people. In our history, they have often brought a lot to this country in terms of their achievements, work and cultural contribution. I am proud that people think of this country as a good place that they want to get to. In a sense, we should be flattered by the number of people who want to come here and be part of our community. We should think about how we can welcome them into this country.
It truly is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who makes an excellent case for why we should improve the welcome we give refugees. I am glad he feels that way. It was good to hear about the lovely things his constituency organisations are doing to welcome refugees, and I thank him for that. I also thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) for bringing us this debate today, in Refugee Week, and for marking the fact that yesterday was World Refugee Day by reading out the moving and beautiful poem that was read by its author, a young refugee, so movingly in Speaker’s House yesterday.
This debate is an opportunity for us to celebrate, welcome and improve the huge contribution that refugees make to this country. My constituency has been particularly enriched by people who have made long and often arduous, dangerous journeys across continents, fleeing war, persecution and other disasters. As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I ask myself every day: what can we do in this place to improve the way this country treats refugees? I know we can do this, and I think it is part of who we are as a country to do better.
As hon. Members will know, we are living through a global migration crisis: 65 million people were forcibly displaced in 2016, through poverty, environmental disaster, war, conflict and persecution. We have moral, as well as legal, obligations to assist, but we currently take only a tiny fraction of those people. Refugee family reunion is one area where we can make a difference. Current laws and international agreements exist to help reunite separated families, but they do not go far enough and leave many refugee families separated by international borders. The Second Reading of the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill on refugee family reunion, including the right to legal aid, was really significant. The fact that a huge number of MPs turned up to a Friday sitting was a testament to the fact that not only do those MPs, from right across the House, care about refugee rights, but their constituents are also concerned. Our making that difficult decision to be here on a Friday usually has to be done with some level of informed consent, informal or otherwise, from our constituents, whose engagements we may have had to cancel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It seems to me that, as he said, this argument is cutting through: someone with confirmed refugee status should be able to live with their family. To be clear, for the record, we are talking about people who have their status settled and want to be with their family. I agree with the points that some Members make about clarifying who is who and whether or not they have a right to be here, but we do have a process and once someone has their status confirmed, they should be allowed to be reunited with their family. I will be working with the hon. Gentleman and others to capitalise on this political and public progress, and push the progress of this Bill and a separate similar Bill in the House of Lords. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, whom I know to be a very honourable woman. I have had meetings with her and was pleased to discuss these matters with her. I hope she can commit today at least to bringing forward the money resolution, so that we can get this Bill moving and at least debate this, to the satisfaction of our constituents as well as Members across the House.
It is a difficult and perhaps tense moment to mention the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, as we have spent a lot of time on it over the past few months. Indeed, I cannot remember a time when we were not debating it, although it now looks like that period is coming to a close. As part of that Bill, I was glad the Government took on a significant part of the amendment from my friend and colleague Lord Alf Dubs, as well as that proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). She proposed additional changes to maintain the current situation in relation to the obligations we have under our membership of the EU and the Dublin III convention. I am not going to go into detail, but I wish to acknowledge that that is a positive step, although it does not remove the need for the private Members’ Bills to make further progress, as those provisions do not contain all that those Bills contain.
I wish to echo what the hon. Member for Harborough has said about the right to work and tentatively suggest to all colleagues that they should remember that refugees come here with skills and want to work. They do not come here to claim benefits. They want to contribute. Every refugee I have ever met has said, “I want to contribute my skills.” They want to be able to work, but, except with specific permission, they are not allowed to until they have been granted asylum by the Home Office. That would be okay, except that the Home Office target to complete asylum decisions within six months is frequently missed. In my case load, for whatever reason—I am prepared to accept there may be good reasons—that target is, unfortunately, more often honoured in the breach than in the observance. It is often missed by months or even years, which means that skilled people are meanwhile left without opportunities to maintain their skills, support their families and contribute to the national and local economy. This also makes it harder for them to integrate when they are eventually given status. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, they often face restrictions on volunteering. This makes family life harder and makes it particularly difficult for people to get towards the point where they can earn the money they need to reunite their family members and bring their families back together.
Hon. Members may or not be aware that, by contrast, Uganda allows refugees to work immediately, and provides them with land to grow food on and start-up finance to set up their own businesses, if that is what they wish to do. Other countries have also given us useful models. We should at the very least consider a principle of the right to work after six months, which would also encourage the Minister’s Department to end those delays, and the right to volunteer until they can work. I would prefer us to move towards a system where the default setting is the right to work or the right to volunteer, and ideally both. Of course, we need to discuss that and how it would work, but I would like us at least to be considering it as a principle.
There are many other things we can do to improve the way we treat refugees and reunite families, including ending indefinite immigration detention. That is not the subject of this debate, so I am not going to discuss it. We could also restore legal aid, so that refugees can be reunited with their families; prioritise free, high-quality English language teaching; and do more to create safe and legal routes to the UK, with refugee schemes such as the excellent vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I applaud the Government’s efforts to keep that scheme going and make it is as good as it is, but I would like it to be made easier to make in-country or border applications for asylum and resettlement. Keeping people in refugee camps or on the borders at best leaves people in limbo for years and at worst creates a recruiting ground for people traffickers and people who sexually exploit women. We all want to prevent those dangerous journeys—we share that aim—but the way of preventing them is not by making it harder to claim family reunion; it is by increasing safe and legal routes.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, because she is talking about some of the practical steps the Government can take. Children I have visited in the Calais camps—as close as that—have the prima facie right under the Dubs amendment and Dublin III to come here but are simply not being assessed. They will therefore eventually risk their lives under trains or lorries in order to get here. Those are the sorts of issues, along with the funding of English language teaching and the right of asylum seekers to work here, that would make a practical difference and would help this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for making those excellent points. He is absolutely right to say that there are children in Calais—other hon. Members have been to see them, too—who appear to have a relative who already has status in this country, and who should be here. Making those safe and legal routes available is very important in order to protect children and adults.
In closing, let me say that the forthcoming immigration Bill may give us scope to support amendments in many of these areas, and I hope it does, but we need to create other opportunities to improve the treatment of those looking for sanctuary in this country and to improve our welcome. I urge Members from across the House to read the report that my all-party group compiled, researched and wrote last year, “Refugees Welcome?”. One recommendation was about the right to work, but others were about the other matters I have mentioned. We can all improve the welcome that we as Members of Parliament give to our own constituents. I have been learning Arabic for the past 18 months to make myself a better MP for Syrian and other middle eastern refugees. I am smiling because it is very slow progress—painfully slow; they are learning English faster than I am learning Arabic—but the idea is to make that welcome as genuine and sincere as possible.
This is about who we are as a country. It is about how we want to be seen in the world. It is about the fact that in our increasingly, heartbreakingly divided world, differences are reinforced more than they are bridged. It is about those countries that live out their values and provide safe haven for those who flee war and persecution. Those are the countries that light up a more hopeful future for us all.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this hugely important debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and wish to pick up on several of her remarks later. She said very movingly that how we treat this subject reflects who we are as a people and the kind of culture and civilisation that we represent.
As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) said in his opening remarks, the debate in Britain has been driven perhaps for too long by sensationalist tabloid headlines. There is of course a huge swell of emotion whenever the issues of immigration and refugees are raised, but we have to distinguish between different types of immigration. We have to distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, and we have to recognise that opportunistic traffickers exist—we cannot turn a blind eye to that. It is a complicated picture.
On refugees, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar’s private Member’s Bill is a remarkable thing for a private Member to bring forth. It commanded the support of many Members from across the House: the hon. Gentleman said that Members from five parties turned up to support his Bill on 16 March. Regrettably, I could not be one of those Members, but it is striking that his Bill has commanded such a wide range of support. The reason it commanded that support is that in Britain, as represented not only by Members in this House but by a wide population—by many, many of our constituents—there is a general feeling that if people are fleeing for their lives or fleeing persecution, Britain will be a welcome home and place of asylum for them.
Britain has a long history of welcoming, in a very generous spirit, people who have fled persecution. We can talk about the Huguenots in the 17th century or Russian Jews fleeing persecution in the 19th century. We can talk about the 20th century, when Jews once again faced a terrible tyranny and sought asylum here in Britain. Over the centuries, many of those people have contributed enormously to British culture, literature, economics and philosophy. All sorts of brilliant ideas have been fostered by extremely talented people who have fled for their lives. There have also been people who have helped in more ordinary situations, such as in the transport sector and the public services. A number of those people have come from families of refugees, or have been refugees themselves. No one denies that.
In the recent past—in the last few years—the British Government have had a good record and a good story to tell. One thing that no one has really talked about so far in this debate is that we are going through an unprecedented period of stress and political turmoil in the world. I have travelled a lot in the middle east and Egypt, and I have seen at first hand the devastation—the complete chaos—to which large areas of that part of the world have been subjected, through war and the lack of stable government. We hailed the Arab spring when it came upon us in 2011, but for many people that spring has turned into a nightmare. We need only look at the situation in Libya. I am one of very few Members of Parliament to have been there, and some of the conditions in which migrants there find themselves is appalling. As I said earlier, we cannot be blind to the fact that there are unscrupulous and wicked people who will exploit the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and highlights the importance of having this debate and getting it right. The pressures we face are not going to get any easier. Whether or not the conflicts come and go—I suspect that they always will—we are going to see, not that far down the track, further pressures from the effects of climate change. That will cause massive movements of people. Whether they would currently be seen as economic migrants or refugees, there will be people unable to remain where they currently are.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point: this phenomenon of migration and the political uncertainty and instability are not just going to go away. In fact, if we look forward, we are probably going to have greater pressures and greater numbers of people coming from sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east.
I thank my very good friend for allowing me to intervene on him. He cites migrants in Libya. I have not been to Libya, so I bow to my hon. Friend’s greater authority on the matter, but are those migrants refugees from other parts of Africa or displaced persons from within Libya, or are they economic migrants? It seems to me that they might be a mix of everything.
My hon. Friend—my very good friend—is absolutely right, and that shows how complicated and variegated the problem is. In Libya, there are all three: economic migrants, people from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing real persecution outside Libya, and people who are being mercilessly trafficked for gain. It is a complicated picture and it is not easy to say which is which. In some instances, an individual or family might have two or three different reasons why they should leave their home or why they were forced out of their home. It is not particularly helpful to come to this question with a simple, preconceived notion of what a refugee is, what an economic migrant is or what someone who is being trafficked is, because the real world is a lot more complicated than that. We cannot simply put people, families and children in such neatly defined silos. We have to be much more flexible in our approach.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar stressed how Britain is very welcoming, but he also mentioned the fact that the climate has been hostile in many instances, particularly in respect of tabloid newspapers. I am not someone openly to praise tabloid newspapers in this country—they have many strengths and many weaknesses—but it is easy in this House to pour scorn on what used to be called the popular press. The tabloids respond to the very real concerns of people throughout the country. If I speak to my constituents in Spelthorne, they express extremely generous sentiments towards genuine refugees, but there is also genuine concern that Britain’s hospitality and generosity can be abused, and it can be abused by some of the unscrupulous traffickers we talked about.
I wish to talk a little more about trafficking, because it is a problem that perhaps absorbs too little attention in this House. I was in Libya a year ago, when I was told that an individual needs to pay $1,000 to be transported from Libya to, in the first instance, Italy, which is the most common country of destination for these migrants. It does not take a mathematician to work out that if each person pays $1,000 to be trafficked, or transported, and there are—I was told—up to something like 1,000 migrants a day in the high season, when trafficking is at its peak the business of trafficking is potentially worth around $1 million a day. Such a huge amount of money that is potentially being distributed, or is part of the revenues of this business, attracts all kinds of people. When I was there, people talked about the Sicilian mafia, various eastern European mafiosi and the Russian mafia. Lots and lots of unscrupulous people are involved in this terrible trafficking.
We must look not only at the political instability and the relative disturbances in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, but at the sources of the trafficking. We must clamp down on the criminal activities of these gangs, because they are the people who are driving this trade. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) suggested, this is a problem that will not go away. I assure the House that, if it does not go away, there will be unscrupulous gangs and criminal elements all over this trafficking and this way of making money. If that is the case, any European Government will have to focus much more closely on stopping the criminality.
When we talk about refugees, we understand the humanitarian concerns of our constituents, but there is another side to this issue. I see the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) shaking his head, but we cannot simply stick our heads in the sand and ignore this terrible trade.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. On a wider point of information, I think it was the Swedish academic, Hans Rosling—I might have the name wrong—who pointed out first that the reason why many people go overland is that air transportation is closed to them because of our rules that will send them back again. We have other difficulties and other issues in and among that, so, sometimes, our own policies are actually creating the free market business that he describes of people trafficking at £1,000 a head.
That is a legitimate point, but this trafficking has not come from British policy. I do not think that people who are trafficking Nigerians from the western coast of Libya into Italy, as the first port, are doing so because of the policies of the British Government. I do not really see a direct link. All I am trying to suggest is that there is a far a wider range of problems on which this issue touches.
I am in broad agreement with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but there is another aspect on which he has not touched. He said earlier, I think, that people traffickers lead this trade. I suggest to him gently that, in fact, they are the product of it. One reason why they are a product of it is that they are filling a vacuum because there are no proper safe and legal routes. If we put in safe and legal routes, along with proper action on an international basis, we will be part of the way to excising the cancer of the people traffickers.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that, clearly, criminals are not, in the first instance, driving this issue. There are many social, political and economic reasons for this phenomenon but, certainly in the parts of Libya that I saw and in the migrant camps in Sicily where I talked to a few people who were unlucky enough to be trafficked, a big criminal enterprise underpins it. It is very easy in the Chamber of the House of Commons to focus on the humanitarian aspects and to remind Members of our obligations not only as MPs but as citizens and human beings to very vulnerable people. I completely accept that. It is too easy for people in this Chamber to turn a blind eye to what is actually going on from the economic and criminal point of view, which is, frankly, a scandal. Too little of our political debate focuses on these wicked criminal elements. We must take a much bigger view.
I ask my very good friend to forgive me for intervening a second time. I have had to deal with the mafia in the Balkans. It may be foreign-owned or run, but it uses local people. I am quite sure that, in Libya, the mafia to whom he is referring will often be Libyans who are actually working for foreigners. That makes it even more complicated.
The situation in Libya is very particular, and I do not want it to monopolise the closing moments of my speech. All I want to say with regard to Libya is that it can be seen as a test case. Certainly, Libya is the biggest immediate source of migration coming into Europe. That is what we have seen in Italy with the Five Star Movement and the remnants of the Northern League, the neo-fascist party. Their success was largely in response to this ongoing migrant crisis. I know that we are straying a bit from the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, but it is very important in a debate of this nature, which enjoys cross-party engagement, to suggest that there are bigger problems that we need to face. They are less attractive issues, dare I say it, and they probably do not salve our consciences in the way that helping genuine refugees does, but there are important questions that any serious legislature, any serious Government and serious Members of Parliament need to look at with respect to criminality.
In conclusion, I congratulate once again the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar on his private Member’s Bill. I have heard some excellent speeches today—from the hon. Member for Bristol West and also from my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien). I close on a number of suggestions that they have made. It is important that English language teaching is a priority for this Government. It should be in place for people have come from abroad and who do not speak English. I say that not because, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has suggested, we feel that we speak English here and they must be like us. That was not a particularly helpful point. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough suggested that it was a way of empowering refugees and people coming into this country. That is perfectly legitimate.
The Government should also look at ways in which asylum seekers could, in an ordered process, work in the community, pay their own way and earn wages. Certainly, in my constituency, which is very near Heathrow, I have had a number of asylum seekers whose papers have not been processed in the six-month period, and they have said to me, “We really want to work. We want to be able to contribute to the economy and to look after ourselves.” There must be a way for them to do that. It cannot be beyond the wit of even this Government, dare I say it, to construct an ordered way in which asylum seekers can work and contribute to their communities. There have been many extremely helpful and extremely well-thought out suggestions. From a personal point of view, I would hesitate to relax the rules about children being allowed to bring in their parents, because of the objections that have been made and also the suspicion that these children could be ruthlessly exploited. That is a legitimate concern. I very much hope that the Government allow a money resolution so that we can debate these issues more fully in Committee.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) who made a very eloquent, thoughtful and measured speech. Indeed, I welcome all the speeches that have been made so far in this debate. I congratulate those who secured the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) who has been leading the charge on this issue.
As the UN Declaration of Human Rights states:
“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
As lawmakers, we should do all we can so that we never force anyone to have to choose between living in this place of safety, and living with their family. Most reasonable people looking at the immigration rules now would agree that our refugee family reunion rules are still too narrowly drawn. Most Members in the Chamber will have encountered their own heartbreaking cases—perhaps an 18 or 19-year-old child left stranded in Libya or Lebanon while younger siblings are reunited with parents in the UK. Most strikingly, our rules on recognised child refugees in the UK are both outliers and pretty outrageous. To borrow the word the Home Affairs Committee used, it is “perverse” that unaccompanied children cannot be sponsors for their parents or carers.
In the lead-up to the Second Reading of my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill, there were many excellent articles about divided families, and one I found particularly moving was written by Sarah Temple-Smith, a children’s psychotherapist at the Refugee Council. In that article, she described the utter agony endured by two young child refugees because of separation from their families. One teenager, whose father had been killed, tells her that being apart from his mother and siblings was harder to deal with than the torture and violence suffered in detention in Libya. He was just one of an inbox full of referrals she received every day relating to children suffering from separation. It is incredibly sad, therefore, that other than Denmark, this is the only EU country that refuses to allow children to apply to have close family members join them here, if they can be found.
There cannot be a clearer illustration of why refugee family reunion is a win, win for everybody involved. It is clearly of huge benefit for the refugees here, reunited with their support network and better able to rebuild their lives. It is good for us because it means that the refugees can integrate more easily. It can literally be lifesaving for those who are granted family reunion visas to join their families here, and by providing a safe legal route it stops them turning instead to traffickers and smugglers to find their way to the UK.
In response, the Government tend to turn to two or three arguments. The first is that immigration rules already make provisions for other family members to join refugees here, but in my view the alternative rules are barely worth the paper they are written on. The legal thresholds, costs and complexity make them a poor and pale substitute for proper refugee family reunion rights. It is not unknown even for families to have to sponsor a niece or a nephew but be unable to sponsor both—a horrendous decision for anyone to have to make! I do not regard those rules as fit for purpose. Exceptional grants outside the rules are far too rare.
Secondly, the Government sometimes argue that expanding refugee family reunion rights would somehow incentivise dangerous journeys to the UK—we have heard a bit about that today. The most significant point is that the rules keep too many family members out and so force them to turn to smugglers and traffickers and to make dangerous journeys.
I want to ask the hon. Gentleman about a point I made in my speech. We cannot pretend that there is not a criminal element to this. What would he say to people who suggest, perhaps misguidedly, that changing the rules would bolster this criminal activity?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to flag up the trafficking and criminality. The UK, and the EU generally, have a long way to go to improve their response to that issue, but at the end of the day who are the most desperate to get here? It is the people with close family ties here, who are perhaps the parents of a child who has made it here, or 18 or 19-year-old siblings of children here. They will come here come hell or high water. The issue, then, becomes: are we going to allow them a safe legal route, established under my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill or otherwise, or are we going to leave them having ultimately to use these smugglers, traffickers and criminals? By expanding the safe legal routes, we will undermine and tackle the smuggling.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and one I can back up anecdotally. In the debate on 16 March, I mentioned a young man from Canterbury, Yohannes, who I also highlighted earlier. He is worried that his sister in a camp in Sudan might do exactly that and go to the criminals. If we were to provide, through my private Member’s Bill, a safe legal route and a right for her to come, she could fly here in a couple of hours without the danger of what might happen across the Sahara, which we do not want to speak about.
That is a perfect example that illustrates the argument very strongly.
If we take the approach that somehow changing the rules will provide an incentive for others to make a dangerous journey, particularly children, we have to examine the ethics of that position. Are we really saying that we are going to do something that is not in a child refugee’s interests—actually harmful to their interests—just to disincentivise other children from making that journey? That is a pretty horrendous ethical argument to propose and dangerous in itself. The key point is that this is about creating safe legal routes that keep people out of the arms of smugglers, rather than forcing them into their arms.
The hon. Gentleman is making some really important points, and I do not necessarily disagree with him, but, on the ethics, he says it is not necessarily in the child’s interests. The thought behind the argument is that the child would not be there in the first place—would not have gone through the people smugglers and so on—if that right did not exist. I repeat: the argument is not that people will use children as anchors to cynically get something they should not get; it is that these people, desperate and destitute and with limited funds to give to people smugglers, will be tempted to pay to get just one person, particularly a smaller person, transported. It is not that they are bad people or doing anything unethical; it is that they are desperate people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, and we can have this debate when the Bill, I hope, returns, but there is limited evidence to support the proposition that that is what happens in all the other EU countries—as I say, it is only Denmark and this country that do not give children this right. As far as I can see, the Government have not produced any evidence that in other EU countries this has become a phenomenon out of kilter with what happens in Denmark or the UK, but if somebody wants to cite statistics showing that everyone is sending their kids unaccompanied to the other EU countries, I will look at that argument.
Having visited Libya and having been to Italy and seen migrant camps in Sicily and other parts of the south of Italy, I can provide the hon. Gentleman with some assurance on this point. I cannot cite chapter and verse with numbers, but there is a narrative that there are lots of unscrupulous people exploiting children. One need only look at the results of the Italian election. I am not saying it was the sole reason the populist right got into power, but it was a factor.
I am not absolutely sure what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. My view is that there is no evidence to back up what the Government are saying about providing an incentive to go to other EU countries as opposed to Denmark and the UK. I struggle with the ethics of that argument as well. We have child refugees here, and we should have rules in place that are in their best interests and which allow them to be reunited with their families, as do these other countries.
I turn to a third argument the Government tend to use in these debates: that they are acting in different ways in response to the refugee and migration crisis. It is only fair to recognise that the Government are doing good things. The Syrian vulnerable persons scheme is making excellent progress, and it is true that the Government have a record they can be proud of in providing aid to the region around Syria in particular. That does not mean, however, that we should not look at how else we can improve our response. Broadening the category of family members, as proposed by my hon. Friend’s Bill, would have limited implications for the Home Office but transformative consequences for the people involved.
Finally, I want to touch on legal aid. I used to be an immigration solicitor, and I can say hand on heart that using legal aid for a family reunion application, which people can still do in Scotland, never remotely struck me as a wasteful use of resources, because of how serious the subject matter is—separation can be both stressful for all involved and dangerous for those who are left behind—and how complex the process is. It is not just a matter of form-filling and box-ticking; there are other questions—what documents does a person need to prove a family relationship, how much credibility will a birth or marriage certificate from a certain country have with the Home Office, should we get expert verification, should a DNA test be done? That is even before we get to barriers of language and culture. Without a doubt, legal aid can make a huge and important difference to ensuring that applications are completed properly and that the Home Office can make the right decision on what are hugely important issues for those involved. For all these reasons, the measures in my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill are well founded, and I hope the money resolution will be tabled very soon.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who made a number of points that certainly deserve far more examination and scrutiny. Like other Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing this important debate. I did not know whether I would get the pronunciation of his constituency right, but I think I was close enough—I am afraid that that might be as good as I get on Thursday afternoon.
It is fitting that this debate is taking place during Refugee Week, because refugees are among the most vulnerable people on our planet. Whether they are fleeing war, famine, national disaster or religious persecution, refugees make perilous journeys to seek asylum in a safer country, often leaving behind their families and friends.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) said, the United Kingdom has a proud history—it goes back centuries—of welcoming people from abroad who have fled danger. Although he clearly has far more historical understanding and expertise than I could ever hope to have, I am sure that we are all aware of a number of waves of immigration from people fleeing persecution—from the Huguenots and other Calvinist and Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in Europe, right through to the 20th century, when we welcomed Jewish refugees from the continent. We can also be proud of and grateful for the incredible work that is done in all our communities by many individuals, groups and community organisations, particularly faith-based organisations that do so much to welcome and support those who seek asylum and safety within our shores.
Our current rules allow for partners and dependent children under the age of 18 to be granted a refugee reunion visa, but there is scope to extend those parameters in exceptional circumstances. However, I recognise that those powers are perhaps used rather less flexibly than they ought, as we heard from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. As many Members have said, only refugees over the age of 18 are able to sponsor those visas.
Many of us are extremely sympathetic to the intentions of the two Bills that are currently before Parliament: the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill in the name of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar; and Baroness Hamwee’s Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill in the other place. As a matter of principle and policy, we clearly wish to keep families together whenever possible, as that is usually in the best interests of children. Of course, we do have to look at the possible unintended consequences of any change, although that does not necessarily mean that we should be against the change. We need to proceed with some caution as there could be an impact due to behavioural change, particularly if that could lead to additional people being put at risk. Whereas the current policy means that refugee family reunion exists in many circumstances, we need to look at the best way of keeping families together without creating an incentive in which more children are put at risk by becoming unaccompanied migrants, which involves a huge amount of danger.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East asked whether there was any evidence that changes in western policy were having an impact on migration flows. A 2017 UN report that looked at child refugees into Italy offers some empirical evidence. The number of unaccompanied child refugees travelling into Italy rose from 75% of all refugee children travelling into Italy in 2015 to 92% in the year to February 2017. That is clearly a significant change in the pattern of migration. It undoubtedly has many causes, but it seems likely that part of the reason behind it is an assumption that unaccompanied children are more likely to be granted asylum and that their families might be able to join them at a later date.
My hon. Friend’s point goes squarely to the important question asked by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about the evidence. Of course it is difficult to prove anything when we are dealing with hypothetical questions, and we must look at what has happened in other countries, particularly if their policy has shifted from not allowing children to sponsor adults to allowing that to happen. Does my hon. Friend agree that one difference between the countries of southern Europe and countries in northern Europe such as Denmark and the UK is that the northern countries are more likely to experience secondary movements than primary movements? Given the physical geography involved, people are more likely to arrive first in countries such as Italy, whereas secondary movements are more likely to occur further north in countries such as Britain, which can be attractive for all kinds of reasons.
My hon. Friend is clearly right. We have seen with the migration from the middle east and Africa—particularly from Libya and Syria—that the first destination is overwhelmingly one of the Mediterranean countries, for the obvious reasons that have been highlighted.
Our policy needs to be one of trying to keep families together whenever possible and appropriate, but it must also limit the risk to those fleeing danger and persecution. We hear reports about the transport used by asylum seekers and refugees, particularly the maritime transport. We talk about refugee boats, but anyone who has seen the footage of the vessels that those people are travelling in—some hon. Members will have seen this in real life—will know that “boats” hardly seems an appropriate word. Too often, the vessels are barely more than flotsam and jetsam—almost anything that will float on the ocean and that people can get on top of or cling to. One of our aims must be to minimise the number of people, and particularly the number of unaccompanied children, making these extremely hazardous journeys. I recognise the points that have been made about whether we could provide safer routes and methods that could hold out hope for those who desperately need a safe haven without playing into the hands of those who would take advantage as traffickers and without putting people in unnecessary danger.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the BBC’s brilliant series “Exodus”, which gave the lucky people like us who were born in this country an insight into the unbelievably harrowing experiences of refugees travelling across the Mediterranean? Does he agree that an attractive idea would be to spend a larger proportion of our aid budget on trying to help people feel that they no longer need to put their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean by helping them to build a future in their own countries?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I am afraid that I have not seen that series, but I will certainly look out for it. On his second point, a key part of our international development aims is to try to tackle absolute and abject poverty, and the risks to people’s safety and security that often drive large waves of migration and lead to people seeking asylum. One of the strongest arguments for why it is right that, as a country, we commit to spending a proportion of our national wealth on international development and overseas development aid is absolutely that it helps to reduce the numbers of people involved and the risks and dangers to them.
UNICEF’s six-point agenda for action acknowledges that children who travel alone are more easily preyed on and more vulnerable to violence and abuse. We should be wary of changes to legislation that risk increasing the numbers of children put into that position if there are other means of keeping families together and of being able to offer people a safe haven from danger.
I look forward to listening to the debate about changing the rules on the sponsorship of refugees and whether it would be right and effective to allow those under 18 to sponsor. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to debate such legislation without too much more delay. However, other action could be taken to improve the welfare and safety of those seeking asylum—refugees coming into the United Kingdom. The first, as we have heard, is to ensure that, after Brexit, the United Kingdom and the European Union continue to operate on the basis of keeping families together so that refugees with close relatives in the United Kingdom who come into another European Union country are able to join them here, and the few refugees who come into the United Kingdom and have relatives in another European country are similarly able to join their relatives in those countries. I was very pleased to hear the Solicitor General commit to ensuring that that happens after Brexit.
What would clearly make a big difference to not only child refugees but refugees more broadly would be to make sure that asylum claims are processed quickly, without unnecessary delay. It is not only those claiming asylum who are adversely affected by long delays in processing claims while they are unable to work; our local economies and local societies similarly miss out because those people’s ability to contribute to those local economies and societies is severely restricted while their claims are being processed. I look forward to hearing the Minister say what more can be done to make sure that asylum claims are processed in a timely and efficient manner so that those who need asylum in our country are able to live here, to settle, to contribute and to integrate, and so that our communities are able to welcome and support them.
This is the 65th anniversary of the signing of the European convention on human rights. One of the fundamental rights guaranteed under article 8 and enshrined in UK law is the right to family life. The article states:
“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) has already mentioned the UN convention on the rights of the child. Unfortunately, the UK is out of sync with its own law by not applying the right to family life to refugee children.
As we have heard, the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), seeks to amend the law so that child refugees are allowed exactly the same rights as adult refugees, as well as legal aid to make their application. I support his Bill.
I emphasise that that only applies to children who have been processed and have lawfully acquired refugee status, and who therefore have the legal right to be in this country. I am sure that anybody with children of school age still worries a little when their children go on a school trip, even if it is only for a day. Imagine those children having to flee their home after witnessing the ravages and horrors of war and to make dangerous journeys over thousands of miles alone, having left their family behind. It is not something that any parent would wish on any child, let alone their own. Then imagine that, having made that journey and reached a safe haven, that child cannot be reunited with his or her parents or siblings. Imagine the mental trauma that the child has to go through alone. It is inhumane to prevent any child from having access to their family.
There is an EU directive on family reunion, which has been adopted by 25 out of the 27 EU members. Article 10 of the directive specifies that unaccompanied child refugees are entitled to be reunited with their family members. Two countries chose not to opt in. Ireland has introduced its own domestic law right to allow child refugees to be sponsors for their family members, so that they can join them. Only Denmark and the United Kingdom are out of step with the rest of the EU.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, when the Prime Minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, this is what she means—that refugee children will not be able to be reunited with their families? Does not our international reputation potentially suffer in the same way that the United States’s has this week if we adopt such policies?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right that, given the uncertainty about what will happen post Brexit, we cannot be sure of anything, and these issues need to be spelled out and confirmed as soon as possible.
Why would anyone want to deprive these child refugees of the right to be with their parents and families? These are vulnerable children, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, dealing with the bureaucracy of being a refugee, having difficulty accessing support, in a culturally different environment and now lacking the support network of their family. Why heap that unnecessary cruelty on a child when it is obvious that a child refugee will do so much better in all areas with the support of their family?
The UK has already failed in its promise to accept 480 children from the Calais camp, which is shameful, and it is only thanks to the phenomenal work of charities such as Help Refugees that some of the Calais children living in the woods are alive today. I hope that hon. Members at least have the humanity to do the right thing by supporting the children who are already here.
Having looked at the first part of the Bill, I will now focus on the second part, which relates to legal aid. Legal aid was made unavailable for refugee family reunion cases following the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It is difficult enough for adults to navigate the myriad complex legal procedures and forms that need to be completed. With family reunion applications, there is an additional requirement: family members have to attend the closest British embassy, which will necessarily mean travelling through conflict zones. In some cases, there is a need for DNA tests, and documentation gathering is also a necessary part of applications. The British Red Cross highlighted the complexities of applying for family reunion in its report “Not so Straightforward”.
As child refugees have no other way of accessing the legal support they need because of the bureaucracy created by the Government, it is only right that they should have access to legal aid to help them to navigate this process. If the Government want to reduce the cost of the Bill, perhaps they should look at making the process of family reunion easier and therefore cheaper. Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into effect in 2013, there has been a cut of more than £600 million in the legal aid budget, which is over and above the savings that the Treasury was demanding of the Ministry of Justice. The Act is due to be reviewed this year. I am not aware of how much progress has been made on that front, but the Bill gives the perfect opportunity for the Ministry of Justice to examine the impact of the legal aid cuts, particularly in the field of family reunion, and to put some money back where it is needed.
A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Djibouti in Africa, and I saw wave after wave of young people—predominantly men—on the march, walking away from the refugee camp set up there, which we visited. They were leaving because there was no secondary school. We all know that the overseas aid budget causes some controversy. I support it, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is a finite amount of money, we are better off setting up a secondary school, rather than trying to stretch the pounds over here, which in the end deprives people of some of the opportunities I have just referenced, which we could be funding more abroad.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right about refugee camps needing more support and the provision of education. Many people spend years and years in refugee camps and their education suffers. However, we want to tackle the cause of this. The reason that people are in refugee camps is war. Unless more is done to stop war and conflict, these refugee camps will continue to exist and there will be more asylum seekers and refugees.
There will no doubt be critics who say that this will open the floodgates, with more people traffickers exploiting young people and more migrants wanting to come to the UK. However, I remind hon. Members that the countries neighbouring Syria, such as Jordan and Turkey, have taken in millions of Syrian refugees, while across Europe, Germany, Italy and France received at least twice as many asylum applications as the UK in 2017. The UK received less than 3% of all asylum claims made in the EU last year. I also remind hon. Members that, in 2017, 3,119 people lost their lives in their desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean to claim asylum. Even for those who make it to the UK, the asylum system here is extremely tough, with only 29% of initial asylum applications made in the UK being successful and only 35% of appeals being successful.
I want to give hon. Members an idea of the numbers that will be helped by the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar. Last year, only 794 children who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied children were granted asylum. The Bill seeks to help those 794 children—that figure is less than the number of peers in the other place—and allow them to be reunited with their families. Not allowing child refugees to be reunited with their family members is morally wrong, legally wrong and inhumane. I invite all hon. Members to support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I encourage the Government to bring forward a money resolution to allow the Bill to progress so that these children can be reunited with their families.
I congratulate those who have brought forward this debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I have pronounced his constituency much worse than our English colleagues have done this afternoon. I hope my mum, who is an Irish speaker, is not watching or there will be a row when I get home.
To be serious, the true horror of the reality of the pain of children separated from their families was brought home to us this week by the audio and video footage of the children weeping in the cages constructed for them under the immoral and ghastly policies of Donald Trump. Like other Members on the Opposition side of the House and, I suppose, some on the Government side as well, I was a little disappointed that the Prime Minister could not bring herself to condemn Trump yesterday in quite the way I would have liked. There are many of us who would do so today without hesitation. I may have many criticisms of the UK Government, but I do not think they would ever stoop to that level, and I am pleased to be able to say that. It is very important for us all to distance ourselves from what is happening in America—
Yes—credit where credit is due. That said, there is a lot more that we could do to help refugees in this country. We have heard some very thoughtful contributions about the pros and cons of doing that. I am very firmly on the side of my hon. Friend, whose Bill is a small step in the right direction, but there is still a lot more to be done.
Earlier, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) mentioned the size of the displacement problem that the world faces at the moment. The UNHCR reports that the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with an unprecedented 68.5 million people forced from their homes around the world. Among those, there are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. European Union statistics show a significant increase in the number of asylum applications over the past few years, and we need only to switch on our televisions every night to see the impact of the refugee crisis on Europe and the European Union.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said, current rules for family reunion in the United Kingdom are too narrowly drawn, and the private Member’s Bill before this House, and that in the other place promoted by Baroness Hamwee, who I am pleased to call a friend, try to widen eligibility. At the moment, immigration rules state that
“adult refugees in the UK can only be joined by their spouse/partner and their dependent children who are under the age of 18.”
No provision is made for dependants who are over 18 and that can—and has—resulted in, for example, a sole 18-year-old girl who has fled her country being left in a very vulnerable situation in a refugee camp. I urge hon. Members and the Government to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is modest but, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said, it will make a significant difference to a number of people.
The Bill would expand the criteria for who qualifies as a family member for the purpose of refugee reunion, so that young people over the age of 18, and elderly parents, can live in safety with their families in the UK. It would also give unaccompanied refugee children in the UK the right to sponsor their close family to come and join them. Importantly, it would reintroduce legal aid so that refugees who have lost everything have the support they need to afford and navigate the complicated process of being reunited with their families. I ask the UK Government to support the Bill and to take a leaf out of Scotland’s book in two respects—first, because we still have legal aid in Scotland for such situations and, secondly, because of our refugee resettlement and integration programme.
I would like briefly to address the “pull or push” argument that has been mentioned this afternoon, because I am aware of two reports that emanate from this House that show no evidence for such a pull factor. The first report was written with the assistance of the Human Trafficking Foundation and published in the House of Lords last summer. It was an independent inquiry into the situation of separated and unaccompanied minors in parts of Europe. If hon. Members look at it, they will see that it found no evidence for the pull factor. Indeed, it referred back to an earlier report that was published by the Lords EU Committee in 2016, which found absolutely no evidence to support the argument for a pull factor. It said that, if there were a pull factor of the kind sometimes posited, one would expect to see evidence of that in other EU member states that participate in the family reunification directive and have more generous family reunion rules than we do. The Lords Committee, and the Human Trafficking Foundation—two separate reports, a year apart—found no evidence to that end. We should therefore proceed on the basis of evidence from reputable reports, rather than the impressions of hon. Members, important as those may be.
It is important that hon. Members visit refugee camps abroad—I visited the camps in Calais and Dunkirk when they still existed, as well as one in Palestine, and I hope to go to Jordan later this year with Lord Dubs. It is important that MPs visit those camps and bring their experiences home, but our experiences and impressions cannot substitute for evidence from careful reports.
The hon. and learned Lady and I have had this exchange before. I recommend that she goes to the camp in Jordan—I found it extraordinary when I went there with Save the Children. I respect the evidence that she mentions. It is a fascinating point. The issue I have is that the aid workers I was with—they were from reputable organisations, although I will not list them—were absolutely determined that there would be a pull factor because it is predominantly the young who are on the move—I have seen them. I cannot think why I would dispute what I have heard from those on the ground.
I am going to make some progress, because I am conscious of the time. We will return to these issues in more detail.
I said that I wanted the UK Government to take two leaves out of Scotland’s book. The first is on legal aid. Legal aid is available in Scotland. We have managed to make it available. We actually spend less per capita in Scotland on legal aid than is spent in England and Wales, but we still make it more widely available. Do not take my word for it. An independent review of the Scottish legal aid system published earlier this year reported that, for less spend per capita than England and Wales, legal aid is more widely available in Scotland and covers a wider range of categories. Where there is a will there is a way.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, I used to work in the Scottish legal system and did a lot of legal aid work. I can tell Conservative Members, as I have said to their colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, that the English legal aid system would benefit greatly from looking north to what has been achieved on a smaller budget. As has been said by others, the law on this subject is complex. People who are already vulnerable and separated from those who normally give them guidance need the assistance of a solicitor to find their way through it.
I would like to say something about the integration strategy in Scotland. I will keep it brief. The hon. Members for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood) spoke about good works in their constituencies. I am very proud of the work done in my constituency by the Kurdish community centre and by the Welcoming to integrate refugees, and also of the work done in primary schools in my constituency, particularly Redhall and Oxgangs, which are rights-respecting schools that have worked on big projects about welcoming child refugees. I have written to the UK Government about that.
In Scotland, we launched the New Scots strategy. The UNHCR UK representative said that he believed the New Scots strategy could be used as an example and model not just for the United Kingdom but for many countries around the world which host refugees. At the launch of the strategy, he said that, having left family far away, it is for many refugees a daily pain to think about a loved one, and he stressed to the Scottish audience how critical it is that the UK Government adopt more flexible and humane policies when it comes to bringing families together. He recognised that the powers are reserved to this Parliament at Westminster, and called on his Scottish audience to continue to influence and affect change here at Westminster.
That is what we seek to do here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has brought forward a private Member’s Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and the whole of the SNP will continue to try to pressure the UK Government to do more to help refugees, particularly the most vulnerable child refugees.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing the debate and on the work he has been doing in this area. Many Members have made contributions to the debate this afternoon, and they have been thought-provoking and positive.
This is Refugee Week and it is appropriate that we acknowledge the work done by many British charities both in this country and abroad. I have seen the work that goes on day in, day out in my own city of Manchester. Only a few weeks ago, I went to Bangladesh with the Rafay Mussarat Foundation. In two days during the month of Ramadan, it delivered over 300,000 meals. We should be proud of the work that charities do, and how the British people contribute and help refugees both here and in the rest of the world. In Refugee Week, it has been wonderful to celebrate all the ways that refugees have enriched our lives and our society. Yesterday, I too was at Speaker’s House with the UNHCR to hear inspiring stories of refugees.
The celebrations have been somewhat overshadowed, however, by the tragic and shocking images from the US of children being forcibly separated from their families and caged like animals. We have all been disturbed by the recordings of crying children and images from inside these centres. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since the zero-tolerance policy began in April. More than 100 were under the age of four.
The scenes from the US are a stark reminder of the consequences of the worst excesses of a hostile and criminalising approach to migrants and refugees. While the Prime Minister has correctly criticised Trump’s approach to family break-up, this Government’s policies have the same effect. Our immigration system breaks up families, too. Currently, adult refugees can apply only for their spouse and dependent children under 18 to join them in the UK. This leaves grandparents, siblings and children over 18 stranded in peril.
We also have the perverse situation where unaccompanied children are not allowed to sponsor family members to join them. Tesfa fled Eritrea when he was still a child. After a terrible year-long journey, when he was crammed on a boat crossing the Mediterranean with 400 other people, he arrived in the UK and claimed asylum. He is now living and studying here but finds it very hard to be without his family—the people he feels most safe and secure with. He has no right to sponsor them to join him in the UK.
When we grant refugee status to someone, we need to provide them with a realistic chance of integrating in the UK. That means English language training and not cutting off asylum support after 28 days, which is shorter than the minimum five weeks that it takes to apply for universal credit, and it means allowing them to reunite with their families.
The private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar will rectify some anomalies and allow refugee families to be reunited in the UK. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will support the Bill at its next stage? If not, will she confirm that the Government will not block it in the way they are blocking my private Member’s Bill on boundaries? This is a matter of morality, and it is vital that the will of the House be heard and respected.
There has been some troubling rhetoric from the Government in our previous debates about family reunion. They have argued that we do not want to create pull factors to attract refugees to come to the UK, as if there were not enough push factors to force people to flee their homes. I assure the Minister that that is never done lightly. Donald Trump’s rhetoric over the past few days has shown the chilling extreme that this kind of thinking can lead to. I hope that the Minister will unequivocally condemn Trump’s remarks about allowing the US to be a “migrant camp” or “refugee holding facility”.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point—refugees are indeed to be valued. While they are fleeing injustices from other parts of the world, we should not be following the example of President Trump in the United States. If anything, we should be showing compassion in our policy towards refugees.
Will the Minister halt the Government’s current approach, which seems to be to make the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK so awful that nobody would ever want to come? I will mention two ways in which this has emerged particularly acutely.
First, the conditions in some private asylum accommodation are abhorrent. My attention was recently drawn to private asylum accommodation in my constituency that was infested with cockroaches, rodents and bedbugs. Nobody, let alone families with children, should be forced to live in these conditions. This accommodation passed safety and standards tests, so will the Minister review these standards? Unfortunately, we know that this is not an isolated case. Our asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose. I fear that, on a certain level, the Government accept these conditions for a reason connected with their pull factor argument. They want the asylum process in the UK to be so awful that no one will risk it.
The renewal of the asylum accommodation contracts is coming up. Can the Minister tell us which private bodies, separate from local authorities, have been contracted to provide housing for refugees? Can she also tell us something about the involvement of private firms in the rehousing of refugees, temporary or otherwise? What assessment has been made of their performance delivery, and are any new contracts likely to be awarded this year?
Indefinite immigration detention continues to be a blight on our country’s moral record. Refugees and asylum seekers are frequently detained hundreds of miles from where they were living, and they are moved around constantly, often during the night. That makes it very difficult for them to maintain contact with family and friends, especially when phones are routinely confiscated. The current system to prevent vulnerable people from being detained is not working. We know that torture survivors and other vulnerable people are not identified before their detention and that it is extremely difficult for them to be released once they are there, although there has been a significant reduction in the number of pregnant women in detention.
I look forward to reading the Shaw review and the Government’s response when they are published. I hope that they will propose the far-reaching reforms that are so desperately needed.
The Labour party is clear about this issue. We would uphold the right to a family life. We would allow the carers or parents of child refugees to come here. We would also end the practice of deporting children who are not entitled to be here once they turn 18, even when their parents are entitled to be here. We would end indefinite detention and the outsourcing of detention, and we would ensure that families fleeing war and persecution were housed in safe and sanitary conditions.
Let me first congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) on securing not only the debate—which, during Refugee Week, is very timely—but a Committee stage for his private Member’s Bill. Let me also acknowledge the support from Members on both sides of the House today, and in the other place, for the bringing together of refugee families. I can reassure the House that the Government have listened carefully to the many thoughtful and compassionate contributions that have been made, and will continue to listen. I particularly thank Members for the constructive tone of the debate, which I have found both useful and interesting.
I should acknowledge the work of the non-governmental organisations that are supporting changes in refugee family reunion arrangements. I have met the representatives of several of them over the past few months. I am grateful for their valuable insights, and for the constructive dialogue that they have had with my officials and with me.
During the last few months several Members, including some who are no longer in the Chamber, have beaten a path to my door. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge their expertise and their keen interest in these issues. The hon. Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) have been particularly assiduous in taking the time to come and speak to me. They have frequently used the opportunity presented by the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar to highlight some of the issues about which they feel most strongly, and they have, of course, given me the chance to reflect.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman has pushed the envelope a bit today. Certainly, by the time he got on to west coast fishing fleets, I was at rather a loss to know what we were actually debating, but I commend him for his ingenuity.
I think it might have been the second time it had cropped up for me this afternoon. However, some important points have been made, and I thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) for their poetic contributions, which brought some real thoughtfulness and passion to the issue.
A number of Members raised the issue of the scheduling of parliamentary business, which is of course a matter for the Leader of the House, but she and I will have taken note of the representations made today.
I want to briefly reflect on some of the comments made about asylum seekers and their ability to work. They are of course allowed to undertake volunteering opportunities, but we must carefully bear it in mind that those voluntary opportunities should not amount to unpaid work or job substitution, because we certainly do not wish to see them taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. I have heard the concerns of many Members about delays in the asylum system. It is in fact stabilising, but we have an ambitious plan to reduce the number of outstanding decisions and the length of time people wait for a decision, which is very important.
We are on track to resettle 20,000 refugees from Syria and a further 30,000 children and families from the wider middle east and north Africa—MENA—region. Under our resettlement schemes we deliberately target those in the greatest need of assistance, including people requiring urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk. We work closely with the UNHCR, as it is best placed to identify people living in formal refugee camps, informal settlements and host communities who would benefit most from resettlement.[Official Report, 5 July 2018, Vol. 644, c. 1MC.]
We are also enabling civil society to play a greater role in refugee resettlement. I was very pleased this Monday to be at the organisation Reset, to which the Government have awarded £1 million of funding to help community groups with sponsorship schemes. I often use the phrase that they are well placed to wrap their arms around resettled families and help them on the road to reintegration. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough and others across the House about the importance of integration and of language teaching, and of ensuring that we as a society do more to enable those who have resettled here to integrate. That is very important.
I apologise for not giving way; the hon. Lady has not been in her place for the entire debate, and I have very little time.
The Green Paper on integration that has come forward from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is crucially important, and I have pushed with both officials and Cabinet colleagues the importance of people having the language teaching they need to enable them to integrate as best they possibly can, and I absolutely hear the calls for how work should be a part of that.
My hon. Friends the Members for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and a number of Opposition Members rightly mentioned perilous journeys. We do not wish to see children in the hands of traffickers. From my earliest days at the Home Office I have been struck by the links between organised crime, people trafficking, modern slavery and violence against women and girls, and we are determined to do our utmost to tackle trafficking. Breaking the smugglers’ business model and their trafficking rings remains a key priority for this Government. Under Operation Sophia, our commitment is to work hard to its full mandate through to the end of December 2018. Our naval assets have destroyed 182 smuggling boats and saved 13,400 lives since the operation began, but we are of course conscious that we continue to see boats come across the Mediterranean and children and families making very dangerous journeys.
I have little time left, but I would like to lapse somewhat into the anecdotal. This week I met a group of students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They had spent some time in Europe over the past few years and had come to the British Parliament for a tour, and had the opportunity to spend a few moments talking to me. I was not quite sure how to begin my comments as Immigration Minister on the day that I had watched footage of children crying in cages and had listened to the terrible audio recordings, so I kicked off with some trepidation, recognising that my audience included US citizens who had perhaps had a vote in the last presidential election. I said that I sought in our refugee and immigration policies to ensure that I chose not to model myself on their President. I was not sure how that message would go down, but it was welcomed by this group of US teenagers. They told me that what they had found most moving during their time in Europe over the past few weeks was meeting individual refugees and hearing their stories, and we have had a little of that this afternoon from individual Members who have highlighted the excellent work being done in their constituencies. Indeed, that work goes on in my constituency, and I spent the Friday before last with the Southampton & Winchester Visitors Group, where many of the issues, including the right to work and legal aid, were raised with me. I have to thank the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, because his private Member’s Bill and this afternoon’s debate give us the opportunity to reflect carefully on such issues.
This Government recognise the need for a fair and humane immigration system and, within that, the importance of policies that work for individual asylum seekers and those granted refugee status. We are currently reviewing our policy on refugee family reunion in the context of our wider asylum and resettlement strategy, and I look forward to continuing my productive discussions with hon. Members and key NGO partners on this complex, sensitive issue.
I thank all the Members who have taken part in today’s debate, which, as the Immigration Minister just said, had a fantastic tone to it. Many great points have been made, so my best advice to people who have missed it is to look at Hansard tomorrow. Fantastic points were made by the hon. Members for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I note that the hon. Member for Spelthorne was somewhat hesitant, but we can work with hesitancy, and the rest of his speech was supportive, so I thank him for that, as I thank the hon. Members for Harborough and for Dudley South. In fact, I reserve special thanks for those three Government Members, because we will need to find at least eight Conservatives for the Bill Committee. There could be nobody better than those three, so I will be grateful if they want to be on it. Indeed, if anybody else wants to get involved, please get in touch.
There were several great speeches from the Opposition Benches, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) made a speech that I wished I had made myself, pointing out the 794 children came to this country last year, which is less than the number of Members of the House of Lords. There is an interesting point to be made about that when we talk about pull factors: if the pull factor was a reality, none of those 794 would have come to the United Kingdom, because they would have gone to another country that had rights for child refugees. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said when so eloquently talking about my modest Bill, the pull factor is not real, as House of Lords reports have pointed out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned legal aid, which is actually a minor point because less is spent per capita in Scotland, where people have the right to it, so I think that the right to legal aid could easily be extended to everybody. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said that if we want to debate this matter further, we must get the Bill into Committee, where we can have a more in-depth debate. I look forward to Members from both sides of the House being on that Committee and to the Government granting the money resolution.
I will leave the last word to J. J. Bola, who summed things up eloquently with the following:
“kiss your families goodnight be glad that the monsters
never came for you.”
I mentioned Iain Lom, the highland poet. Some 372 years have passed since the battle of Inverlochy, but I cannot be confident that descendants of mine will not be refugees at some point over the next 372 years and therefore may need the sort of legal protections that we will be introducing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that 18 to 24 June is Refugee Week; further notes that many families throughout the world have been torn apart by war and persecution; welcomes the fact that the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No.2) Bill was given its Second Reading without opposition on 16 March 2018; and calls on the Government to support the provisions of that Bill.