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Why we should welcome 3000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe

Thangam in Immigration Bill debate

In my first major speech at Westminster since I returned from illness, last night I supported amendments to the Immigration Bill that would result in better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

I spoke specifically in favour of Lords Amendment 87 (‘the Dubs amendment’) to bring 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU. I also praised the many hundreds of Bristol West constituents who have written to me urging me to help refugees, and who have donated time, money and practical help to refugees, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.  

As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I also announced there would be a public enquiry later this year into the way the country responds to refugees and asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, and to the dismay of many, the government last night voted down the Dods amendment.

The Immigration Bill now returns to the Lords, where Lord Dubs, who himself came to the UK as a child refugee from the Czech Republic on the kindertransport, will make another attempt to force the government to take action.

You can read my full, original speech below. Do bear in mind that I had to omit some parts in the chamber. You can also watch the broadcast version that appears at the bottom of this page, or use this link to the Parliament TV channel

My speech in the Immigration Bill debate on Monday 25 April 2016

Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to speak today. I rise to speak in support of amendments laid before the House in support of better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. I speak specifically in favour of the Alf Dubs amendment to bring just 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to this country from the EU and also about refugees and immigration more widely, to try to help shed more light on a complex and often heated debate. I do so on behalf of many hundreds of people in Bristol West who have written to me urging me to help refugees. Many of them have also donated time, money and practical help, both in camps and in Bristol – a City of Sanctuary.

Madam Deputy Speaker, on Saturday I was fortunate to be at the Shakespeare Live event from Stratford and broadcast on the BBC. I understand there has been uproar in some quarters about the speech made by Sir Ian MacKellen, to my mind by far the stand-out high spot of the night. Nothing else came close in the potency of the language, the power and feeling of the delivery and the relevance today of a message written 400 or so years ago. This is given as a speech by Sir Thomas More, Sherriff of London during Henry VIII’s reign, addressing xenophobic rioters who tore through the city protesting against foreigners. He calls on them to “imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”. A vivid description of the current situation for so many children and young people fleeing war today. He asks them to consider what they would do if they were refugees, what country would give them harbour, whether they would go “to France or Flanders, to any German province, to Spain or Portugal”, and to consider how they would feel if they were met “by a nation of such barbarous temper”. I ask every one of us here, if the worst happened and our children were alone and fleeing war and persecution, wouldn’t we hope that they would receive safe harbour in France or Flanders, Germany, Spain or Portugal?

The amendment we can pass tonight will help other children separated from their parents and fleeing war and persecution. We must help them before it is too late – children are going missing from refugee camps across Europe. I dread to think what conditions they are living in.

Madam Deputy Speaker, we would be failing in our duties as elected representatives if we did not show leadership to meet our commitments, legal obligations and moral imperatives, to refugees and asylum seekers.

Many people are concerned about immigration. Some believe that it is out of control, that they are suffering consequences of this and not having their concerns heard. They may not differentiate between refugees and other migrants. In my own constituency of Bristol West, I have a volume of emails from people urging me on to do more for refugees. But there are also worries.  Everyone here needs to be concerned about protecting refugees, particularly children and about how we respond to them here. We must shed light on both.

My own father was in many ways typical of most migrants. He came here in 1959 from India, first to study and work. He wanted to be part of the country which had given him that opportunity; he brought skills and paid taxes; he loved this country and he respected its rules and values. Most migrants everywhere in the world do exactly that. Refugees come here for safety from war and persecution. And this includes children.

The so-called ‘pull’ factor attributed to assistance to any migrants and to refugees in particular is misleading. First, because it associates them with taking rather than contributing. Second, it implies numbers vastly above the reality. Some newspaper headlines use  terms such as ‘floods’ or ‘hordes’ of migrants in general and refugees in particular. Let’s have a few facts.

The World Bank’s 2016 Migration and Remittances Factbook analyses migration in 2015.  Firstly it estimates that global migration in 2015 was 214 million people and, yes, that was an all-time high. However, it finds that South-South migration is larger than South-North migration.

The Factbook documents the impacts of migration on host and source nations. For host countries, these include migrants filling labour shortages – from the dirty, dangerous or difficult jobs native workers don’t want to do or skilled jobs for which we don’t have enough people suitably qualified.

Sonia Plaza, co-author of the Factbook says: “…. migration, both of highly skilled and low skilled workers, generates numerous benefits for receiving and sending countries. The diaspora of developing countries and return migration can be a source of capital, trade, investment, knowledge, and technology transfers.”

Her co-author Dilip Ratha adds: “At more than three times the size of development aid, international migrants’ remittances provide a lifeline for millions of households in developing countries. In addition, migrants hold more than $500 billion in annual savings. Together, remittances and migrant savings offer a substantial source of financing for development projects that can improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.”

Migration helps our economies to grow, as migrants add their skills and knowledge, spend money locally and pay taxes. They are less likely than people born in this country to claim any state welfare. Many migrants, including refugees, set up their own businesses or help to run others, creating jobs for local people. Of the £417 billion they send back home, £306 billion of it goes to developing countries. This helps developing countries’ economies. This in turn benefits us as they trade with us, buy our goods, visit us as tourists or students and further help boost our economy.

In a survey of 15 European countries, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that for every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population caused by immigration, its GDP grew between 1.25 and 1.5 per cent. The World Bank estimates that, if immigrants increased the workforces of wealthy countries by 3 per cent, it would boost world GDP by £246 billion by 2025. Removing all barriers to migration would have a massive effect. Some studies suggest it would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150 per cent.

Does migration affect local people’s wages and jobs? It would seem not. Different parts of non-EU Switzerland allowed free access to EU workers at different times, enabling Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, to isolate the effects. He found that while the workforce grew by 4 per cent, there was no change in wages and employment for natives overall, though some moved to new jobs as a result.

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report 2015 page 147 estimates that as a consequence of the effects described above, projected levels of immigration will actually help us to reduce the government’s debt as a proportion of GDP steadily and by one third by the middle of this century. They also estimate that if there were zero migration, we would actually increase our debt.

At the end of last year there were about 3,600 people in the UK currently who have been waiting longer than 6 months for a decision about their refugee status. That’s not a horde, it’s a potential benefit to this country. These are people who have skills they want to use, who have demonstrated their determination, resilience and courage in ways we can only imagine in their journeys here.

But it’s no wonder that so many people worry about the impact of migration when they are dealing with the impact including dispersal schemes which place pressure on areas where people are already struggling. The pressure on housing, health care and education services is not mitigated in people’s minds in the short term by the medium and longer-term contributions made by refugees (and other migrants). It’s not fair to expect people who’ve spent years on their local council housing register, or struggling with exorbitant private sector rents, to feel nothing about the impact of welcoming what they perceive to be hundreds of people from abroad. They may feel compassion for refugees but they also want to know where the all the housing will come from. They may not know the true numbers, or the other long term benefits. They may fear change. These are reasonable anxieties.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe the time is ripe for a transparent, informed, public debate about how we treat refugees and asylum seekers. This should include consideration of how we prepare local communities for new arrivals and how we plan for rapid expansion of necessary public services to meet increased demand, and of how we share out the impact of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers differently.  It will be difficult. There will be strong feelings and major challenges. No honourable member can ignore the chronic housing crisis, just as they cannot ignore the feelings of their own constituents and others.

But we cannot let the difficult be the enemy of the right. Protecting refugees is right. It is a human right we would expect if we were fleeing conflict or persecution. It is a human rights obligation we should be proud to honour and in the best ways we possibly can. It says something wonderful about our place in the world when we do that.

That’s why I am pleased to announce, as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, that we will be holding a public enquiry into the way this country responds to refugees and asylum seekers. We will be putting out a call for written evidence before the summer recess and will be taking oral evidence in the autumn. I urge honourable members to discuss this topic with constituents and with members of their political parties during their conferences this September.

I believe that there also needs to be a wider, well-informed, enlightened and respectful debate about how we manage migration in general, in our parties and in the public sphere. I hope to be a leading voice in that debate and will be active in my own party, and wherever else I can, to help really listen to and respect people’s concerns. I want to help develop well-informed policy and practice to respond to migration worldwide and locally, with our partners in the EU and with developing and other countries.

To return to Shakespeare’s words and the decisions honourable members will make tonight. You can do your part for 3000 unaccompanied children. You can help protect children and young people the same age as our own children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Children who’ve struggled across the continent unprotected, perhaps abused along the way, hungry, in need of our protection. Our leadership, in our own constituencies, can help make sure that they are not met with the ‘barbarous temper’ Shakespeare describes and which I fear many are meeting along the way, from people traffickers and others seeking to exploit them, but with warmth and care and protection.  They will need more – we must plan for their arrival. But I hope and believe that we have it in us to manage that. 3000 children – that’s fewer than five per constituency. Surely we can manage to support our local authorities to find foster carers, psychological support and education for five children in each of our constituencies?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I urge honourable members tonight, as they go through the lobbies, to think of this.  Today you will be helping a child you have not met but who in 20 years’ time may be the doctor who saves your own child’s life. The midwife who helps deliver your grandchild. The teacher who fires up that grandchild’s ambition. The scientist who helps find a cure for asthma or diabetes or cancer. The engineer who finds better ways to make vehicles run on clean energy sources. The mechanic who keeps the train going, or the care assistant who will help look after you when you are old.

All of these people are children today. Some of them are your own children or your children’s friends and classmates. And some of them are waiting in a refugee camp or in the back of a lorry or living in a ditch or worse, waiting for you to help them, with your vote tonight.

Every one of us here when we are first elected hopes that we will make a difference. That our presence here will mean something. That we will be part of a force for good.

Tonight we get to do all of this, by voting for the Alf Dubs amendment.

 

References – all links come from the following sources

New Scientist - The truth about migration: How it will reshape our world 6 April 2016

Office for Budget Responsibility Fiscal Sustainability Report July 2013 

World Bank – Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016  

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