It has been one of the worst weeks for tragic consequences of human smuggling into Europe. Hundreds more people have drowned in the Mediterranean; 74 have been found dead in a lorry in Austria; Hungary has completed a razor wire fence around its borders; hundreds arrive on Greek islands daily; and people fleeing war and persecution for to the safety of the EU have continued to be exploited by people smugglers. It would be wonderful to think our Prime Minister would be calling loudly for compassion, for compliance with our international humanitarian obligations, or even making the economic and social case for extending the warmest possible welcome to those who make such dangerous and frightening journeys to our continent.
It would be wonderful, but it wasn’t our Prime Minister doing this – it was Germany’s. Angela Merkel recently went even further than extending welcome. She went to visit a refugee centre in a German town where right-wing protestors had been rioting against the refugees. She spoke out to a crowd including some waving angry anti-immigrant placards at her and she did what a Prime Minister should do in these situations – she showed leadership.
“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”
If you look down this blog to the statistical appendix you can see clearly that this is a global problem. We are very far from being the destination of choice for most of the world’s 19.5 million refugees. Developing countries host 86 per cent of them – countries such as Pakistan (1.51 million refugees in 2014) Turkey (1.59 million) and Lebanon (1.15 million). If they can do this, we should be jumping in to offer to do more. When countries devastated by their own natural and humanitarian crises can extend a welcome to refugees, we should be doing everything we can to do likewise, not wriggling around trying to find ways of getting out of our obligations.
It’s not as if there aren’t ways we can help with these terrible situations – there are. We just need to be brave enough to voice them and ask our governments to follow through on our legal and moral commitments to refugees and to our fellow European countries. We must make it easier for refugees to get to safety without having to risk their lives and put themselves in the hands of criminal, exploitative people-smugglers.
Within European Union borders, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, France, Austria and Germany receive the majority of the asylum seekers. Even Greece is taking many times more Syrian refugees than the UK. Last month (July 2015) EU leaders agreed to share out the pressure on the border countries and relocate 40,000 refugees across member states over the next two years. The UK decided to exercise its right to opt out of this obligation. Even with an agreement that each country will receive 6,000 Euro per relocated person to help with the costs.
We can do much as part of the EU to share our humanitarian obligations with our European partners. Right now, Germany in particular needs Europe to support its admirable position on welcoming refugees. Angela Merkel and other European leaders have called for a pan-European response jointly financing appraisal and screening centres in Greece and Italy, coordinating reprisals against traffickers and sharing out the numbers of asylum seekers. This is desperately needed.
We should admire the citizens of Germany who have demonstrated loudly and strongly against those in their midst who want to revert to the right-wing hatred of foreigners. We politicians need to show our support and stand alongside the EU leaders who are willing to risk backlash from some of their own citizens to do the moral and legal thing by refugees.
I’m determined to do all I can to influence the policy-making of the UK government, and to improve language and understanding in popular debates on this matter. I’ll do this through the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, which I chair, and in my individual role as an MP in Bristol, a city proud to call itself a City of Sanctuary – but with much more to do to make this sanctuary a reality for all those who need it.
Will Hutton made this case in the Observer (30 August 2015), comparing us to Germany and our political leaders – right and left – to Angela Merkel. He also put out a call specifically for Labour politicians to show our commitment to being part of the EU-wide solutions to the refugee crisis. He sounded a warning for the potential consequences if the UK left does not show strong support for staying in the European Union, for all its faults.
He also acknowledged fully, as I do, that immigration does carry consequences for the host countries which also have to be dealt with. It doesn’t help the sincerity of our welcome if there isn’t proper planning and consideration of the practical implications for the towns and cities involved in relocation. It’s also the role of political and community leaders to be clear on two fronts: first, to spell out the extraordinary contribution immigrants and refugees in particular have made, and can continue to make, to the richness of our country; secondly, to also recognise the anxieties of those who worry about immigration and the practicalities of welcoming more refugees. These worries deserve a response, otherwise the voices of those who speak hatred and intolerance just get a stronger hearing.
Will Hutton made an eloquent case for political bravery and made it clear this responsibility is falling particularly on those of us on the left, particularly the Labour party, given the Tory government’s predictable response:
“Politicians and their electorates now have to make a choice. There is no middle way. The choice is between building walls and electrified fences, creating mass detention centres, organising mass repatriation and conceding to the fear of the other or it is to find a way of sustaining openness while doing the very best that can be done to allay the natural fears and apprehensions of host populations.
“Inevitably, the Cameron government has given the initiative the cold shoulder, preoccupied with negotiating a one-sided relationship with the EU in which Britain accepts as few European obligations as possible, but retains all the gains. If everyone played that game, the whole project would implode. This is a moment for political vision and bravery, not least from the Labour party. Over the years ahead, and in the run-up to the referendum on EU membership, neither Britain or its left can risk having a leader tempted by leaving the EU, the only organisation we have that, however imperfectly, might address this crisis.”
Will, I couldn’t agree more. I’ll be campaigning hard in the Labour for European Membership campaign ahead of the referendum, whenever that happens. And in the meantime, I call on my fellow parliamentarians of all parties to show the same political courage as Angela Merkel and other EU leaders on this subject. In particular I call on whoever wins the Labour leadership election to think hard about their role in this, and in the run up to the referendum.
I therefore welcome the speech yesterday from Yvette Cooper about this European refugee crisis, in which she called for the UK to play its part and provide 10,000 places for Syrian refugees. I also fully support those from other parties and other countries calling for the EU to establish safe havens closer to areas of conflict, to find ways of processing refugees earlier and more quickly, and to share out the responsibility amongst all the EU member states to welcome them. We need to reduce the dangers people have to face to get to our countries. Just telling people they’re welcome when they arrive isn’t enough – we need to make it easier for them to get here without risking life and limb and without expecting the border countries to deal with this alone.
Our great European Union was, and still is, a remarkable move away from the horrifying conflicts of our 20th century history, with their underlying hatred of people who were seen as ‘other’. As imperfect as it is, as much as it requires compromise and hard decisions, it’s an essential, collegiate approach to sharing our skills, working on our problems together, being willing to compromise and listen to different possible solutions, acknowledging our difficulties but ultimately standing and working together. Whether it’s protecting the environment, increasing workers’ rights, helping each other out in economic crisis or welcoming refugees from outside the union, I will be one of the (Labour) MPs calling for a strong EU response and for a full UK membership of that EU. Because not working together is a frightening prospect from which no good can come.
Facts about numbers of people seeking asylum worldwide (from UNHCR briefings)
59.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 (compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago). Of these, 19.5 million are refugees; 38.2 million were displaced inside their own countries; and 1.8 million people were awaiting the outcome of claims for asylum. Over half the world’s refugees are children.
Developing countries, with their own problems, host 86 per cent of these people: Turkey hosts the largest number (1.59 million), followed by Pakistan (1.51 million), Lebanon (1.15 million – most Syrian refugees are in Lebanon and the population is approximately one fifth of the total), Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,000) and Jordan (654,000).
Germany is the EU country which takes by far the most asylum seekers and accepts the most as refugees: in 2014, Germany had 166,800 applications for asylum, compared to 31,400 in the UK. In 2015, Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum applications. The UK currently has a total of 126,000 refugees in a population of 64.1 million – that’s a mere 0.19 per cent of the population.
Syrians are one of the largest groups of refugees worldwide: UNHCR briefings show that as of June 2015 there are 12 million Syrians needing help in Syria, of whom 7.6 million are internally displaced (still in Syria but without homes because of the conflict) and 4 million have fled.
International response to Syrian refugees
New figures from the government show that the UK has accepted a total of 216 Syrian Refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, compared to 30,000 by Germany according to the UNHCR fact sheet (August 2015) on numbers of Syrian refugees accepted since 2013 by the international community. The House of Commons Library briefing (July 2015) adds that 4,000 Syrians have been accepted into the UK since the start of the crisis following applications for asylum made on arrival or after arriving to the UK.
Two documents from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency:
The government's latest update on the number of Syrian refugees resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (published within last week’s immigration statistics).