This week is Refugee Week.
This is an opportunity to celebrate the huge contribution that refugees make to this country. My own constituency of Bristol West has been particularly enriched by people who have made long and arduous journeys across continents, fleeing war, persecution and disaster.
Refugee week is also time for serious reflection. It’s a time to ask ourselves, can we improve the way we treat refugees? I believe we can. Earlier today I gave a speech in the House of Commons outlining key policies which could change many people’s lives.
We are currently 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. We currently take a tiny fraction of these people.
Refugee Family Reunion is one area where can make a difference. Current laws and international agreements exist to help reunite families separated by wars and disasters. But they do not go far enough, leaving many refugee families separated by international borders.
This may be changing. MPs from across the country turned up in significant numbers recently for a Second Reading of a Private Members’ Bill on Refugee Family Reunion and a right to Legal Aid. The high attendance was all the more remarkable since this happened on a Friday, usually a constituency day. This indicates not only that MPs care about the rights of refugees to be reunited with their families but that their constituents are also concerned.
It seems the argument has cut through: someone with confirmed refugee status should be able to live with their family. Coordinated lobbying by refugee organisations has made a difference to public and political opinion. I will be working to capitalise on this and push for the progress of this Bill and a separate, similar Bill from the House of Lords.
Child refugees and the EU Withdrawal Bill
The Brexit process sometimes feels like one step forwards, two steps backwards. Under EU law, the UK is currently obliged to reunite children with family members, but this will no longer apply after the UK leaves the EU, potentially blocking a vital route for desperate children who are extremely vulnerable to traffickers and criminals.
The Labour Peer (and my friend) Alf Dubs tabled an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, aiming to maintain the law which allows children to be reunited with their siblings in the UK. Few people are better placed to make the case for child refugees than Lord Dubs, who himself arrived in the UK as a child refugee.
I was glad to see that the Government took on a large part of Lord Dubs’ amendment. My colleague Yvette Cooper went even further, proposing additional changes to maintain the current situation, allowing child refugees to be reunited with uncles and aunts in the UK. The Attorney General agreed to look again at Yvette’s amendment. This is a small, yet positive, step in the right direction.
The right to work
Refugees should also have a right to work. They often come with skills, and want to work and contribute to the country. They don’t want to depend on state benefits. But currently they are not allowed to work, except with specific permission, until they have been granted asylum by the Home Office.
The Home Office target to complete asylum decisions within six months is frequently missed, often by months or even years. Meanwhile people are left without opportunities to maintain their skills, support their families and contribute to the national and local economy. They even have restrictions on volunteering.
In contrast to the UK, Uganda not only allows refugees to work immediately, it provides them with land to grow food and start-up finance to set up their own businesses.
We should, at the very least, introduce a right to work after six months – which would also encourage the Home Office to end delays – and the right to volunteer until they can work. I would prefer us to move towards a system where they can work immediately.
Fair treatment can save lives
There are many other things we can do to improve the way we treat refugees. This includes ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring Legal Aid, prioritising free, high-quality English teaching and doing more to create safe and legal routes to the UK with refugee schemes. If we made it easier to make in-country or border applications for asylum and resettlement, it could save lives.
Keeping people in refugee camps, at best, leaves people in limbo for years; at worst it creates a recruiting ground for traffickers and people who sexually exploit women.
The forthcoming Immigration Bill may give us scope to support amendments on many of these areas. We also need to create other opportunities to improve the treatment of those looking for sanctuary in this country.
As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, in my work in Westminster and my work with constituents in Bristol West, I will continue to fight to give refugees the welcome they deserve.