On Wednesday 24 January, the Labour Party put forward a motion in Parliament which called for conflict resolution and the protection of human rights to be at the heart of UK foreign policy on refugees. As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, I was proud to speak in support of the motion and to highlight the need for a human rights-centred approach to the global refugee crisis.

Aid and charity – though of course welcome – are not by themselves a human rights approach to supporting and protecting refugees. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention makes it clear that refugees should be able to provide for themselves and their families. The UK government should lead the way in making sure that refugees are able to work, to be educated, and to start up businesses – like the Ugandan government have done for over 1 million South Sudanese refugees. There is not only a clear moral and legal argument for helping refugees to flourish in this way. There is a clear economic benefit when those who are given shelter and protection in other countries are allowed to contribute and develop their knowledge and skills.

I made the case that there are legal, moral and economic arguments for a human rights, rather than benevolence, approach to refugees and refugee policy. I also argued that there are benefits for national security and for our standing in the world.

I hope that if we in this country were ever to experience the difficulties faced by people suffering as a result of conflict and natural disasters across the globe, we would receive a human right response from other countries around the world. A response we should be proud to give and to promote to others, no matter where they are from.

Thangam Debbonaire

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). I rise to support the motion, and I also speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees.

Taking a human-rights approach to refugees means treating them as human beings who have rights, but who also have skills and experience. We in the Labour party can be proud of the leading role that we played in the creation of the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, fulfilling our legal obligations. The current Government have provided financial support for refugees in conflict zones, and that is welcome, but aid and charity, although admirable, are not a human-rights approach. They do not honour fully the spirit or the letter of the 1951 convention, and they deny the humanity of refugees and of ourselves.

The convention made it clear that refugees should be able to provide for themselves and their families by being allowed to seek work, take part in education or start up businesses. It explicitly did not seek to establish a culture of dependency, or structures of confinement or imprisonment. In Uganda, for example, more than 1 million south Sudanese refugees are being helped to get into education or work. There is an economic as well as a legal argument for a human-rights approach. Those refugees are not dependent on aid, are able to keep up the skills that will help them when they return home, and contribute to the local economy. Moreover, they are probably potential customers for our exports.

As well as the legal and economic arguments, however, there is a moral argument. In an ever more closely connected world, we are all neighbours. On this tiny rock in a corner of the universe, we may all need each other one day. I hope that if we in this country were ever to experience the difficulties faced by people in Syria, with record numbers of civilian deaths from airstrikes, we would receive the help from our neighbours that we should be proud to give to others. Do we want to be seen as the one who is ready to help when tragedy strikes, the one with the emergency food who will also help our neighbours to get back on their feet, or as the one whose doors are closed, whose walls are high, and who does not stretch out a helping, enabling hand? I know which I would like as to be seen as.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)


Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)


Thangam Debbonaire

I respect the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, but time is limited.

I hear criticisms of the human-rights approach, and I have read them on social media. People say that when we welcome refugees we are letting in terrorists, and we should beware of the pull factor. For a start, there is no good evidence of a pull factor; there is evidence only of the determination of refugees to support themselves and their families, and to escape to wherever they can best do that. I strongly urge Members to come to the House on 16 March to support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, which will be presented by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil).

It is important to unpick the argument about terrorism. The 1951 convention makes a clear distinction between refugees and criminals. Being a refugee is not a crime, but being a criminal, or of criminal intent, means that a host country is entitled to restrict or cease its hospitality. However, leaving people trapped, with their movements restricted and their human rights held down, risks turning once desperate people into very angry people—and anger is a breeding ground for those who would recruit followers to ideologies of hate who wish to harm us. So my fifth and final rationale for a human-rights approach to refugees is a national-security one.

On the basis of moral, legal, economic and national-security arguments, and also for the sake of our standing in the world, we urgently need the Government to take a human-rights approach to foreign policy in general and refugees in particular. I think that we in the United Kingdom are proud to be instinctive humanitarians. We all represent people who want us, in Parliament and in Government, to take every opportunity to broker peace, promote human rights and treat refugees as human beings. I urge the Government to support the motion.

You can watch a clip from my speech below, or you can watch the whole speech at parliamentlive.tv.

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