I have been involved in immigration and asylum casework since the Kosovar crisis of 1998 and I am heartened that so many constituents share my deep concern at the shocking loss of life we have seen in recent months, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that nearly 2,000 people have died in the first half of this year attempting to make this crossing, compared with an estimated 3,500 who died in the whole of 2014. Following the heart-breaking photos of children washed up on beaches, I believe that leaving people, many of whom are actually asylum seekers not economic migrants, to die in their thousands is not the answer.
This Tory Government supported the withdrawal of the Mare Nostrum operation last year and in protest I signed Early Day Motion 99 urging the Prime Minister to recognize the fatal impact of this decision. I believe that European governments should not have stopped search and rescue operations last year, and the British government was wrong to argue that this was justified in order to deter others from attempting these perilous journeys.
The additional funds and resources that arose out of the emergency European Council meeting in April are welcome. Indeed, since then, the Royal Navy has rescued over 4,700 people in trouble in the Mediterranean. However, I believe that we need a long-term and comprehensive strategy to deal with this crisis and anything short of a properly resourced search and rescue mission will be a moral failure.
This country has a proud history of helping people fleeing persecution, yet only 216 Syrian refugees have been resettled under the Government's current vulnerable persons relocation scheme. I agree that the UK must do more to offer help to those who are certified as refugees, and I hope the Government will work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in this area.
I attended the urgent Parliamentary debate, but David Cameron's words didn't come close to matching the scale of the crisis we are facing. I have also made urgent representations to the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State for International Development and Foreign Affairs to give demand details of the action they will take to address this desperate situation. I will continue to follow this issue very carefully and hold the Government to account for their appalling lack of action.
If you agree with me that this Tory Government should be taking action to address this desperate situation, please consider signing the official petition to the Government and to Parliament, which can be found here.
How can I help? Click here for details of some of the ways you can support the refugees
I have also signed a joint letter to David Cameron on the refugee crisis with Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and Sir Keir Starmer QC, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, which can be found below:
Dear Prime Minister,
We believe the refugee crisis currently facing Europe demands urgent action. All member states of the EU must look beyond their borders to address wider, global issues. But Europe – far from rising up to this challenge – is turning in on itself.
Britain, given our history, is well-placed to take the lead in drawing up an international response to this issue. We boast a long and proud tradition of helping those most in need.
Regrettably, to date, your Government has not conducted itself in a way which is in keeping with this proud tradition.
Next week, other EU member states will meet to discuss plans to revise the current 1990 “Dublin Protocol” for asylum seekers – under which asylum seekers should be processed in the first EU country they reach – to see whether the burden could be shared more equitably by member states outside the periphery.
Britain is refusing to participate on the grounds that we are not part of the Schengen shared border agreement – a dubious excuse that conflates two separate issues.
But our failure to engage with our European partners runs far deeper than this. Britain consistently grants asylum to considerably fewer foreign nationals than most other EU states. To help alleviate the pressures caused by the nearly four million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up an international programme, with a quota system, so that developed countries can equitably share in the burden. Britain – instead opting to operate our own separate programme – has persistently refused to sign up to the scheme. Just 1,000 Syrians, at the very most, will be granted asylum under our schemes – a fraction of the tens of thousands whom Germany and others have helped.
And we have turned a blind eye to the often dismal, appalling conditions which refugees have had to endure. For those refugees who attempt seaborne access into Europe across the Mediterranean, the journey can often be treacherous and fatal.
The EU has withdrawn funding for a search and rescue operation to help those in need, and put in place a more limited operation in its stead. Britain has been silent on this issue. This says nothing of the treatment of those refugees who succeed in reaching Europe’s borders: many are subject to appalling conditions and given little support whilst they apply for asylum – support which Britain is due to cut still further from those rejected for asylum, effectively denying them the opportunity to appeal.
This needs to stop.
The Government’s current position on this issue is contributing to the very crisis we are facing. The tragic, human effects of this were made all too clear on the front covers of Wednesday’s papers. They will continue to occur unless Britain plays its full part.
We are calling on the British Government to push, internationally, for a number of practical actions to be taken to address this crisis.
We should join with our EU partners in reviewing the Dublin Protocol. Given the pressures this is causing for peripheral EU states, it is paramount that we explore whether other member states could more equally share in the pressures caused by the refugee crisis.
As part of this, we must also conduct a broader, EU-wide review of the all the current international arrangements for refugees. This must include funding appropriate search and rescue operations, and addressing any and all concerns about their treatment on European soil.
Finally, in line with other member states, we must also take our fair share of those affected by this crisis. Britain’s full participation in the UNHCR programme for Syria’s refugees must be part of this.
Tulip Siddiq MP (Hampstead and Kilburn); Keir Starmer QC, MP (Holborn and St Pancras); Catherine West MP (Hornsey and Wood Green)
Letter from Harriet Harman, Acting Leader of the Labour Party to
David Cameron urging him to take action on the Refugee Crisis
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing to you with regard to the worsening refugee crisis in Europe, and in particular your statement that you do not believe taking a few thousand refugees would solve the crisis.
This is now the worst humanitarian crisis to reach European shores since the Second World War. And its impact is being felt right across our country, from transport delays to small businesses being affected, not to mention widespread public concern about the crisis. You will, like me, have been appalled by the deeply distressing pictures of children drowned, and heard the stories of people suffocated to death in smugglers’ lorries.
We are all proud of Britain’s historical role of offering a sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution. We are an outward-facing, generous-hearted nation, not one that turns inward and shirks its responsibilities. I know you will not want to be the Prime Minister of a Government that fails to offer sanctuary while our neighbours are stepping up to respond.
I disagree with the conclusion you appear to have drawn, that there is somehow a choice to be made between building stability in the region through greater humanitarian support, and playing our part in helping desperate refugees who have fled the horror in Syria. There isn’t. I strongly support the Government’s continued aid for the refugee camps in the region and agree with you that we need much tougher action against people trafficking, but it is clear now that we also have a moral duty to act to take in more of these people and help them to rebuild their lives.
As you know, Labour has been calling on the government to do more to help Syrian refugees for over 18 months, having first raised the issue in December 2013 and we also included a commitment to support Syrian refugees in our manifesto. It is now time for you to end the inertia and delay, and show some moral leadership and take proper action to alleviate this crisis.
Following the intervention of the Shadow Home Secretary, many local councils are looking now at what they could do to help. So too are community organisations. There is now a growing consensus that immigration and asylum should be separated and that whatever their views on immigration, they want Britain to do our bit to help refugees.
I am therefore asking you to do four things as a matter of urgency:
To agree now that Britain will take more refugees both directly from Syria and from the Southern European countries where most refugees have arrived
To convene an urgent meeting of EU leaders next week to agree a process for resolving the immediate refugee crisis on Europe’s borders
To convene an urgent meeting of COBRA so that a cross-government plan can be agreed and implemented. This is now a problem that spans beyond the Home Office, affecting transport, small business, tourism and our local communities. We urgently need ministers to come together and agree a plan
To bring together a summit of local authority leaders to agree what more can be done locally to support refugees and asylum seekers - as you know many councils are keen to do more, but lack an agreed framework for doing so.
I urge you to act swiftly and decisively. If you do so, please be assured that Labour stands ready to support you in any way we can. I look forward to your urgent response and, given the importance of this issue, I am releasing this letter to the media.
Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP
Leader of the Labour Party