Thursday, 30 January 2014

Can we really give sanctuary to at-risk groups?

I  recently commented in passing on Labour's record of looking after female refugees. It seems from this report that their travails persist under the coalition: being locked up indefinitely, under supervision (sometimes intrusive) by all-male staff (who may be contractors rather than directly-employed people) and at risk of being sent back to the states where they were imprisoned and/or abused. In today's Commons debate on the Immigration Bill, Sarah Teather fought in vain against clauses which would have unwound some of the protection for refugee children which she and other Liberal Democrats had achieved in the early days of the coalition. These are the reasons for my querying the degree of extra safety which Syrian refugees could claim in this country rather than in the camps and elsewhere in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

This point was made by Bob Stewart in yesterday's Commons debate:

In April 1993, I took an orphan girl into my house when I was the British commander in Bosnia. My soldiers looked after her. Her parents and her brother had been shot dead in front of her. We thought that we should take her out of the country and that that was the right thing to do. In the end, we found a distant uncle and she stayed in Bosnia. The Home Secretary has said that that is the best option. We should bring people out of the region only if no other option is available to save their lives or look after them properly.
Also Stephen Metcalfe (with an intervention by Stuart Andrew):

As I have said, I am pleased by today’s announcement. I have no objection to playing our full part in the UNHCR’s call for countries to take a number of refugees. Indeed, I feel that it is our moral and ethical obligation to play our part in helping the weak and the vulnerable, the displaced and the war-weary, but I do not want our action to be tokenistic. I am also concerned that we are taking people away from their natural communities and local support networks just to salve our consciences. I still believe that, as I have seen, the best place to provide the widest possible support to the largest number of people is on the ground, locally, within the region.
Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I was also on that trip and what struck me most was the fact that the camps were so well organised in providing education for the many children who are there and who want to go back and rebuild their country once the regime has gone. Does he not think that the investment in providing education to those children is a crucial element of the support we offer?
Stephen Metcalfe: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One feature of the camp we visited is the service the Turkish are providing in education and access to skills learning. Unfortunately, however, only 14% of children receive any form of formal education. The Turks are doing their best, so if we really want to help we could expand such services on the ground.
All that having been said, however, there are some who would truly benefit from the security and safety that Britain can offer. I support that, but we must remember that whatever we do will be only a small drop in a very large ocean and that by far the best way to help the largest number of people is, as we have heard, to bring all the sides together to resolve the conflict so that the poor souls we met on our trip who have been displaced can return home and start to build the secular, democratic and secure country that I am sure the majority desire.

My other objection to signing up to the tokenism of the UNHCR programme is that it elevates refugees from Syria above those from other conflicts, who are suffering as much if not more. An instance is that of the Palestinians. Gerald Kaufman's credentials, as a son of refugee Jews from Poland, are impeccable. He put the case in yesterday's debate:

[They] are refugees twice over—from their own country and now from a war for which they have no responsibility, with which they have no connection and in which they have not taken a side. They are enduring death and deprivation in Syria.
The al-Yarmouk camp, just outside Damascus, has been under siege for six months. It was inhabited by more than 155,000 Palestinian refugees, but of those fewer than 20,000 now remain. A list has been published, which is in my possession, of the names of those who have died in the camp and the causes of death. Again and again, that cause is listed as starvation. Refugees in this camp are surviving on grass, animal feed and spices dissolved in water. Extreme human suffering in primitive conditions is the norm. Only 200 food parcels have been delivered to the remaining 20,000 people marooned in the camp.
Some 560,000 Palestinian refugees are living in Syria, and more than half of them have been displaced. Their restrictive travel documents mean that the majority would be unable to leave the country and seek safety abroad even if there were an opportunity for them to do so. Neighbouring countries—I pay tribute to them for the help that they have provided—are overwhelmed by Syrian refugees who have managed to get into their territory.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Let me compliment my right hon. Friend on his speech, and on the work that he has done on behalf of Palestinian refugees. Is it not also the case that tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees have recently arrived in Syria, mainly from Iraq but also from other countries, and that they are in a very dangerous and very vulnerable situation? Some have not even received permanent settlement in Syria, and are therefore particularly vulnerable both to the civil war and to any refugee programme that may ignore them in the future.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. No one—apart from the Syrian Government and another authority [Israel] can be faulted for the efforts that are being made, but the situation on the ground is exceptionally difficult.
One can add the plight of refugees in Kenya and Sudan and from the Central African Republic, to name just a few.

Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, while wishing to see a more wholehearted adoption of the UNHCR programme, warned against the appearance of discrimination:

The Government’s basic position is absolutely correct, as all colleagues have tended to endorse. It is best to help in the region where people are concentrated, and the extraordinary efforts being made by neighbours have been helped by the most generous contribution that this country has ever made to such a crisis abroad. However, as times and needs change, a bit of flexibility is not always a bad thing. Therefore, the response to what the UN has been saying has been important.
One or two colleagues say that we should take special notice of Christian victims. I have not spoken much on the matter before. It was a policy I was looking after, but I want to make two or three quick points because it is an important issue. It is undeniably true that the Christian community in the middle east has been under particularly severe pressure in a region where lots of people have suffered, but the answer is not to single them out but to say that the rule of law has to protect all. The importance of that is that it is not being politically correct; it is ensuring that Christians are not identified with the false claim of the extremists that it is a western construct and a western religion. To give any sense to that and to say, however well meaning, that there is a welcome for them in a “Christian country” feeds that narrative and assists the extremists. Therefore, I urge colleagues and people outside who are rightly concerned about the Christian community to take a lead from his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Prince Ghazi of Jordan, who are working with Muslim leaders in the region to recognise the particular issues facing Christians and to work through those leaders to provide relief there.

I am aware that I am at odds with Sir Menzies Campbell and Nick Clegg in being wary of endorsing the UNHCR demands. I would like to see an extension of the UK's acceptance of refugees generally, including giving at least those applicants with special skills the right to earn a living rather than subsist on handouts. We should look again at the bar to higher education. I would give more resources to the UK Border Agency in order for them to distinguish forensically between genuine cases and those in no way oppressed. The arbitrary and unjust processes currently used to hit the government's targets should end. I would even welcome our government's transporting the most deserving cases from refugee camps, as is proposed for Syrians. Perhaps the latter will set a precedent.

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