Speech on: The European refugee crisis by Yvette Cooper MP
Speech given by Yvette Cooper MP, 01 September 2015
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By the side of an Austrian road, a lorry...
A logo on the side. Designed to transport “original Slovenian products” – ham, and chicken. In a sealed fridge.
Inside 71 bodies.
71 people. It looks like they came from Syria. Families. Children. A little girl just 2 years old.
They must have travelled through Turkey or Greece, through the Balkans, Hungary.
Many days journey by road.
Maybe they came from Homs where just a few weeks ago 200 innocent men, women and children were kidnapped by ISIL.
Maybe they came from camps where thousands are living in desert tents without running water, proper schooling or medical care.
Who knows how much they paid the traffickers who put them in the lorry, sealed the fridge door and drove off while they suffocated to death.
A truly terrible story.
And all the more terrible because it isn’t unique.
Just two days later 3 children found close to death from dehydration in the back of a crowded minivan.
52 people found dead in the hull of a boat. Beaten by the smugglers into an airless hold. Required to pay money to come up to breathe. Those that couldn’t suffocated to death.
100 people drowned locked in the hold of a capsized boat.
Even on our own doorstep, 9 people have died in the last three months trying to cross from Calais to Dover – trapped on the wheel arches of lorries, crushed jumping onto fast moving trains or electrocuted on power lines.
Terrible stories of tragedy, torture, desperation.
But the tragic stories are not just of those who have died.
They are of millions more who have lost their homes and are now desperately seeking sanctuary or stability to rebuild their lives.
The exhausted mother desperately holding her baby’s head above the waves.
The children who have had no schooling for months.
The former teachers, office workers, shop owners, business people – now refugees, sleeping in bus stations, paying gangs to ferry them by night.
This has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the Second World War.
Yet we seem paralysed to respond.
Stuck in the troubled politics of immigration when this is about asylum instead.
Stuck treating immigration and asylum as the same thing when they are completely different and we should keep them so.
Stuck hiding behind disputes over student visas, illegal working or European agency workers, when none of that has anything to do with refugees.
Stuck talking only about “migrants” when we should mean fathers, sons, sisters, brothers, daughters, mothers.
Stuck in political cowardice that assumes British voters’ unease about immigration means they will not forgive anyone who calls for sanctuary - even though our nation has given shelter to the persecuted for centuries, and sometimes moral leadership is needed.
And its not just us. All Europe is struggling to respond.
We cant carry on like this. Its immoral, its cowardly and its not the British way.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing from a new totalitarianism and Europe has to help – just as we did in generations past.
We should be strong enough and resilient enough to rise to the challenge not turn our backs
But we can only do that together.
So I’m not going to make the normal political speech either as Shadow Home Secretary or as Labour Leadership candidate – attacking the Government and setting out an alternative Labour response.
Because I don’t want to attack others over this, I want to persuade everyone.
I don’t want this to be a party political row because I want our British Government to show leadership now – and I want the Labour Party, all parties, cities, towns and communities across the country to support them when they do.
Yes it is difficult to stand up against the conventional wisdom. Yes there may be uncomfortable headlines. Yes we need to argue for things which wont be popular with everyone. But if we come together we can do that.
We can make it possible for our Government to do what is right.
But to do so we have to speak out.
Scale of the challenge
So let me start with the scale and nature of the problem we face.
According to the UN a third of a million people have tried to cross the Mediterranean in the last eight months. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Newcastle getting on rickety boats and risking their lives on the waves.
At least 2,600 have died – drowned or suffocated on the voyage.
Many are travelling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans into Hungary heading to Austria and Germany. Some – though far fewer – have made it to Calais and are trying to reach Britain.
Most travellers have come far - from the Levant, from the Maghreb, from across Africa.
Some are from closer to home – from Kosovo and the Balkan states.
Some are children travelling alone.
Over 100,000 people have arrived in Italy since the start of the year. Thousands more to Hungary.
50,000 people have arrived in Greece in just one month alone. They have no where to go.
Few have asylum claims assessed. The camps are improvised, overcrowded, unsanitary. The authorities and local people are doing their best, but on some islands fights have broken out.
Wherever the travellers arrive, there are at best long delays for asylum claims or immigration status to be assessed. And at worst there are no assessments at all. The traffickers still prey. Most people try to travel further especially to reach Germany or Sweden.
This year Germany expects asylum claims to reach 800,000. And whilst many Germans support the refugees, anger is growing that other countries aren’t doing their fair share.
And on our own doorstep, 3,000 people are living in makeshift shelters on the streets of Calais – none of them have had their asylum or immigration status assessed. And the disorder and chaos at the border is causing deep alarm across Britain too.
The backdrop to the crisis makes it harder to handle. Many European countries are engaged in a difficult debate about immigration policy – and immigration and asylum are too easily conflated. Many countries – including France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain have all seen the rise of anti-immigration or far right parties – and it is easy for them to exploit the legitimate anxiety about disorder at the border, or concern that the authorities have lost control.
At the same time it is clear that the new realities of the Levant and the Magreb have collided with the old structures and principles of the European Union. The Dublin Convention on refugees and the Schengen agreement to remove border checks on the continent were designed for a very different world.
But the troubled politics make it even more important for Europe to come together with a new response, and mean there is even more reason not to ignore the people arriving on our shores.
Some have been seduced by criminal trafficking networks who profit from bypassing immigration laws.
Some have taken their chance to seek a better life by travelling illegally across borders, though they have homes they could return to.
Some undoubtedly have no asylum claim and should return or follow normal immigration rules. That’s why the assessments are so important to maintain confidence in the system.
But be in no doubt – very many of those travelling are refugees from conflict and persecution, especially from Syria, Libya and Eritrea where violence, oppression, instability and persecution have driven millions from their homes.
The UN estimate that more than half of those crossing the Mediterranean are from Syria.
I caught on twitter last week a sad excerpt from the Lonely Planet guide for Homs in 2008. It said "Homs' citizens are some of the country's friendliest… That, combined with the city's myriad leafy parks and gardens, sprawling al fresco coffee shops... make Homs a wonderful place to kick back for a couple of days."
No longer. 4 million Syrians have fled across the border to camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The camps are in desert conditions. In Jordan a city of tents is now the fourth biggest city in the country. Thousands of babies have been born to mothers with no access to running water.
6.5 million more – still in Syria – have been driven from their homes.
Thousands more have come from Eritrea – a secretive state where UN observers report forced labour, state violence, sexual slavery and indefinite national service for boys as young as 17.
And thousands have travelled from Libya. As the joyful hope of the Arab Spring fades away, Libya has descended into violence, corruption and instability, leaving many trying to flee to Europe and giving the traffickers free rein.
What many are fleeing is a new totalitarianism of our time.
From ISIL and islamist extremists – a doctrine that promotes terrifying violence in the name of ideology, that appeals to fervour yet dehumanises opponents, that persecutes, oppresses and slaughters all those who get in their way.
We may have a generation long battle against the new totalitarianism just as we did its predecessors. And just as we did faced with totalitarian regimes past, we have a moral responsibility again do our bit to help those who flee to survive.
We have a responsibility too to stop the abuse of human rights on our continent – to stop the criminal gangs, the modern slave traders, operating in Europe who are driving much of the desperate travel, the terrible conditions and the abuse and deaths. They prey on desperation, trade in human beings, stealing people’s life savings on false promises, exploit and abuse – it is a heartless violation of the basic human rights we fought past wars to defend.
And we have a responsibility to make sure there is safety, security and order, both at our borders and in the asylum system or public confidence wont be maintained.
We cannot carry on like this.
We cannot allow the politics of fear and blame to paralyse us, and let this humanitarian crisis go on. Its time to act.
Of course in the long term the answer lies with foreign policy. Ultimately the world must find a solution to the Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIL that is at the heart of this 21st century exodus – a solution that draws on all the countries across the region, on Russia, the USA, the EU.
But no one believes there is a simple foreign policy or military intervention that will restore families and communities swiftly to their homes. As the Prime Minister has warned, ISIL is a generational challenge.
So that means Europe – including Britain – needs to do more to tackle the humanitarian crisis as a result.
We have to step up to the plate.
This has become a test not just of Europe’s values, but also of the EU’s resilience and ability to respond. And so far our continent has been found still wanting.
And it is a test of British values too – of whether we will again be able to reach out to the rest of the world and help as we have done in previous generations, or whether we will turn inwards and turn our backs instead. And so far our country has been found still wanting too.
Thankfully the long needed meeting of European home office ministers is finally happening on 14th Sept. Not before time. At least the debate has now started about how we deal with the reality of this crisis.
So much more needs to be done – and it should be done by countries working together.
Anyone who thinks we can better cope with this crisis by tearing the EU apart is profoundly mistaken.
Only working together can we deal with the scale of this crisis. When the problem is so many people crossing borders, no country can hope to cope with it alone. Were we in Britain to pull away, our problems at Calais would get much harder not easier to solve. Imagine if our border controls returned to Dover or other European countries stopped trying to prevent people travelling to Northern France in the first place. We depend on other countries to do their bit to help us – and that means we need to pull our weight too.
First we need smarter coordination and deployment of EU aid to help prevent the scale of travel and trafficking in the first place.
Far better to support people in the region wherever possible so that in the end they can return home.
Britain is rightly one of the most generous countries in the world in providing aid for the camps and supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and the Lebanon.
But we need a coordinated response from the EU to ensure that where possible there are sustainable homes – with schools, health care and jobs - in the region too. And legal routes to asylum from the region which stop people making dangerous journeys just to take their chance.
Parents seeking treatment for sick children, or the chance of school education, or a secure roof over their head for the winter will be ready to risk a perilous journey if there isn’t more support closer to home.
Second, we need stronger and more effective measures against the vile people trafficking trade – to rescue those at risk and stop the criminal gangs.
The UK has to stand up to these modern slave traders who simply see dollar signs before human lives.
So we need more support to Frontex and Europol to be able to crack down.
We need greater sharing of information between police and security agencies - tracking these people-traffickers who leave children to die in the back of a truck.
And more safety and security checks are needed within and across Europe too. Since Austria and Hungary reintroduced more border checks more traffickers have been stopped.
Angela Merkel is right – the crisis does raise serious questions about the Schengen agreement, designed for a different age. Those Schengen countries need to rethink together how they can restore the checks they need to manage in the face of this challenge.
It means bringing these profiteers and cowards to justice
It means securing international agreement to impound and destroy the boats and vehicles of those plying this vile trade, just as our forebears did with rogue slave traders following the abolition of the slave trade.
And if needs be it means offering our courts and our jails to house those convicted.
And it means maintaining the vital search and rescue in the Mediterranean not downgrading it and leaving people to drown, as Europe shamefully tried to do earlier this year.
Third, we need major investment in asylum and immigration assessment – including centres established overseas and at the European border.
Thousands of people in Greece are in limbo – no one is even considering their asylum claim, no one knows how many need sanctuary, how many need to return to their homes.
So far only Germany has sent help to Greece. The entire EU needs to fund assessments – it simply isn’t possible for Greece, Italy and Hungary to cope with the scale of the problem alone.
We should call in help from the UNHCR if necessary. And there must be proper humanitarian support in place while the assessments take place – we can’t leave children on the streets, scrabbling for food.
Fourth, at our own borders, we need faster action in France.
Three thousand people in Calais still haven’t been assessed by the French authorities.
With every day that goes by, people become more desperate, and local residents more troubled and less tolerant.
Safety and security measures aren’t enough. The French authorities should be urgently assessing everyone there – and if they keep dragging their feet, we should call in the UN just as we did to solve the problem of Sangatte 13 years ago.
Fifth, and perhaps toughest of all, we need all European countries to sign up to take those agreed to be in need of refuge or asylum.
All European countries.
Relying only on the Dublin convention which places responsibility on first country of entry to deal with refugees, when hundreds of thousand of people arrive on a Greek island simply cannot work.
But nor is Germany’s proposal for binding quotas decided by the EU the right way forward. We need each country to come forward urgently with their own assessment of how much support they can provide – and yes, that means Britain too.
We must play our part
Britain needs to play our part.
In support for the region, in action against traffickers, in supporting search and rescue, in supporting asylum assessments in Southern Europe.
And yes we also have to take more refugees.
I understand how controversial it is to call for this, how it goes against conventional wisdom in Britain which says politicians will be punished for calling for this. I know too the scale of public concern about immigration, and I’ve never shied away from debate about the immigration reforms I think are needed – on exploitation, illegal working, on low skilled migration and on border control.
But I cannot say it enough times. We have to separate asylum from immigration, and we have to do what is right.
It is time for a national mission on this. It requires all of us to change our attitudes. To stop being so scared of the politics of immigration we fail to help refugees.
We have to stop the disputes about Eastern European agency workers, graduate student employment or the cost of a family visa paralysing us from giving sanctuary when it is needed
And that has to start with the Government and its targets.
For our country to have a net migration target which includes refugees is just immoral.
Treating refugees the same as legal migration for work, family or study is just plain wrong.
Ministers and borders staff under pressure to meet a target have an incentive to resist and reduce the number of refugees Britain helps.
We cannot let them do so in our name.
Yes there are real concerns about immigration in Britain. But whatever your views on immigration, asylum is different. Let’s keep it so.
As a country we have a long and proud history of offering to those in need.
In the 1680s 50,000 Huguenots clambered aboard boats in La Rochelle to escape persecution by the French state.
Two hundred years later over 140,000 refugees made their way to Britain escaping the oppression of the Russian Czar.
In the thirties despite recession and hardship, we took in over 80,000 Jewish and European refugees. In the nineties we took in refugees from Bosnia.
And remember how this year we marked the death of Sir Nicholas Winton – the man who helped arrange the kindertransport from Prague in the aftermath of the devastation of Kristallnacht, when British Jewish and Quaker leaders urged the British government to offer sanctuary to Jewish children from Germany and Nazi-occupied territory.
Within days a special immigration bill passed Parliament. An appeal was sent out and British families across the country responded.
Just three weeks later the first children arrived. Over the next 9 months, 10,000 children came to the UK from across Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
What are we doing now?
Our country has refused to take any refugees from the Mediterranean. Has refused to take more than a couple of hundred vulnerable Syrian refugees directly from the camps as part of the UN programme. Just 240 have come. And our country has even returned Syrian refugees to other European countries who are already taking far more refugees, simply because they passed through those countries first.
Germany has given more sanctuary to Syrians in a month than we have in a year.
Overall Hungary and Sweden have had three times the number of asylum claims as Britain – though they are smaller countries. Germany has had twelve times more.
How can we be proud of our history helping those who fled conflict if our generation turns its back.
Bringing Britain together
So its time for us to do more.
Yes the politics are difficult.
But not if we do this together.
Time for the Government to pull together an urgent national conference to work with communities and councils to see how many places we can offer to refugees from Syria and the Mediterranean.
Time to ask cities, towns, communities how much they each can do to help
If every city took 10 refugee families, if every London borough took 10 families, if every county council took 10 families, if Scotland, Wales and every English region played their part, then in a month we'd have nearly 10,000 more places for vulnerable refugees fleeing danger, seeking safety.
10,000 instead of 200.
Time to ask the Scottish and Welsh Governments for their support.
Time for the Home Office to give councils better and longer term support if they can offer Syrian refugees sanctuary – be it temporary support or a permanent home.
Time for faith groups, community organisations, campaign groups– 38 degrees, Citizens UK – trades unions, businesses all to come together to build a new consensus to help refugees.
Time for local councils to follow Sheffield and Birmingham and sign up to be “Cities of Sanctuary.”
Time for the media to rise to the occasion, bringing truth to peoples homes not giving in to easy headlines which sell papers by playing to fear.
And time for all political parties to play their part. Labour must. I believe many on the Conservative back benches will support this. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Greens I hope will too. And when I called 2 years ago for Britain to do more to help Syrian refugees, Nigel Farage supported my call. I urge UKIP to support this too.
And all parties need to avoid exploiting a refugee crisis for their short term political campaigns on Europe.
Theresa May should urgently work with councils and communities to see how many places we can offer before the meeting on the 14th September. And she should call the conference to bring everyone together – and if she wont I will work with charities, councils and communities to do so instead.
We need to be able to look our grand-parents in the eyes and say we faced up to the challenges and responsibilities of our time just as they did theirs.
And we need to be able to look our grand- children in the eyes and say we did not turn our backs.
This crisis is not going away.
In the recession of the 1930s, Britain didn't just open its hearts to the 10,000 children of the Kindertransport, but our homes.
It is that strength of compassion that makes Britain great.
So that is why today I am asking the Home Secretary to change policy.
I’m asking the prime minister to show leadership and pledging my support if he does.
I’m asking parliament to back him.
I’m asking Scotland and Wales to agree.
I’m asking councils to offer places.
I’m asking communities to offer help.
I’m asking faith groups and charities to show the way.
I’m asking campaigning organisations to mobilise support.
I’m asking everyone to do their bit however large or small.
The truth is I’m not really asking very much at all.
I’m asking us to do something we’ve done before. Something we will do again.
To help those who need us.
I’m asking Britain to be Britain.