It’s another week and another summit on refugees. However, today’s summit in Geneva, convened by the UNHCR to establish safe and legal pathways for Syrian refugees, could and should be the most important.
Last month, London hosted a summit for international aid donors and £7.5 billion was pledged; a couple of weeks ago at an EU-Turkey summit a deal was reached to stem the flow of irregular migration from Turkey to the EU. These were important agreements in the face of the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. However, the international community should not duck its legal and moral responsibility to provide sanctuary for the most vulnerable refugees who need resettlement.
In December last year, the UNHCR called for 130,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled by the end of 2016 “because they are survivors of torture, because they have acute medical needs or they’re women alone or otherwise vulnerable“. In Geneva, there is likely to be a call for more places for vulnerable refugees as well as for more established safe and legal pathways.
Yesterday Oxfam started the ball rolling by calling on the UK to take at least 10 per cent of the 4.8 million registered refugees. It criticised the UK and other wealthy nations for resettling less than two per cent of Syrian refugees. Other charities such asSave the Children have also campaigned for 3000 unaccompanied minors to be given refuge (a proposal which Lord Dubs has now added as an amendment to the Immigration Bill). The opportunity at the meeting in Geneva is not so much an auction of who can take the most refugees but, rather, a chance for the international community to come together to offer clear expectations about safe and legal pathways for refugees?
Richard Harrington, our Syrian Refugees Minister, who will be attending the Ministers meeting in Geneva, rightly points out that “Britain has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the Syria conflict”. We have pledged £2.3 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria, as well as £55 million to help tackle the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Only the US has given more in aid, and we should be proud of our generosity. Our priority should be to support refugees and displaced people in the region of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. If people don’t see a future in this region, they will continue to take the risks and costs of travelling to Europe.
But our response does not and should not end with international aid. The Government can point to over 5,500 Syrians being granted asylum or other forms of leave in Britain since 2011. Nearly 1,400 refugees out of of the 20,000 which the Prime Minister has committed to giving refuge to by 2020 have been resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). It is worth pointing out, by comparison, how paltry the EU contribution has been, particularly in terms of resettlement. Last year, it agreed to relocate 160,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy to other sites across Europe, but only 660 people – 0.4 per cent – have actually been relocated so far.
There is an alternative scheme that leads to the relocation of thousands of migrants and refugees. It promises a home in the United Kingdom, where refugees are told that they will be safe. Europol informed the Home Affairs Select Committee that this scheme has an impressive take up rate of at least 90 per cent. It is not operated by the UNHCR, by the Government’s VPRS or by the European Union: it is run by people smugglers, and it is exploited by traffickers.
Last month, I saw some of the consequences of this irregular migration scheme when I visited the Calais Jungle and the camp in Dunkirk. It shamed and appalled me that, on our European doorstep, families are living in deplorable, inhumane conditions that were far worse than those I have seen in other camps, not least in the brutal border areas of Kachin state in Burma. We have a brutal situation on our doorstep in France.
In Dunkirk, I met Kurdish families from Iraq who told me that they paid smugglers to transport them by lorry to the UK. “Why the UK?”, I asked. They answered, “Because that’s where it is safe.” We can all counter with the obvious point that France is a safe country. However, France’s use of Riot Police, who use tear gas, rubber bullets and the like, does not encourage applications for asylum. This forced dispersal of people plays into the hands of people smugglers and traffickers.
There is a market for refugees seeking sanctuary – but it is the smugglers and traffickers who are the beneficiaries, and who are undertaking the main trade. It is clear that those risking their lives to leave their homes will not easily be swayed by fences in Macedonia, or by the deal to return migrants and refugees to Turkey. They will seek other, more dangerous routes in order to reach Europe. The risks for vulnerable refugees and the price on the tag of trafficking lone children has just gone up.
Rather than people smugglers controlling the destination of vulnerable people, the international community should do so – and before they get to Europe. This should be the focus of the Geneva Summit: safe and legal routes for the most vulnerable. Safe and legal routes should be the only game in the region, rather than the current obstacle courses set by European Union countries. Call it the “irregular migration game”: a real life version or snakes and ladders – full of smuggler vipers and a few risky ladders. Perhaps a deadly version of Russian Roulette is more accurate.
The Geneva Summit should apply a different logic to legal pathways than the EU-Turkey deal, which requires one person to risk their life at sea in order for another to enjoy safe and legal passage into Europe. The UNHCR Geneva deal should incentivise safe and legal pathways. I am less interested in parading an arbitrary number of refugee places than a genuine upfront commitment to find safety for the most vulnerable refugees. Lone children should be given special attention. We await more details ofthe Government’s commitment to provide safety for unaccompanied minors in conflict zones, in transit in Europe and via family reunion to the UK.
At the time, Save the Children commented that this pledge could mean that thousands more children live somewhere safe. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner told me that in the camps they know about 80 per cent of the unaccompanied children, and 20 per cent are effectively missing. As soon as they make that perilous journey into Europe, the balance switches to 20 per cent known and 80 per cent unknown – missing. Europol has estimated that around 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing in Europe, each one at risk of being trafficked.
We need to do all we can to provide a better chance of safety for lone children before they get to Europe. If they get to the continent, we need to ensure that the “hotspots” in Greece, Italy as well as France are hotspots for processing claims for refuge and family reunion, and not hotspots for trafficking. The Government will need to make clear its plans for lone children refugees before we debate Lord Dub’s amendment, which presently commits the Government to give refuge to an additional 3000 child refugees.
As Europe puts up its fences and borders, the migrants and refugees get more desperate, their journeys get more irregular, and their price for being smuggled goes up. Sadly, European countries are in a race to the bottom to be as unwelcoming as possible, so that an application for asylum is not made in their country. Denmark, for example, which has a proud history of providing refuge for Jewish people, is now trying to pass laws to seize refugees’ assets to pay for the costs of their refuge. Containing the crisis in Turkey is not sustainable – especially since many are intent on being reunited with families outside of Turkey.
At Geneva, the Government must rise above this race to the bottom and join with other countries in making the necessary arrangements to offer safe and legal routes to find refuge, and incentivise vulnerable people to take up these offers and bankrupt the people smugglers and traffickers.
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