Refugees from Syria huddle under a makeshift tent in Turkey. Photo: Getty Images
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The world is gripped by the biggest refugee crisis in its history. Britain must act

Britain has retreated from the world - and left the most vulnerable to fend for themselves.

Today marks World Refugee Day. This week, the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) revealed that the number of refugees rose to 60 million at the end of 2014. One per cent of our entire planet have been ‘forcibly displaced’ from their homes and communities.

The tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea is the result of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis blighting parts of North Africa and the Middle East. But the refugee crisis we face is escalating at an alarming rate, with new axes of exclusion emerging across the globe. Each new tragic incident – the seizure of Yarmouk, the recent shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, and the desperate plight of the Rohingya – more horrific than the last. And each must spur political action.

The Prime Minister’s recent U-turn - acknowledging his mistake to pare back search and rescue operations - is welcome. But news that the future operation of HMS Bulwark – providing a vital lifeline to migrants stranded at sea - is under threat, is of deep concern. It is symbolic of the UK’s continued reluctance to engage.  

It is right that we have a debate on immigration, and about the state of affairs within our own borders. But we must also spark a broader discussion – one that examines the causes and responses by the world community with regard to mass migration. And this discussion must have clear principles.

Just as Tony Blair set out in his Chicago speech what should underpin liberal interventionism in the face of what he felt was the global challenge of his time, so we must begin to establish the values that should guide our response to a refugee crisis fuelled by climate change, political unrest and conflict. We must also acknowledge that, in some situations, these two debates are interlinked and that previous interventions - undertaken in our name - have undeniably fed the current turmoil. 

Today, on World Refugee Day, I want to challenge us to set out what these principles should be.

For me, it starts with global cooperation. With regard to the Syrian conflict, Britain should rejoin the United Nations official refugee programme for the most vulnerable refugees – recognising that many of these migrants will not even make it to a boat or get here on a plane; they will die in a camp.

Strict quotas such as those set out in the European Commission’s proposed ‘Agenda on Migration’ – due to be debated this week - are unworkable. But the lack of solidarity shown by this government is immoral. In such situations, ours should be generous response, but not a constrained one.

As Yvette Cooper has said, we should decouple asylum from migration targets. It skews the debate and frames an issue of decency in the context of political expedience. Refugees should be removed from net migration target.

News that the Department for International Development (DfID) has been excluded from a number of cross-Whitehall committees – including the National Security Council and the Immigration Taskforce – is emblematic of DfID’s further isolation and fading influence. Our aim should be an integrated development, defence, foreign and home policy that recognises the global challenges we face are interconnected.

Perhaps most importantly, we need an honest debate. The contention, propelled by the Prime Minister, that these immigrants are ‘economic migrants’, rather than desperate victims of human catastrophe is inaccurate and alarming. The British people, understandably concerned about levels of migration, are more anxious about human decency when confronted by the true facts.

We were once a nation that was proud to offer a place of sanctuary for people fleeing horrific rights abuses worldwide. But this government’s deliberate retreat from the world stage has put our reputation at risk.

The UK must stand up for the world’s least wanted people – but we must do so in a manner that is based on sound principles, and that requires consensus. It’s a debate whose urgency cannot be underestimated.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.