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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.