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We must do more for Europe's refugees

Those seeking sanctuary deserve a better response than the one given by Britain's government, says Diane Abbott.

The two-and-a-half mile stretch of the Aegean Sea between the Greek island of Lesbos and the western shoreline of Turkey marks the front door to Europe.

Last week I traveled to Lesbos to see this waterway which is also a graveyard for thousands of people escaping war and poverty on the hope  of a better life.

I met organisations like Save the Children, Action Aid and the Hellenic Red Cross struggling to offer help and support to the thousands of people making their way across the seas from Turkey to Greece. 

One of the amazing volunteers I met was Georgious, a volunteer search and rescue worker at the Hellenic Red Cross, who welled up recalling the story of a mother emerging from the water with a plastic bag which held her dead baby. I met fishermen who spoke of the hundreds of bodies they have found over the past year caught in their nets.

Among the tide of people now moving into southern Europe across the Mediterranean’s seas are millions of refugees. Over a million refugees arrived into southern Europe in 2015 and in the first six weeks of this year the rate increased tenfold on the same period last year. The number of missing children across Europe has topped 10,000. This year alone, over 320 of the 77,000 arriving to Greece from Turkey drowned at sea.

But the British government is turning a blind eye to the humanitarian fallout in Europe from the civil war in Syria.

Its arms-length refugee policy involves raising money to spend in “the region”, a euphemism for paying off the states that neighbour Syria to keep refugees within their territory.

The UK expects Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales which hosts more refugees than in the whole of Europe combined, to do more. It expects Jordan, a nation with a one of the world’s highest youth unemployment rates, to create jobs for its 1.4 million refugees. And it expects Turkey to use a €3 billion EU pot to somehow stop refugees from leaving its camps for Europe.

The notion that we can expect host nations in the region to shoulder the responsibility for four million refugees, while we take next to none, is fanciful.

Some refugees, tired of eking out an existence in the vast camps in the Jordanian desert on in the steps of southern Turkey, will naturally make their way to Europe because it is richer and more stable so offers them a chance of a better life.

But when these refugees leave the region, the UK denies them help. We thereby create two classes of refugees: refugees in the Middle East who deserve our help and refugees in Europe who don’t.

Britain must stop ignoring the European migration emergency. 

In Lesbos (and on another trip I made earlier this month to the refugee camp in Calais) I was struck at how organised and ruthless the people smugglers are. They are a genuinely multinational million dollar business. Moving thousands of people a month from Turkey to Greece, for instance, is no cottage industry.  And death is part of their business model. To maximize profit they deliberately overload the rubber dinghies and wooden boats they put people in,  knowing that inevitably people will die. And then they charge people extra for completely useless  life jackets.

We must work with Europol and individual EU states to crack down on people profiteering from refugees. Northern France is particularly rife with people smugglers promising people safe passage to the UK for several thousand pounds. They should be arrested and required to face justice. Rather than spending tens of millions on razor wire in northern France, which just increases the revenues of the smugglers, money should be spent on bringing down the smuggling networks themselves.

Britain must work with its EU partners in the spirit of solidarity which started the EU project after the War and take its fair share of migrants under a mutually negotiated relocation quota, which would take the burden off Greece and Turkey for hosting refugees and share it with northern Europe.

In Lesbos, I was particularly struck by the kindness and hospitality of local people. But it is wrong that Greece, a country already on its knees economically, should be bearing such a disproportionate load. 

Britain has pledged to take only as many refugees over five years as Germany takes in a week. While we do nothing, Angela Merkel, despite the short term political cost, has taken a brave stand to provide asylum for these refugees because she knows it to be right and knows it to be in the long term economic interest of her country.

The British government must work within Europe on a sustainable migration policy, setting up safe and legal routes by which a fair quota of refugees can enter Britain from the region, without having to pay with lives or their life savings to get here.

Lastly, David Cameron needs to give up the fanciful notion of the “pull factor”. Namely, that Britain can stop people fleeing wars in the Middle East trying to come to Britain by spending millions securing its borders or cutting benefits for asylum seekers further. 

Clearly, Cameron feels himself politically hobbled by the opinions of a handful of newspaper proprietors. In doing so he plays into the toxic narrative that claims showing compassion for people who are the victims poverty and war is wrong because they are really here to take our welfare and do us harm. 

I appeal to the Prime Minister to have the courage to stand up against this narrative and contribute to a shared European endeavour to bring about an effective and sustainable solution to the emergency on our doorstep.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear