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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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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