One of Keith Vaz's constituents found an asylum seeker in his horse trailer. Photo: Flickr/James
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What a horse, Keith Vaz and a French policeman tell us about Britain's neglect of refugees

When it comes to taking in asylum seekers, the UK government is shifting blame and responsibility.

This story begins with a horse and ends in Eritrea.

The horse was introduced by Keith Vaz MP last week – while questioning the Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The horse belonged to a constituent of Vaz, and had been stowed in the back of a trailer, being driven from Calais to Dover. He had discovered a “clandestine” (an illegal migrant attempting to enter the UK) crouched behind the horse. The man drove the trailer, with the horse in it, with the man still hiding behind it to a French police station. He hoped they might assist. The French policeman, with a shrug of the shoulders, refused.

So the task fell to Vaz's constituent. Beckoning the man out from behind the horse, he convinced him it was safe to come out. It was – the policeman remained nonplussed as the “clandestine” legged it into the distance. The man and his horse continued on their journey.

Vaz was so taken by this anecdote that he told it twice, first to Brokenshire, who was flanked by civil servants from the Immigration Directorate, and then in a separate session later that afternoon, to Sir Charles Montgomery, head of UK Border Force.

Watch Keith Vaz's anecdote here, from 15.52:

This behaviour from the French police, as other members of the parliamentary committee insisted, was demonstrative of lackadaisical Paris, which refuses to assist beleaguered Britain with preventing some of the 10,000 illegal crossing attempts from Calais each year.

Both men conceded more could be done, but that responsibility for our borders must at least be shared with the French. Stopping immigration to Europe was a European problem, the Minister insisted. So Brussels should be blamed too.

And further south we went, via the “Kharthoum process” – a deal signed between the European Union and the African Union to prevent migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe. Finally, Sir Charles told how he had visited Eritrea to convince migrants not to come to the UK. His argument: “Life here isn't as rosy as you think.” You can only imagine the response.

The UK's refugee policy, particularly regarding the Middle East and Africa, comes in three parts. First: throw money at the problem. Syria is most frequently cited as an example; the UK is the largest humanitarian donor maintaining the refugee camps, and this is the largest humanitarian endeavour ever undertaken by a British government.

Second, this funding is used to cover up a truly terrible record on taking refugees in. Of the 4m Syrian refugees looking for new homes, the UK has taken in just 90. When civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, around a million Libyans fled the country. Most have now returned, but the UK refused to host any of them while they were refugees.

Thirdly, the government shifts culpability to others. Whether it's France, Brussels, Italy or Turkey, down to the North African nations or the war-ravaged Middle East, or even to Eritrea – our borders are now beyond our borders.

The government recently withdrew from one of these foreign collaborations, controversially cutting funding for the rescue boats which pick up drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. Brokenshire and Montgomery boasted to Vaz's Committee that this decision had born fruit. Fewer refugees were now making the trips, the men claimed.

That same day, another boat sank. Over 300 died. The numbers, contrary to what the Minister and his Deputy claimed, are increasing.

I would have got on that boat. So would Brokenshire, so would Montgomery and so would you. I would get on that boat because my family were in danger, because my house had been destroyed in Syria or Iraq or Libya. Getting on that boat would make sense – even with the risks. So would living in the forest outside Calais, covered in sweat and mud. waiting to be folded into a fridge and packed in the back of a lorry to London.

We can deploy ever more advanced systems to stop people entering the UK – but when it comes to refugees, they will not stop until the wars stop. Until then, our moral duty is to accept those who need our help. In the same breath as this government lectures us about “British values,” or, as Brokenshire himself put it, “our proud history of granting protection to those who need it”, they let hundreds of refugees drown, live impoverished half lives in flimsy refugee camps, or fall into the hands of people traffickers.

Brokenshire was right: the UK does have a proud history of helping refugees. At present, that's just history. People need our help now.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”