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20 June 2015

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.

By Gavin Shuker

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. 

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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.