We must do more to help Britain's refugees

Britain must do its utmost to solve the refugee crisis, argues Karl Pike.

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I'm glad Labour’s Conference chose to debate the refugee crisis this week. My former boss Yvette Cooper’s leadership on this issue has, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, helped shift the debate in our country.

She was correct and brave in calling for the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees a year, just as she was in bringing about the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme in the first place in January 2014. The Syrian catastrophe (the UN’s words after Syria’s development indices were rolled back 35 years) is the humanitarian challenge of our generation – that has been clear for some time. And as Shiraz Maher and others have argued, regardless of action to stop the growth of Isil, the barrel bombs of Assad continue to drive civilians from their homes. According to Maher’s research at King’s College, Assad dropped one bomb every 14 minutes last Wednesday. Coupled with problems in countries such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq, there are a record number of people on the move around the world for the safety of themselves and their families.

But such movements are of course dangerous for refugees, as has been so tragically demonstrated through the deaths in the Mediterranean and the horrifying abuse some young refugees are suffering when they find themselves homeless and exploited in Europe. While the European Union is right to tackle the people smugglers who profit from risking the lives of families, there is also a fundamental shift European countries must undertake: give people legal and safe routes to Europe.

As Hugh Eakin points out in the New York Review of Books, “at the heart of the current crisis is a fundamental problem: there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe”. Here Britain can and should lead the way. It is right to expand the existing Syrian resettlement scheme and take people from the camps in the Middle East, but we should also offer places through new Humanitarian Visas to those fleeing the region or already heading for Europe. The Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford have already suggested practical ways to make this happen, with “small consular outposts created outside the European Union, in places like Bodrum in Turkey or Zuwara in Libya. At these transit points people could be quickly screened and those with a plausible asylum claim would be allowed access to Europe”.

Currently refugees are paying thousands of euros to smugglers at various points on their often treacherous journeys. To stop this trade Europe needs to do more than try and stop the smuggling vessels, it needs to offer an alternative way of getting to safety. Countries could work with the UNHCR who have decades of expertise in identifying refugees and helping countries allocate visas to the right people. Our Foreign Office has an excellent network of highly capable people who could help run such a scheme. It’s the logical next step. If agreed at a European level it could also help share the numbers and give people certainty over their status in a given country, rather than the shifting circumstances at Europe’s borders of fences, police barricades and cancelled trains.

This of course won’t solve the problem in itself. The EU undoubtedly has urgent reforms it needs to make – including to the Dublin Regulation and in potentially stepping up to help care for and register refugees arriving in the southern states. But the momentum in bringing about change which started in the summer must continue to build. People are fleeing terrible suffering and we have a moral obligation to help them. We should be thinking of every conceivable way to do so.

Karl Pike was an advisor to Yvette Cooper.

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