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.

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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.