Some issues go right to the heart of who we are as a country. Our response to the global refugee crisis is one of them.
How do we treat those who have been forced to flee their homes – whether by civil war in Syria and Sudan, oppression in Iran and Eritrea, ongoing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, or genocide in Myanmar?
Do we provide safe, legal routes to sanctuary in the UK? Do we recognise the fear and desperation it must take to leave everything and everyone you know behind, often with nothing but the clothes on your back?
Do we show refugees compassion and humanity? And do we give them the chance to build new lives here, knowing that refugees contribute immeasurably to our communities, our society and our economy?
Or do we turn our backs on some of the world’s most vulnerable people? Do we leave them to languish in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, or to sleep rough in Calais and Dunkirk?
Do we wait until they cram themselves into tiny dinghies to try and cross the Channel, often in the hands of human traffickers? Do we question whether they are “genuine asylum seekers”, as Home Secretary Sajid Javid did at Christmas?
And, when they get here, do we keep them waiting for months on end to find out whether we’ll grant them asylum – unable to work, unable to rent and forced to live on just £37.75 a week? Do we lock thousands of them up in detention centres every year, at great expense to the taxpayer and without any idea when they’ll be let out?
Do we treat LGBT+ people with callous disbelief, forcing them to prove their sexuality in humiliating ways and denying that they’ll really be persecuted when we send them back to a country that criminalises their very existence? Do we make decisions so poorly that 44 per cent of those who appeal their refusal end up having it overturned by a judge?
This shouldn’t be hard. Any civilised, wealthy nation that values the inherent dignity of every human being must, surely, choose the former approach. The Conservative government has, disgracefully, chosen the latter.
In 2014, the Liberal Democrats in government established the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, through which the UK would work with the United Nations to identify the most vulnerable Syrian refugees – those who are elderly, those with disabilities, and those who have experienced torture or sexual violence – and bring them safely to the UK.
However, the Conservatives refused to fund the scheme properly, so that just 250 refugees were resettled in the first 18 months. It was only when that heart-breaking photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a beach in Turkey, filled the front pages that David Cameron finally put some real money behind the scheme and promised to resettle 20,000 refugees from the region by 2020.
It took Liberal Democrat and Labour peers passing an amendment tabled by Lord Dubs, who came to the UK as a refugee himself when he escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia at the age of six, to force the government to take unaccompanied refugee children from elsewhere in Europe.
Even then, the Conservatives did the absolute least they could get away with: they committed to taking just 480 children, a fraction of the 3,000 Lord Dubs had originally intended. And they still haven’t fulfilled that meagre promise, with just over 220 children resettled after two years.
That’s why I’ve tabled a motion calling on the government to urgently fill the rest of those places, guarantee the future of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and commit to providing sanctuary to 10,000 refugee children in the UK over the next ten years.
Meanwhile, the government has resisted pleas – not just from the Liberal Democrats, but from MPs and campaigners of all parties and none – to inject some compassion and common sense into our treatment of asylum seekers. To introduce a 28-day limit on detention and make it an absolute last resort. To give asylum seekers the right to work while they wait for a decision on their claim. To eradicate the culture of disbelief around LGBT+ asylum claims.
In fact, let’s speed the whole process up and improve decision-making by taking asylum applications away from the Home Office altogether and setting up a new, dedicated unit of highly-trained caseworkers.
These reforms would make our asylum system finally reflect the compassionate, open, welcoming nation that the UK really is. Yet ministers refuse to budge.
The Conservatives’ record of indifference to refugees and cruelty to asylum seekers shames our country. The Liberal Democrats demand better.