I have received hundreds of emails from my constituents about the refugee crisis over the last month and I share their concerns about this exceptionally important issue.
Firstly, if I was to declare an interest in line with parliamentary protocol, I would have to say that my family have benefited from the safety and opportunity given to us since coming to Great Britain. My children are a quarter East End cockney, a quarter Irish, a quarter Jewish and a quarter French Huguenot but they’re also British. What makes me so proud to be British is our proud tradition of welcoming people from all over the world and giving them safety, refuge and opportunity. In light of this, I am ashamed of what is happening in our country now.
I recently came back from a weekend in Belgium where my family and I went to an exhibition about the First World War in Antwerp. I was struck by a picture of the devastation in the city of Mons. The city had been extensively shelled, buildings were empty and were falling down. There were photographs of rubble in the streets, and people with horses and carts taking their possessions out of town towards safety. During the First World War, one million people left Belgium and were welcomed in countries across Europe. There were even photos in this exhibition of Little Belgium which was established in Richmond following the arrival of a number of refugees.
While spending time at this exhibition, it struck me how similar the situation in Mons is to the struggles people are facing in Homs in Syria, where the same thing seems to be happening all over again. These citizens are facing the same threat to their livelihoods as those fleeing Belgium did many years ago but we don’t seem to be welcoming them. Is Syrian humanity so different? Is ours?
We have a duty to offer refuge to people and I feel that David Cameron’s response has been a disgrace. How can he say that someone who has desperately fought their way to Europe should be treated less generously than those who remain in squalid camps in Syria or Lebanon? As Europeans, we cannot allow a situation to continue where children drown in Mediterranean Sea while fleeing persecution and their clothes wash up on beaches next to our own children having a holiday in the same area. 3,000 people died last year attempting to cross the Med, desperately trying to avoid war and famine. They put their lives in the hands of people-smugglers, who recklessly manipulate them. The fact that this is happening again this year, with an estimated 1,200 fatalities is unforgivable.
I agree that the number of refugees that the Government has agreed to take in is shamefully small, particularly in comparison to other EU countries, and I feel that the Government needs to seriously reconsider the role that the UK can play in this crisis. The scale of the response from the British Government is inadequate and while we are providing welcome aid to the region, and have responded to public pressure by agreeing to take 20,000 refugees over the next five years directly from the Syrian camps, we all know much more needs to be done. We need to work closely with our partners in the European Union to help resolve the immediate crisis.
Former Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, has recently been appointed to lead Labour’s Refugee Taskforce which is designed to pull together a strong and coordinated approach to this crisis. Yvette has written to local authorities asking them to look at how many refugees they may be able to house in their area and over 50 councils from across England have already come forward to say they are willing to help. The public response to this has also been very encouraging and there are a number of ways that people can get involved in campaigning and helping locally by donating money or supplies to those arriving in the UK. Further information about this can be found here: www.refugees-welcome.org.uk.
A collection centre for donations for refugees in Calais has also been set up at the Islington Town Hall. The Council is working with the humanitarian aid charity, CalAid, to help collect essential supplies, such as clothes and tents, for the refugees. A full list of the items they are collecting is available on the Council’s website: http://www.islington.gov.uk/advice/asylum-immigration/refugees_migrants/Pages/Refugee-Homes-and-Donations.aspx. Some people have also asked about how landlords can offer a home or room to Syrian refugees. Details of this project are available on the following website, where people can register an interest in housing refugees who make it to the UK: http://www.citizensuk.org/help_find_homes_for_syrian_refugees.
Please be assured that I will continue putting pressure on the Government to revise their position on the number of refugees we can accept here in Britain. I will also support the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, in his calls on David Cameron to abandon his refusal to sign up to an EU-wide quota system.