With permission Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on the UK’s response to the migration situation in Europe and the Middle East.
Last week, many Hon. and Rt. Hon. Members across the House spoke passionately and thoughtfully about the distressing scenes we have witnessed over the summer.
Men, women and children taking extraordinary risks as they have travelled to reach Europe – some by rickety vessels over the sea, others by land and by foot. Many are fleeing the brutal conflict in Syria where war has wrought devastation and destruction on so many innocent lives.
As I told the House last week, the UK can be proud that since the start of that conflict we have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response. We are providing more than £1 billion in aid – making us the second biggest bilateral donor in the world. Our contribution is almost as much as the rest of the EU put together.
Since 2011, we have taken more than 5,000 Syrian refugees and asylum seekers. And last week, the Prime Minister announced that we will resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection over the course of this Parliament.
I can tell the House that plans to welcome those refugees are progressing at pace. On Monday the Prime Minister announced the appointment of a new Minister solely responsible for overseeing this work. My honourable Friend the Member for Watford will be responsible for co-ordinating and delivering this expansion of our resettlement programme across government, as well as co-ordinating the provision of UK support to Syrians in the region. He will report primarily to me, and to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
He will also report to the Secretary of State for International Development on the provision of support and assistance to Syrian refugees in the region. My Rt. Hon. Friend the Immigration Minister will continue to be responsible for our asylum system – for Syrians and people of all nationalities who need our protection.
One of my Hon. Friend’s first commitments will be to host an NGO meeting to agree with our partners how best to harness the strong desire expressed by the public, and a range of organisations, to welcome these refugees to the UK. This will take place over the next week. The response of the British public has been one of overwhelming generosity, and many have been moved to make very kind offers of assistance. In order to harness that tremendous generosity, we have set up a [web page on GOV.UK to provide advice] for those who want to help. And in collaboration with Her Majesty’s Government, the Red Cross has set up a helpline for anyone who wants advice on the ways in which they can be of assistance to Syrians in need of protection in the UK.
In addition to the new Minister, I have established a dedicated Gold Command Team within the Home Office to bring together important partners such as the Local Government Association, DFID, DCLG, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the UNHCR and NGOs. This team is working closely with local authorities across the UK to ensure that refugees will have the support and care they need locally on arrival.
Last Friday, I chaired a cross-government meeting which brought together the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government, Work and Pensions, International Development, Education, and the Wales and Scotland Offices – as well as Ministers from five other government departments and representatives from the Local Government Association – to drive forward this important work. Together we agreed the plan of action, which includes urgent work to expand the criteria for our existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and to scale up our current processes.
We have also had a number of productive discussions with the UNHCR , and on Monday in Brussels I spoke to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutteres, who welcomed our decision to take more refugees from the region and gave his full support to the government’s plan.
Mr. Speaker, in welcoming vulnerable refugees to the UK it is imperative that we have in place the support and help they need, and deserve. I know that Hon. Members – and the general public – are keen to know more detail on the numbers and when people are expected to arrive. But I must underline that the scale of the expansion needs careful and meticulous planning to ensure we get it right. I and the Hon. Member for Watford will continue to update the House on that point, but I am pleased to tell the House that we are looking forward to welcoming the first wave of new arrivals in the coming days, and we are working at speed to plan for even more in the coming weeks.
This, of course, is a crisis that affects the whole of the EU. That is why, together with the interior ministers of Germany and France, I called for an extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council to be held on Monday to discuss the immediate situation.
At the meeting, Ministers from across Europe agreed on the need for bold and concerted action and I stressed our desire to work with our European partners.
I also made clear that we do not support all of the Commission’s recent proposals which include the relocation of 120,000 people already in Europe. As I have said before, the UK believes that this approach risks encouraging even more people to risk their lives making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean or into Europe.
Instead, we should be – as the UK is doing – resettling people directly from the region, including Syrian refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – such as those the Prime Minister met on his visit to the region on Monday. This is important for three particular reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we are taking the most vulnerable people – not just those who are sufficiently fit or who have enough money to make the journey to Europe. Secondly, it deters people – of any age or wealth – for attempting the perilously journeys which have already led to so many tragic deaths. And thirdly, it helps to break the business model of those callous criminal gangs preying on human misery in this way.
I made clear once again at the council meeting on Monday that the UK will not be participating in a compulsory EU relocation scheme, and our position on this has been acknowledged clearly by the Commission and other Member States.
The UK will, however, continue to build on the considerable practical assistance we are already providing to those Member States experiencing particular pressures and help them build functioning asylum systems with the resilience to withstand increased pressures.. We have already provided over 1,000 expert working days to countries like Greece and Italy – more than any other Member State.
We are also committed to supporting our European partners in ensuring the full and proper management of the EU’s external border.
I set out our strong support for the Commission’s ‘hot spots’ proposals for screening centres in those parts of Europe most acutely affected at the moment. These centres will identify those in need of international protection and give them quick access to asylum procedures. They must become operational immediately. Those that are not in need of protection will be rapidly returned to their countries of origin, relieving the huge pressure which unfounded claims put on Member States’ asylum systems – and ensuring that our protection can be given to those who really need it.
The strain of such claims must be addressed. Claiming asylum must not be viewed as an easy means of settlement in Europe. Now more than ever, we need asylum systems which can respond quickly to those genuinely in need, and all available resource must be directed appropriately.
I also stressed the importance of long-term work to overcome this issue. We must use every opportunity – including the Valletta Summit in November – to continue to deepen our work with our international partners, including those outside the EU. And we must work to smash the criminal gangs that lie behind so much of this disgusting trade in human misery.
The UK is already spearheading this effort, working bilaterally with a number of other European countries as well as with Europol, and I urged other Member States on Monday to join us in that important work. We need to ensure that all possible information and intelligence, including from migrant debriefing, is shared across Europe and with Europol.
We also want to see the EU and its international partners take forward more ambitious efforts under initiatives like the Khartoum and Rabat Processes and the proposed multi-purpose centre in Niger. These should include concrete actions aimed at combating the people smugglers and returning illegal economic migrants.
Mr. Speaker, the plight of so many Syrian refugees who have been left homeless, and whose lives have been shattered, is simply heart wrenching. They have experienced things most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Many have seen their friends and family killed. Others have suffered terrible injury and trauma. Most have lost the prosperity and security they once enjoyed.
As the Syrian crisis has grown over the past four years, Her Majesty’s Government has done – and will continue to do – everything it can to help those in immediate need.
I hope the whole House will join me in sending a message of welcome to those refugees who will soon be arriving in this country.
I commend this statement to the House.