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Time to get real about refugees

The global refugee crises are a product of short-sighted political choices, argues DIANE ABBOTT

LIKE very many other MPs, the email inbox for my office is full of messages related to the debacle in Afghanistan. 

I am sure that the vast majority of MPs will be extremely diligent in processing that mail and responding to it, unlike government departments.

Following the latest shameful debacle in Afghanistan, which began the day when Western forces first bombed it, the spotlight has turned to the unfolding crisis for the refugees.

So it is right to take stock of the general situation, even as official bodies, NGOs, charities and volunteers all swing into action to alleviate the suffering. 

Given how shamefully this country treats refugees in general, it is also an apt moment to reappraise the entire policy.

First, the Afghan crisis is appalling but not unique. The wars that British governments have pursued in support of a now worthless “special relationship” are a primary cause of the enormous numbers of people being made refugees around the world.

The same is true of the catastrophic effects of climate change, which is causing drought, famine and flooding across different parts of the world. 

Rich Western countries such our own bear a very large part of the responsibility for this crisis too, both historically and in terms of current emissions produced for goods we consume.

The refugee crisis is a product of the policies pursued by the US, British, G7 and other Nato countries. It is a crisis we need to help fix.

First, it is important to be correct about terminology. No-one is an “illegal refugee or asylum-seeker.” Under international law and conventions which Britain has signed, everyone has the right to seek asylum.

And, by definition, if you are legally designated a refugee you have a legal right to stay. 

Sometimes — probably far too often — people are designated as not being refugees, but they still had to right to come here and ask.

Over the last few years the Home Office has deported thousands of asylum-seekers who fled Afghanistan, forcing them to return and claiming it was safe.

It wasn’t, and who knows what their fate is now. That must end, and end for all similar cases such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and many others.

The overall numbers arriving by boat are small, maybe around 10,000 a year.

They are blown out of all proportion by a media anxious not to discuss crises of the Tory government’s making here, such as one of the worst coronavirus per capita death tolls in the world, or the hundreds of thousands who have been made unemployed since the beginning of last year.

But this is tiny relative to the levels of migration to and from this country. Huge numbers, possibly millions, of EU nationals left this country after Brexit.

At the same time, there are millions of people from the EU already resident here who are trying to achieve settled status. 

In addition, the government says it is offering the right to reside for hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong.

So the frenzy about just 10,000 people arriving on boats is a complete distortion.

These poor people make almost no impact on total immigration numbers.

There is also a moral and legal obligation to accept refugees. We are now creating hundreds of thousands more after the debacle in Afghanistan.  

The countries who are shouldering the burden of that are Pakistan and Iran, and others — not Britain and the Western governments which created the crisis.  

We have a few thousand Afghan refugees, Pakistan has millions. Iran has hundreds of thousands. We should be speaking to those countries and helping them to cope with the influx through increased aid. We should restore the cuts to the aid budget. 

We should stop sanctions on Iran, Syria and other countries which can only harm the most vulnerable, including refugees themselves. Clearly, we should take our fair share of refugees, along with all the Nato countries that were involved in the occupation. 

The offer of 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan per year is shamefully low. It may not be even as many as those employed by British families, once their families are taken into account.

I and many campaigners have long argued for the establishment of safe and legal routes for all those seeking asylum so that people do not have to make life-threatening journeys before they can exercise their legal rights.  

Government ministers have hinted they will do this in relation to the Afghan crisis, but, like so much else, there is a real risk that this is just rhetoric.

We have yet to see any concrete plans from the Home Office or elsewhere on establishing those routes. Safe and legal routes should be made available from all crisis-hit areas, not just Afghanistan.

Of course, the advocates for war are the people who should least oppose a welcome for refugees. Refugees are an inevitable by-product of war — very few people choose to leave home with young families by choice. 

Sadly, the war supporters are often the most opposed to providing that welcome. I take the opposite view. I oppose these terrible wars, and I wish to uphold international law and human rights by providing asylum.

I also think it way past time to act urgently and decisively on tackling climate change. But to those who cannot or will not see that, I say simply, if you want to limit the flow of refugees, stop waging war on other countries. And tackle climate catastrophic change.

The current government probably knows it should be doing more. But they have painted themselves into a corner. Being anti-refugee and anti-migrant is now part of what the Tory Party stands for. 

To explain to voters that actually we have inherited a mess from Tony Blair and George Bush, but we made it worse, now we are morally obliged to bear our responsibilities is politically difficult for the Tories. But for the sake of humanity we must try to force them.

Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and former shadow home secretary.


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