Brexit and Donald Trump 'squeezing refugees out of spotlight', warns Keir Starmer MP as Dubs debate begins

Shadow Brexit secretary warns compassion for refugees being 'challenged in a way it hasn't for decades' as charities speak out for unaccompanied minors ahead of Commons debate on Dubs

May Bulman
Thursday 23 February 2017 15:38 GMT
Mr Starmer says Britain must reassert values it has shown towards people fleeing from conflict in the past, urging that Brexit cannot be about 'abandoning our values or tolerance'
Mr Starmer says Britain must reassert values it has shown towards people fleeing from conflict in the past, urging that Brexit cannot be about 'abandoning our values or tolerance' (Getty)

The urgency of the refugee crisis is being "squeezed" out of the political spotlight due to the dominance of discussion surrounding Brexit and Donald Trump, the Shadow Brexit Secretary has warned.

Keir Starmer, Labour MP and shadow minister for exiting the EU, said values of compassion for refugees were being "challenged in a way they haven't been for decades", and urged britons to reclaim the discussion and reassert values the UK has shown in the past towards people fleeing from conflict.

Speaking at a charity event on Wednesday organised by grassroots refugee organisation CalAid, a day ahead of a major cross-party debate on the Dubs Amendment, Mr Starmer said: “The values of everyone who is concerned about the refugee crisis are probably being challenged in a way they haven’t been challenged for decades. We need to stand up for what we believe in.

“The spotlight is no longer on refugees. The political space has been squeezed by discussion on Brexit and Trump and we need to reclaim it.

"Our history in the UK is a proud history in relation to refugees, and we should be proud of it and reassert those values. We must fight for what we believe in in terms of the rights and freedoms of refugees."

In an interview with The Independent following the event, Mr Starmer, who has been tipped to be the next Labour leader, said the Dubs Amendment must be re-established, adding that while the numbers are important, the Government's decision to end the scheme was a "shocking" rejection of principles.

“Dubs needs to be reasserted and re-established. The principle of taking unaccompanied children from in Europe is really important," said Mr Starmer.

“It’s one thing to argue what the number should be, but to say you’re going to end the scheme altogether, to depart from the spirit of the Dubs Amendment, is simply shocking.

“I do understand the argument that the Government has got to have a realistic number. I do understand that you’ve got to say children you come to the UK need to be properly supported and therefore the number has to be realistic and achievable.

"But this is more than just the numbers which we were arguing about, this is the principle of whether we do it at all. That’s what’s been the most shocking aspect: the ending of the scheme full stop.”

When asked whether he believed some people in the UK are less tolerant of refugees due to concern over existing problems within communities, Mr Starmer rejected the concept that large swathes of the country were intolerant, saying it was important to "match up both sides of the debate".

“I don’t accept the proposition that people in the UK are intolerant or unfair, or don’t want to do the right thing, whether it’s in relation to refugees or other groups," he said.

"I think people in the UK feel that they’re not being listened to and a whole host of other things, and we need to listen to what they’re saying about that, but I’m not going to accept the proposition that we’re not a tolerant and fair society.

“We need to recognise that people do have concerns about elements of their lives in which they felt they didn’t have the influence they thought they could have. Those are real issues that need to be addressed.

"But I don’t think they are addressed by abandoning our values and our tolerance, and we equally need to re-assert the obligations we have to refugees which are there as international obligations that we absolutely should adhere to.

"I don’t think it’s easy, but we have to match up both sides of the debate."

The Labour MP's remarks came the day before a debate in Parliament on the UK's role in helping unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy, which will see Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill asked to layout the Home Office’s plans for ensuring children with a legal right to be in the UK are able to be transferred quickly and safely.

It will be Mr Goodwill's first full debate on this issue since a written ministerial statement announced the intention for the Dub scheme to end after having transferred 350 children. Last year, more than 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy.

Speaking ahead of the debate, co-leader of the Green Party Jonathan Bartley told The Independent the cancellation of the Dubs Amendment was an “absolute scandal”, and warned that vulnerable child refugees were being “lumped” together with economic migrants and even traffickers.

“What's happened in the last few weeks about the Dubs Amendment is an absolute scandal and it's so important that we make our voices heard. It's as if the refugees sleeping on the streets of Calais have been completely forgotten,” Mr Bartley said.

“We are the fifth richest economy in the world. It is an absolute scandal that less than 50 miles from our coast is a refugee crisis.

“The whole frame politically at the moment is around sacrificing everything at the altar of freedom of movement. And that seems to include sacrificing the most vulnerable children.

“Traffickers, asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants all seem to get lumped together in the same brackett, with no distinction made, and it is the children who are caught up in that storm of Brexit fallout.

“The debate has to go beyond making economic arguments, it has to be an appeal to people's emotions and hearts. It isn't just about compassion it's about basic human rights.”

Refugee advocates and charities have also spoken out ahead of the debate about the importance not to dismiss the scores of homeless unaccompanied minors still in France, amid a discussion focused on refugees in Italy and Greece.

The night before Thursday's debate in the Commons, a “solidarity sleep-out” took place outside Downing Street, organised by charities help Refugees and Voices of refugees, aimed at speaking out for the rights of child refugees sleeping rough in France.

One of the organisers, Benny Hunter of Help Refugees, told The Independent: “The debate is specifically about kids in Greece and Italy, and we wanted to make sure the voices of children in France are not left out of that conversation.

“These are kids who have been ruled out or considered not eligible for the Dubs Amendment, or have had their appeals for family reunification rejected, sometimes on arbitrary grounds. Most importantly, they need an avenue to appeal that decision.

Dozens of people attended the 'solidarity sleep-out' outside Downing Street on Wednesday night to speak out for homeless child refugees in France (Tam)

Mr Hunter described a child he has been working with, now homeless in Paris, who was interviewed by the Home Office while living in the “Jungle”, but has since heard nothing about his legal routes to the UK.

“I’ve visited his uncle and aunty in Leeds, and they are visibly related. They are distraught. They text and phone me regularly. I helped them write a letter to the Home Office, but we have heard nothing. It’s very distressing,” said Mr Hunter.

“The child also phones me, asking if he should go back to Calais. That’s one story that I know but there are so many of these kids.”

When the Dubs Amendment passed through the House of Commons last year following pressure on the Government from Lord Alf Dubs, it was hailed as a humanitarian success that would see 3,000 lone children from European refugee camps brought to the UK.

But no figure was agreed at the time, and two weeks ago the Home Office unexpectedly announced the scheme would end after 100 more children reached the UK, bringing total numbers to 350.

Faced with a furious backlash from human rights campaigners and other senior figures, the Government defended its decision arguing the programme could “incentivise” children to travel to Europe.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd also attributed the closure to a lack of local funding, a claim furiously disputed by several local councils who said they had written to the Ms Rudd to urge approval of more child asylum seekers.

Ministers have since announced the Home Office will review asylum applications from child refugees in France, after it emerged up to 400 unaccompanied minors had made their way back to Calais in recent weeks and were sleeping on the streets. It is unclear however how many of the decisions will be overturned.

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