“Thank you, Arminka, Baroness Helic, for that incredible, personal story. From Bosnia to Britain, from arriving here as a refugee to serving the public in government and in the House of Lords, your story is an inspiration to us all. So, on behalf of everybody here today, thank you.
Before I begin, I’m sure I speak for everyone at Conference when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and colleagues of Police Constable David Phillips who was killed in the line of duty in the small hours of yesterday morning. PC Phillips, who served with Merseyside Police, leaves behind a loving wife, Jennifer, and two young daughters, Abigail and Sophie.
His death serves as a reminder of the very real dangers our police officers face, day in, day out.
Ten days ago I attended the National Police Memorial Day service where we remember all police officers who have died in service to the public. The police put themselves in harm’s way to keep us all safe, dealing with dangerous situations and taking risks so that that we can live our lives safely and securely.
I know that officers across the country – particularly here in the North West of England – and the members of the public they serve have been deeply saddened by yesterday’s news – and humbled by the bravery that officers such as PC Phillips show.
We owe them all our gratitude.
2,000 miles away, in towns and cities across Syria, eleven million men, women and children have been forced from their homes. More than four million have become refugees. And nearly a quarter of a million have been killed.
More than 600,000 Syrians are taking refuge in Jordan, a country that before the conflict had a population of little more than six million. There are more than one million finding respite in Lebanon, which previously had a population of just over four million. By the end of the year, the United Nations believes there will be a further 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
These people are fleeing a civil war that exceeds even the other conflicts of the Middle East in its barbarism, brutality and bloodshed.
Bashar al Assad’s forces are committing war crimes on an industrial scale, deliberately targeting civilians and poisoning their own citizens with chemical weapons. ISIL – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is engaged in a programme of ethnic cleansing, mass murder of enemy soldiers, systematised rape and sexual violence, kidnappings and murder.
And the other players in this appalling civil war include Hezbollah, Al Nusra Front – a jihadist group affiliated to Al Qaeda – and several other jihadist militias.
These militias in turn are often backed by powerful foreign sponsors, and the forces of Bashar al Assad are supported by Iran and Russia – whose warplanes are engaged in airstrikes against civilians and anti-government fighters.
So it is too simplistic to say that there is a single intervention which will bring a sudden end to the fighting. There is no easy solution to the civil war in Syria, and we must learn the lessons of the past.
But that does not mean Britain should do nothing. We must work to get the states that sponsor the different armies and militias around the negotiating table. We must do what we can to support friendly states and moderate elements within other states in the region. And – because of the clear threat they pose to Britain’s national security – we must take action against ISIL not just in Iraq but in Syria too.
To those who question the morality of RAF strikes against terrorists in Syria – and we recently heard those opinions expressed in Parliament – I say these people have taken the conscious decision to make themselves our enemies. They plan to attack our country and kill our citizens. And they need to know – even if they are British nationals – that if they plan to do harm to this country, if they want to take the lives of British citizens, we will make sure that they have no place to hide.
We must also do everything possible to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. Since the start of the war we’ve granted asylum to more than 5,000 Syrians in Britain. We’ve created a resettlement scheme to find – working with the UN – the most vulnerable refugees in the region and bring them to our country. And as the Prime Minister announced last month, we will take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the course of this Parliament – a decision not imposed on us by Europe, but a decision taken by Britain, an independent sovereign country.
But the best way of helping the most people is not by bringing relatively small numbers of refugees to this country, but by working with the vast numbers who remain in the region. That’s why Britain is spending £1 billion in and around Syria on humanitarian aid, caring for refugees and helping the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to cope with the huge numbers of refugees they’ve received. After the United States, Britain is the biggest donor country in the region, and no European country has come close to matching the amount we’re spending there.
Thanks to our help, hungry families are getting food, thirsty people are getting clean water, and children who have been orphaned or separated from their parents are getting help. This is more than Britain has ever spent in response to a humanitarian disaster – and we should be immensely proud of the difference we are making.
The crisis in Syria sparked a debate this summer not just about foreign policy and military intervention but about refugees and immigration. With more than 430,000 migrants having reached Europe by sea this year, the countries of Europe resurrecting borders they’d once removed, and thousands of people in Calais trying to reach Britain illegally, some people have argued that we’re on the verge of a ‘great age of migration’, in which national governments are powerless to resist huge numbers of people, travelling the world in search of a better life.
But people on both extremes of the debate – from the anti-immigration far right to the open-borders liberal left – conflate refugees in desperate need of help with economic migrants who simply want to live in a more prosperous society. Their desire for a better life is perfectly understandable, but their circumstances are not nearly the same as those of the people fleeing their homelands in fear of their lives. There are millions of people in poorer countries who would love to live in Britain, and there is a limit to the amount of immigration any country can and should take. While we must fulfil our moral duty to help people in desperate need, we must also have an immigration system that allows us to control who comes to our country.
Because when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society. It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.
Now I know there are some people who say, yes there are costs of immigration, but the answer is to manage the consequences, not reduce the numbers. But not all of the consequences can be managed, and doing so for many of them comes at a high price. We need to build 210,000 new homes every year to deal with rising demand. We need to find 900,000 new school places by 2024. And there are thousands of people who have been forced out of the labour market, still unable to find a job.
But even if we could manage all the consequences of mass immigration, Britain does not need net migration in the hundreds of thousands every year. Of course, immigrants plug skills shortages and it’s right that we should try to attract the best talent in the world, but not every person coming to Britain right now is a skilled electrician, engineer or doctor. The evidence – from the OECD, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and many academics – shows that while there are benefits of selective and controlled immigration, at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero. So there is no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade.
Neither is it true that, in the modern world, immigration is no longer possible to control. The experience of the last five years is that where the Government has the political will to reduce immigration, it can do so. We rooted out abuse of the student visa system, and the numbers went down. We reformed family visas, and the numbers went down. We capped economic migration from outside the EU, and – despite the growing economy – the numbers remained stable. Overall, after my first two years as Home Secretary, net migration – which had reached 320,000 in 2005 – fell to 154,000.
Since then, however, the numbers have doubled once more. One of the reasons is student visas. And let me be clear about students.
We welcome students coming to study. But the fact is, too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out. If they have a graduate job, that is fine. If not, they must return home. So I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students, yes; over-stayers, no. And the universities must make this happen.
Another reason is European migration. For years, net migration from within the EU was balanced. The number of people coming to the UK was matched by the number of Brits and Europeans moving to other EU countries. In recent years, the figures have become badly unbalanced – partly because our growing economy is creating huge numbers of jobs.
The numbers coming from Europe are unsustainable and the rules have to change. At the moment, for example, workers coming to the UK on very low salaries can claim over £10,000 on top of their salary in benefits – which makes the UK a hugely attractive destination. This is not good for us – or for the countries those people are leaving.
That is why the PM is right to target the amount we pay in benefits for those coming to the UK to work, and put these arrangements on a sensible basis.
So those are the main reasons why net migration is still too high. But the trouble is, other changes mean that without the right policies it’s going to get even harder to keep the numbers down. Modern forms of communication, cheaper international travel, and the increase in relative prosperity for many people in the developing world mean that larger numbers of people are more mobile than ever before. And this is compounded by several other factors.
For years, despite its many other flaws and its criminal leadership, Libya was known as Europe’s ‘forward border’. British immigration officials worked there with their European and Libyan counterparts to stop illegal immigration from Africa at its source. Now the criminal gangs that smuggle people into Europe have been able to work unimpeded. Free movement rules don’t just mean European nationals have the right to reside in Britain, they now mean anybody who has married a European can come here almost without condition. And Schengen – the agreement that abolished borders between EU states apart from Britain and Ireland – means that once a migrant arrives in a country with weak border controls, like Greece, they can make their way across Europe and into Germany, or up to the British border at Calais, without checks. Many of those people will eventually get EU citizenship and the free movement rights that come with it.
Even actions taken with the best of intentions have consequences. When the German Government, motivated by compassion and decency, said they expected to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, it prompted hundreds of thousands of people to try to get to Germany. Some of these people were refugees coming directly from Syria or the camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but many – in fact, up to half of them – were migrants from other parts of the world.
So reducing and controlling immigration is getting harder, but that’s no reason to give up. As our manifesto said, ‘we must work to control immigration and put Britain first’.
We have to do this for the sake of our society and our public services – and for the sake of the people whose wages are cut, and whose job security is reduced, when immigration is too high.
And there’s another reason. Without controlled immigration, there will be less public support for taking in refugees. And – while we cannot solve every problem in every corner of the world by granting asylum to everybody in difficulty – we do have a moral duty to help people in need. We should play our part.
The trouble is, the asylum system was abused for years. Under Labour it was just another way of getting here to work. In 2002, there were more than 84,000 applications for asylum. This alone constituted 49 per cent of net migration to Britain. And we ended up with a backlog of nearly half a million cases.
We now have much more control in the system than we’ve had for a long time – even with Syria, there were just over 25,000 applications last year, which was only eight per cent of net migration – but in truth the whole way in which we manage asylum is not right for the modern world.
The system is geared towards helping those most able to access it, and sometimes manipulate it, for their own ends – those who are young enough, fit enough, and have the resources to get to Britain. But that means support is too often denied to the most vulnerable, and those most in need of our help.
At the moment, the main way people claim asylum here is when they’re already in Britain. That fails on three counts. First, it encourages vulnerable people to take dangerous and illegal journeys to get here, often by putting themselves at the mercy of gangs of human traffickers and people smugglers. Second, instead of helping those in greatest need, it rewards the wealthiest, the luckiest and the strongest. Three quarters of asylum seekers in Britain are men and the vast majority are in their twenties. And third, it means people abuse the system by claiming asylum when their visa ends or by making spurious legal appeals to stay in the country for as long as possible. More than half of all asylum claims fail, and three quarters of people denied asylum appeal their decision in the courts.
This is not something that Britain alone needs to address. In France, we’ve seen thousands of people – mainly young men, from a variety of countries – who have travelled unchecked across Europe before amassing in Calais with the hope of getting to Britain. In Germany, generous rules mean that more than forty per cent of people who seek asylum are from countries in the Balkans which thankfully have not seen conflict for twenty years. Since the crisis in Syria began, 291,000 Syrians have claimed asylum across Europe as a whole. But even more – 398,000 people in total – claimed asylum from safe countries in the Western Balkans.
These problems have led some people to say we need a new approach, a new European approach that would involve a common immigration and asylum policy. To those people, I have a very clear answer. Not in a thousand years. We’re not seeking to regain control of our borders with one hand, only to give it away with the other.
So to those who say we should do more, I say look at what Britain is doing for Syrians at home and in the Middle East, look at the contributions of other European countries, and think again. To those who say Europe is about to be overwhelmed by refugees, I say less than twenty per cent of Europe’s asylum seekers are from Syria, while nearly thirty per cent are from the Balkans. To those who say the answer to this challenge is more integration, I say look at the countries in Europe who signed up to Schengen but are now putting up fences and re-establishing border checks. To those who say the problem is too great for nation states to resolve themselves, I say it can only be resolved by nation states taking responsibility themselves – and protecting their own national borders.
So we don’t need a common European asylum policy. But we do need a new British approach and we do need a new international approach with nation states working together. An approach that combines hard-headed common sense with warm-hearted compassion. An approach with strict new rules for people who abuse the system in Britain, and greater generosity for people in parts of the world where we know they need our help.
So, wherever possible, I want to offer asylum and refuge to people in parts of the world affected by conflict and oppression, rather than to those who have made it to Britain. I want us to work to reduce the asylum claims made in Britain, and as we do so increase the number of people we help in the most troubled regions.
So we’ll introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ – so when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain.
For the first time we’ll distinguish between vulnerable people resettled from their region and those who claim asylum after abusing the visa system or having travelled to get here through safe countries. If you’ve spurned the chance to seek protection elsewhere – but we cannot return you to that safe country and you still need refuge – you’ll get the minimum stay of protection and you won’t have an automatic right to settle here. But for those who really need it, we will offer a longer stay of protection. Humane for those who need our help, tough on those who abuse it.
Sometimes, it isn’t the individual person who holds up their deportation but their home country’s government. In the absence of specific identification documents – which are often destroyed by the individual themselves – some countries deny the nationality of their citizen and refuse to take them back. This happens in thousands of cases every year. So from now on, we will use alternative documentation – copies of which exist for anybody who first entered the country on a legal, biometric visa – as proof of the individual’s identity. If any foreign governments refuse to recognise these documents – which, in many cases, they helped to produce in the first place – we will take retaliatory measures. The message will be clear – if other governments don’t play by the rules, there will be consequences.
We will also – for the first time – invoke what is known as the ‘Spanish Protocol’ of the Amsterdam Treaty, which allows EU member states to treat any asylum claim by a citizen of another EU country as automatically inadmissible. It sounds crazy, but in the last five years, there have been 551 asylum claims in Britain from people from other EU countries – like Poland and Spain. All but a handful were turned down – but they cost over £4 million to the British taxpayer. So we will end this absurdity, creating space in our asylum system to help people who really need our protection – and saving taxpayers’ money.
In the longer term, I want to work with other countries in Europe, and the United Nations, to review the international legal definitions of asylum and refugee status. Because there is a huge difference between a young Syrian family fleeing the tyranny of ISIL or Assad, and a student who claims asylum once he has been discovered overstaying his visa, or a foreign criminal about to be sent to a prison in his own country.
By taking a tougher approach to those who do not need our help, we can give more support to vulnerable people who are in real and urgent need of our protection. So, next year, we will publish this country’s first ever annual asylum strategy, which will set out where our help will be targeted – and how we will crack down on those who abuse it.
In Britain, we will make sure that councils get the help they need to deal with people as they arrive. I know the whole country was proud of the generosity of spirit shown by the British businesses and families who offered to shelter Syrian refugees in their own properties this summer. So to help turn these acts of humanity into reality, we’ll establish a register of people and organisations that can provide houses for the settlement of refugees. We’ll develop a community sponsorship scheme, like those in Canada and Australia, to allow individuals, charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to support refugees directly. And we’ll use the aid budget and other funds to take the pressure off local services and make sure councils have the money they need.
People who apply for asylum in the UK will be processed quickly and fairly. If they are approved, they will be granted our protection for the length of time that their home country remains unsafe for them to return. But if they are not approved, they must be made to leave the country quickly – and that’s exactly what our new Immigration Bill will do.
What I’m proposing is a deal: the fewer people there are who wrongly claim asylum in Britain, the more generous we can be in helping the most vulnerable people in the world’s most dangerous places. And my message to the immigration campaigners and human rights lawyers is this: you can play your part in making this happen – or you can try to frustrate it. But if you choose to frustrate it, you will have to live with the knowledge that you are depriving people in genuine need of the sanctuary our country can offer. There are people who need our help, and there are people who are abusing our goodwill – and I know whose side I’m on.
We will not be able to solve all the world’s problems, we won’t be able to help every single person in need, and we won’t be able to offer refuge to everybody who needs it. But with a new approach to asylum, with the massive humanitarian support we are already providing in Syria and its neighbouring states, and with the right kind of diplomatic leadership, Britain can play a leading part in alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and others like them around the world.
But to deliver this new approach to asylum, we need to distinguish carefully between economic migrants and genuine refugees. We have to be a country in control, stricter with people who try to abuse the system so that our help is not denied to those who need it.
We will also need to have more control of immigration overall. It’s often said – usually by advocates of open-door immigration – that Britain is by definition a country of immigrants. In fact, compared to the countries of the New World and compared to the countries of Europe with their shifting land borders, we have until recently always been a country of remarkable population stability. The people who have moved here down the generations have played a massive part in making this country what it is – but we need our immigration system to continue that British tradition of gradual, moderate, sensible change.
That is how, as a country, we have always been able to show great responsibility to the people who need our help in their darkest moments: the country that accepted the Huguenot Protestant refugees from France, the Jews escaping the pogroms of Russia and the persecution of the Nazis, the Asians of Uganda expelled by Idi Amin.
We have a proud history of relieving the distressed and helping the vulnerable – whether it’s through our military, our diplomacy, our humanitarian work or our support for refugees, let us continue this tradition. Let Britain stand up for the displaced, the persecuted and the oppressed. For the people who need our help and protection the most, let Britain be a beacon of hope.”
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