Europe’s reaction to the world’s greatest refugee crisis in 70 years has been “lamentable”, and living conditions in refugee camps like the Jungle, outside Calais, are a “source of shame” to wealthy countries like the UK and France, a committee of MPs have concluded after a year long enquiry.
The all-party Home Affairs committee reserved particular scorn for Philip Hammond, who at the time was Foreign Secretary, but is now Chancellor, for his “complacent” attitude to the thousands of refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya, at the mercy of criminal gangs.
The 80-page report, Migration Crisis reveals for the first time the uneven reaction of local councils to David Cameron’s decision that the UK would accept 20,000 of the most needy refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. Out of 1,602 accepted under the scheme up to March 2016, 610 were in Scotland, 171 in Yorkshire and Humberside, and 105 in Coventry. Only four out London’s 32 boroughs have taken in any refugees at all.
The United Nations has calculated that at the end of 2015 there were 65 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes by war or persecution, 21 million of whom had fled their home countries. The figures are higher than at any time since the end of the world war in 1945.
In 2015, nearly 1.3 million applied for political asylum in the EU, double the number in 2014. More than half were from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Just over 38,000 asylum requests in 2015, 3.1 per cent of the EU’s total, were made in the UK.
The UK’s borders are protected by an agreement with France and Belgium which means that applications to enter the UK are processed across the far side of the channel. This has resulted in camps like the Jungle, where there are children who have not been allowed into the UK, despite having family here. “Conditions in the camps are absolutely atrocious and are directly causing suffering and ill health,” the report warns.
The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, added: “Europe’s efforts to address this colossal refugee crisis has been lamentable. The atrocious conditions in migrant camps within and on the borders of the richest countries on earth is a source of shame. It is horrifying that large numbers of the 85,000 unaccompanied children already in the EU have gone missing. It is unacceptable that the 157 unaccompanied children in Calais with family in the UK have still not arrived here.
Alex Fraser, director of Refugee Support at the British Red Cross welcomed the MPs' call for children trapped in the Jungle to be reunited with relatives. “It is unacceptable that vulnerable children, who have been through more trauma than most adults could imagine, are stuck in camps when they have family here in the UK who could be looking after them,” he said.
Despite the risk that refugees would attempt to cross the Channel illegally, the UK has only three boats patrolling the coastline. Even Croatia, the newest and poorest EU state, has three times that many watching its coastline. Italy has 600.
When the head of the UK Border Force, Sir Charles Montgomery, appeared before the Home Affairs Committee in December 2015, he had not been told what his budget for 2016-17 would be. The MPs said that keeping him in ignorance so long was “unacceptable” and that the number of patrol boats was “worryingly low.” The person ultimately responsible for the delay was the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.
This problem, however, is dwarfed by the numbers of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean into southern Europe. During 2016, nearly 228,000 reached Europe by sea, the greatest number coming from Libya, and 2,920 were recorded as having died in the attempt. When Mr Hammond gave evidence to the committee, the then Foreign Secretary was “dismissive” of any suggestion that EU states should seek access to Libyan waters to thwart the people smugglers, and in return should offer Libya financial support.
The report damningly concludes: “For the action to be limited to rescuing people from the sea and collecting drowned bodies, as it seems to be at present, is wholly unacceptable.
“The approach taken by the then Foreign Secretary in respect of Libya, where a reported 500,000 people are waiting to cross the Mediterranean illegally, is complacent.”
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