Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Angus Brendan MacNeil
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on both his Bill and his powerful speech. Does he agree that the key word here is “refugee”? Everybody forgets what and who a refugee is; this is somebody who is fleeing a place they love—their home. They do not want to leave it, but circumstances, that we cannot even begin to imagine, mean they literally grasp the first things that come to hand and flee their home looking for a place of refuge.
Angus Brendan MacNeil
The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Later I will quote from a speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) made on 22 February, in which he made exactly that point. We must remember why people become refugees and travel here. I thank the right hon. Lady for her support, along with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who I think is a distant cousin—I do not want to land him in any more trouble.
I urge my hon. Friend to consider that this Bill is about refugees—not economic migrants, with whom one might have some sympathy, but people who are fleeing war, persecution and terror on a scale that none of us can even begin to imagine. The idea that someone would willingly put their child in an even more perilous place is frankly for the fairies.
I respect my right hon. Friend’s contributions and her right to make them to the House, but as she lets me extend my argument, I think she will understand why I have concerns about this process, about the potential use of unscrupulous people traffickers and about some people in this country abusing the rules on refugees, which is wrong and devalues the argument on which we all agree about supporting genuine refugees.
I gently say to my hon. Friend that this is not one of his greatest contributions. The Conservative party stands proudly on its record of offering refuge, especially to children in conditions of the kind he has actually described. May I please remind him that the Bill is about people who are genuine refugees and have been granted that status? If he could confine his comments to that, this debate would progress in a much more pleasant way.
I respect my right hon. Friend and her position as a sponsor of the Bill. It is entirely her right to do that, but equally it is my right, and that of any Member, to hold contrary views. My argument, as I outlined earlier, is that some people game the system, which is wrong, and the risk, in my view, is that the Bill could encourage more people to do that or to undertake dangerous journeys and so sadly put more children in harm’s way.
Even the children that Sweden attempts to resettle can suffer if refugees are granted asylum without careful management. The article in The Telegraph stated that
“in 2004, it was absorbing about 400 children a year. Five years ago, this had grown to 2,600 – and even then, the system was starting to creak… Last year, 35,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in Sweden”
“providing the right care to so many is a task that would overwhelm a superpower, let alone a small Nordic state… Care homes have been set up so quickly that they fall far short of what’s needed to protect the staff, let alone the children. On Monday, a 22-year- old working at one of the homes – herself the daughter of immigrants – was stabbed to death.”
This is no lone case:
“18 boys were found in an abandoned house with no toilets and no heating; the temperature was well below zero. They were sleeping on the floor, many under the same quilt to keep warm – one was just nine years old. But after being placed in a care home, they ran away and ended up sleeping rough again.”
“There are ‘anchor children’, who are sent ahead by their desperate family”—
the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle made earlier—
“There are also trafficked children, who may still be in the hands of gangmasters and are being forced into work or prostitution. And there are the ‘street children”’ who live in abandoned buildings and are often sucked into a criminal underworld.”
The article concluded:
“the lesson from the Continent is clear: to let in more immigrants than you can handle leads to trouble, but to admit more children”—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those parents sent their children here to keep them safe, not so that they could join them—although, my God, it is a pity that we could not provide that facility?
I support absolutely every word the right hon. Lady says and I thank her for that.
The Bill is about humanity. All of us are humans and all of us have been children. That is why I urge the Minister and everyone in the Chamber to support the Bill.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I, too, am proud to sponsor the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and endorse everything that he said in his excellent speech. I also fully endorse everything that was said by, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Ever the lawyer, he made the valid point that the Bill is very modest. It not only improves the existing legislation, but makes it considerably fairer. I join him in saying to Members—notably Conservative Members—that if they feel unable to support it, as I understand may happen, they should nevertheless allow it to proceed to its Third Reading. Any problems can be ironed out before then.
This is a small but incredibly important measure, which also enables us to send a strong signal from the Conservative Benches about the type of Conservative that we are all proud to call ourselves. It is very easy to take a group of people and attach to them a label that dissociates oneself from seeing each and every person in that group as what he or she is: a human being with a story to tell.
Let me remind the House what a refugee is. A refugee is defined as
“A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”
It is not a free choice. No one wakes up of a morning and says, “I think that today I will leave everything I have ever known and loved for generations, and make myself a refugee.” I will dwell on that in a moment, but first let me pay tribute to my own Conservative local authority, Broxtowe Borough Council.
We have taken in four Syrian families. Not only have we accommodated and provided for them—as well as welcoming them—but we have continued to support them, because each of those four families is in our country for a very good reason. They are not here just because they are refugees, as in my description. At least one member of each family has suffered in a way that goes beyond some of our comprehension. Those family members have been tortured, or have been subjected to some form of sexual abuse, or have a particular medical need which means that the last place they should be is in a refugee camp, or in the sort of accommodation that the Jordanian Government have—rightly—provided. Their need is even greater, and I am proud that we have given them a home in Broxtowe.
I am also proud of the work that our Government have done in respect of the provision of aid for refugees, and not just those fleeing from Syria. In more recent times we have been providing aid for the Rohingya people, and I am proud of our 0.7% record.
When I went to Jordan just over a year ago as a guest of Oxfam, along with the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), the reality of meeting a human being—not seeing the label on a group of people, but meeting individuals—was one of the most profound things that has ever happened to me in my life. I met a teacher, a man living in two rooms with his two children and his wife, in the cold, sitting around one of those peculiar gas heaters that are provided. I am going to be very blunt in my description of this remarkable man, because what I saw in his eyes was shame.
He felt almost ashamed that he was living in such circumstances; I am not saying he was a proud man in any way, but I would not be surprised if he was so. This is a real human being; he did not choose to be in those circumstances through any desire other than to escape the real horrors of Syria. He left his job; he left his home. I met other people who had left successful businesses, but it does not matter what class they are, or what trade or skill they might have; they are human beings who fled abominable circumstances. They must have been abominable, otherwise they would not have left, and they scooped up the barest of possessions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said. They do not think, “Have I got this piece of paper?” or whatever; they just get the hell out.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
I have a very similar case. A young architect called Samira escaped from Syria. She was separated from her husband Samir, but he finally, with help from my office, managed to get to the country. They are both practising architects, now contributing to the country, but they escaped war-torn Syria and were separated. This Bill will enable other such families and couples to thrive and contribute to our country.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, and there are many such examples.
I went to the Zaatari refugee camp, where I met a 19-year-old who had lived in a tin shed for four years. His father had had his own business in Syria. Again, he scooped up everything and fled, through terror. Meeting this 19-year-old was a genuinely concerning and distressing experience. Where was his hope? He had been there for four years; he did not want to be in that place. He could not work, and although our Government are doing a fine job of providing education for his younger siblings, where was his hope?
The second most striking feature I experienced was the clear desire to go home. They do not want to be living in those conditions; they want to go home—they want to go back to their country, of which they are so proud. We should try to imagine year after year after year seeing the possibility of returning to our home disappearing. These are remarkable people: their hope, their strength, their humanity, and the way they kept themselves together, somehow with a semblance of pride, has never left me.
I, too, went to Zaatari, and what my right hon. Friend says about the concern that people will eventually lose hope is absolutely right. Things are not easy in Jordan, albeit they could be worse. However, having made that trip, does she perhaps share my genuine concern about the pull factor arguments? [Interruption.] This is a genuine concern that I am asking about.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s genuine concern; I just do not believe that there is any evidence to support it. Let us all stop and get real. History tells us: the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) referred to Biblical times, and we have referred to the plight of the Jews in Germany and other countries. As my hon. Friend will understand, these people are living in the most appalling conditions, surrounded by war and terror day after day, month after month, and year after year. To suggest that someone deliberately, cruelly tries to get their child out of that horror in order to follow them is, frankly, as appalling as it is clearly not right; it is verging in madness. People do not do that for that reason. They might well say, “How the hell can I get my child out of here?” because of their love and concern for that child and to try to keep that child safe, just as the Jews did in Germany. Nothing has changed in person-mankind over the centuries: our desire is to keep our children safe, not to use them as a route for our own escape. So let us crush that one. I gently ask where is the evidence of people doing that? It is the last thing genuine refugees would do.
Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con)
I completely agree that family reunification is in the interests of health, wellbeing and humanity. However, is not the concern the impetus that it could give to criminal gangs and human traffickers? We must recognise that genuine concern if we are to safeguard these families and children.
We are talking about people who are already here and whose status as genuine refugees has already been determined. The idea that there are gangs of people smugglers in Syria going through that desperate warzone and enticing families into putting their children into their hands is the stuff of fantasy. [Interruption.] No, it really is the stuff of fantasy.
It is beholden on all of us to conduct these important debates on the basis of facts and evidence—and yes, at times, emotion. Look at the problems we have in our country with the lack of understanding. If I may say so, perhaps that has been evident in some of the speeches we have heard today.
If somebody living in very poor circumstances comes to this country, that person is an economic migrant, and that is profoundly different. Even if they enter the country illegally, we can understand why they are coming here. These people come here not to take, but to give. For centuries people have come to this country from other parts of the world because they want to build a better life for themselves and their children. I have always welcomed them, because they contribute by virtue of their immigration status. They are fleeing poverty and come for a better life. They do not expect us to provide for them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way again; she is making a heartfelt speech. Perhaps I can articulate the concern here. We hear that the Bill relates only to children who are already here, but my understanding is that it will apply to future child refugees. The concern on the Government Benches is that, as people traffickers take advantage of these changes, more children could be pulled into desperate and evil situations in which they are taken advantage of. Our concern is about welfare, not some of the other points that have been made.
Again, my hon. Friend misses the point. These are people with the status of refugees; they have been through all the systems and are accepted as genuine refugees. This is just a fake and phoney point that is being put forward.
It says a lot that there is this lack of understanding about the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee. During the referendum debate—I am not going to get into Brexit, Mr Deputy Speaker—people rightly raised the issue of immigration. I remember having a conversation with a constituent who said that she was voting for leave, “because there were too many Muslims in our country.” That is the level of debate in our nation. That is the level of plain misunderstanding and misinformation. That is why this debate is so important.
Angus Brendan MacNeil
If there was any truth in the idea that people are being sent ahead to act as an anchor, surely it would be the adult who would go, because it is the adult who would have the legal right to be here. We know from the adult experience—and we are trying to equalise the law for the child experience—that this is nonsense. As the right hon. Lady says, it is fantasy. Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to become a refugee; it is the circumstances and situation around them that force them to go, whether they are an adult or a child.
Let me bring my remarks to a conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker. Of course I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said; he is absolutely right on this. Hon. Members have nothing to fear in this Bill. It is the right thing to do, legally and morally. Even if they cannot vote for the Bill, I ask them to abstain. But they can go better than that, and I ask them to support this excellent piece of legislation.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way; it is very kind of her. When I was in Jordan—I am sure that she has had experience of this as well—I saw that magnificent efforts are being made to settle refugees. However, I also came across a family where the elderly parents, or grandparents, were going to Austria and the youngest son and his wife and children were going to Canada. That situation would encourage them to look at those illegal ways to stay together, which, as the right hon. Lady rightly says, we all want to do with our families.
The right hon. Lady is exactly right. When people have been through such difficult experiences, and lost the home that they all shared, to be separated across the globe is so much harder—and at a time when they need their family the most.
My third response to the pull factor argument is that we are, in effect, saying to people, “You have to suffer more in order to deter others.” We are saying to those who have suffered the most already that they have to suffer more by not being reunited with their families because we are convinced that that might deter some fictional people who we think are going to respond in a particular way, when there is no evidence to show that. When there is real hardship and real hurt for families who are not being reunited, let us not make them suffer more for the sake of deterring others when there is no evidence that that will happen.
Conservative Members have rightly raised a very important point: what happens if an 18-year-old in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan decides to take advantage of this Bill by coming here and then getting his family over? Does my hon. Friend agree that that scenario simply could not happen, because somebody from Syria would be in Jordan as a place of refuge, and if they were then to enter this country illegally, they would not be deemed a refugee, and therefore they could not use this Bill? Does he agree that that dispels concerns raised by hon. Members about the exploitation of this excellent proposed legislation?
I heard my right hon. Friend mention that point earlier, but I do not think anyone else has done so as yet. I would like to hear from the Minister whether my right hon. Friend’s interpretation is right. The Bill title includes the word “refugees”, so she has raised a perfectly sensible point and I look forward to hearing the answer in detail. I will, however, turn to my concerns about the pull factor, because, despite cries from the Opposition Benches, I think they are legitimate points to raise and I will do so.