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UK should be ready to open doors to Syria refugees, says Yvette Cooper

Published 01/09/2015

Yvette Cooper said the failure to offer sanctuary to people trying to escape the
Yvette Cooper said the failure to offer sanctuary to people trying to escape the "new totalitarianism" of Islamic State was "immoral"

Britain should be prepared to open its doors to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper has said.

The shadow home secretary said the failure to offer sanctuary to people trying to escape the "new totalitarianism" of Islamic State (IS) was "immoral" and "cowardly".

She called on the Government to exclude refugees from its target to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year and suggested that it should be possible to take some 10,000 people seeking asylum.

In a speech to the Centre for European Reform in London, Ms Cooper said acknowledged that her comments would be controversial at a time of heightened concern about immigration.

But in the face of the crisis in the Mediterranean with tens of thousands risking their lives in an attempt to reach safety in Europe, she said that it was essential to separate out the issue of asylum from the wider immigration debate.

"This has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the Second World War. Yet we seem paralysed to respond," she said.

"And its not just us. All Europe is struggling to respond. We can't carry on like this. It's immoral, it's cowardly and it's not the British way.

Ms Cooper contrasted Britain's offer to take a few hundred Syrian refugees through a United Nations programme to the 1930s when in a matter of months the country accepted 10,000 Jewish children fleeing the Nazis.

"We have to step up to the plate. This has become a test not just of Europe's values, but also of the EU's resilience and ability to respond. And so far our continent has been found still wanting," she said.

"And it is a test of British values too - of whether we will again be able to reach out to the rest of the world and help as we have done in previous generations, or whether we will turn inwards and turn our backs instead. And so far our country has been found still wanting too."

Ms Cooper said called for politicians of all parties to support a "national mission" to change attitudes, end the fear of the "politics of immigration".

"T hat has to start with the Government and its targets. For our country to have a net migration target which includes refugees is just immoral," she said.

She said the Government should summon a national conference to see how many places it was possible to offer to refugees from Syria and the Mediterranean.

"If every city took 10 refugee families, if every London borough took 10 families, if every county council took 10 families, if Scotland, Wales and every English region played their part, then in a month we'd have nearly 10,000 more places for vulnerable refugees fleeing danger, seeking safety," she said.

Responding to Ms Cooper's comments, David Cameron's official spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister has spoken previously about the challenges of the migration crisis currently facing Europe, and the need for countries to work together to look at different solutions, recognising that we should be clear that there are some people who are genuinely seeking refuge.

"The UK has a proud history of providing refuge to those in need and we should continue to do so, while also tackling illegal economic migration."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that if arrangements were not made for a "fair" distribution of refugees around Europe, then some people would certainly bring the Schengen agreement - which allows open borders between many member states, not including the UK - "back onto the agenda".

"We don't want that," said Mrs Merkel. "We want a fair distribution of refugees. Then no one will have to talk about Schengen."

German MP Stephan Mayer, who speaks on home affairs for Mrs Merkel's CDU/CSU grouping, told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I'm deeply convinced that it's inevitable to distribute the asylum seekers and refugees in a more ... fair way in the European Union. There is not much understanding for the British attitude of saying `We are not willing to take more refugees and asylum seekers'.

"I would say a lot of European member countries should take more refugees and asylum seekers, and also Great Britain - as a big country, the third biggest country in the European Union - should take a bigger proportion of the big challenge we have now to tackle in the European Union."

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