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Yvette Cooper: Britain should take more than 4,000 refugees a year

Published 08/09/2015

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks during an emergency debate on the migrant crisis in the House of Commons in London
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks during an emergency debate on the migrant crisis in the House of Commons in London

Britain should take in more refugees than the 4,000 a year proposed by David Cameron and accept people already in Europe, Yvette Cooper has said.

The Labour leadership candidate and shadow home secretary said the Prime Minister's promise to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by May 2020 drawn from camps around the war-torn country paled in comparison to historic British efforts.

Ms Cooper said the Government should speak to councils, charities and faith groups to assess how much help they are offering and then support them to deliver it, setting a target for how many people to take in one year.

If the country can and needs to take more refugees after that time then that should be assessed on an annual basis, she said.

Ms Cooper also demanded action to help those already in Europe, including from other conflict-ridden countries such as Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Libya.

She suggested the Government could fund the UNHCR to do asylum assessments in under-pressure European border countries like Greece and to offer to resettle to Britain some of those who qualify for refugee status.

Opening an emergency debate on the refugee crisis, Ms Cooper said: "The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would help up to 20,000 refugees over the five-year parliament.

"But the crisis is now and helping 4,000 refugees this year isn't enough.

"Four thousand compared to the 24,000 in France, hundreds of thousands in Germany, 4,000 compared to our population of 60 million, 4,000 compared to the 10,000 we helped in just nine months under the Kindertransport, 4,000 compared to the 19,000 Vietnamese boat people who fled to Britain from the Vietcong and 4,000 compared to the 24,000 Kosovans that came to Britain in the late 90s.

"We can do more than this."

Ms Cooper said : "This should actually be an opportunity for us to work with other European countries and to get other European countries to do more, both in terms of the aid that they should be providing, just as we do for the region itself, but also to do more to help the refugees

"Because this isn't going away. The reason I think this is about responding with our heads and our hearts is because if we do nothing this problem is simply going to get worse.

"We cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while this happens, we cannot be the generation that turns our backs.

"We need a bigger plan."

The efforts of volunteers around the country have shown that Britain wants to do more to help refugees and Parliament and the Government should reflect and aid that, Ms Cooper said.

"This is the kind of country we are, this is the best of Britain," she said . "We have to now make this the best of the House of Commons as well by responding to that demand for help, to that demand for action and for our country to do so."

Conservative David Burrowes (Enfield Southgate) said Britain could respond to calls from United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR to play a part in resettling 30,000 refugees by the end of 2016.

He said: "Look at what the UNHCR - who are the experts in the field - about what they are saying.

"They are saying that there have been pledges of over 100,000 places, they are saying it should be up to 130,000 across countries by the end of 2016.

"Surely if we then follow their approach and provide our part in that 30,000 by the end of 2016, that's a real focus, and then wait for the Home Secretary to provide details of how we can quickly reboot the VPR (Vulnerable Persons Relocation) scheme to assess those children, the vulnerable people, to assess them and get them here as quickly as possible."

Liberal Democrat former cabinet minister Alistair Carmichael described the Government's distinction between refugees in Europe and those in camps bordering Syria "false" and "offensive".

He said: "Is not this distinction between desperate people in one place who have made a journey and desperate people in another place who have yet to make a journey as false as it is offensive?

"Surely our contribution to helping people who are in need should be based on the need, not a decision they might have made in sheer desperation."

Home Secretary Theresa May said Britain was doing its part to help refugees.

She told MPs: "No-one chooses to be a refugee. The families driven out of Syria are fleeing a conflict they did nothing to start and which they have no desire to see extended.

"I know families up and down the UK listening to their stories have imagined what would we do if we were in their place, if that was our town, our home, our children.

"The awful scenes we have seen in recent weeks are all the more distressing for the knowledge they are not unique and, sadly, not new."

Mrs May said the Government had been and would continue to do "everything it can" to help those in need of immediate aid.

She said: "Our approach is focused on four main efforts: providing aid directly to those who need it, stopping people from putting themselves in danger as they seek our help, resettling those who most need our protection and leading international efforts to bring the situation to an end as swiftly as possible."

The Home Secretary refused to put a figure on how many refugees would be relocated to Britain this year amid claims the target of 20,000 would mean no more than 4,000 a year.

Mrs May said: "As the Prime Minister responded yesterday ... we will be working with UNHCR for them to identify the most vulnerable.

"We need to make sure there is appropriate accommodation for people when they arrive here in the United Kingdom.

"So, we will work with the UNHCR, we will scale up as quickly as we can, but I am sorry to say I cannot put a figure on the first year."

Father of the House Sir Gerald Kaufman described the government's response to the crisis as "mean", adding it is not carrying out the will of the British people.

The Labour MP for Manchester Gorton also told the debate: "Bombing will achieve nothing whatsoever but will kill more people and will create more refugees.

"(The government) is now following the deplorable (US President Barack Obama) in carrying out murder by drones, almost certainly against international law.

"But what is its response to the heart-rending refugee swarm, because that's what it is, of people fleeing from horrors which, thank God, we in this country will never know?

"What they have done is with regard to a programme for accepting refugees into this country, not welcoming them but accepting them, is to impose not a target but a limit."

SNP spokeswoman Joanna Cherry QC said the UK should accept its fair share of the refugees in Europe and coming to Europe. T he humanitarian crisis should not be used as a cover for military intervention in Syria.

But the UK should sponsor a renewed UN initiative to secure and support safe corridors and camps throughout the Middle East.

The MP for Edinburgh South West said: "These images will continue to haunt us and our consciences and our reputation as a union of nations for many generations to come if we don't together and collectively take action to help those who are desperately in need."

She added: "The UK must now play a proportionate role with its European partners. It simply will not do for the Prime Minister to say that the UK will take only 20,000 refugees over the course of this Parliament.

"I found it very worrying yesterday that the Prime Minister seemed to be conflating issues regarding what is a humanitarian crisis, with economic migration but also even more worrying, security and terrorist issues.

"This seems to me to be a cynical attempt to distract people from the moral imperative presented to us by recent events."

Tory Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) said the refugee crisis was being caused by an out of control war and civil war in Syria and Iraq in particular that was displacing millions of people.

He called for an international solution to stabilise the region to provide safe havens, but also to consider other action.

He added: "And we would be doing a massive dis-service to the refugees and people living in those countries if we refuse to consider whether using our armed forces and using air strikes in that region, in Syria as we have done in Iraq, if that is the only method available to prevent likely murder and likely displacement of even more people and even more misery is an appropriate step.

"We have to consider that alongside our efforts in the region and to provide safe haven in this country and to protect our borders."

Labour's Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) said the pull factor for refugees was to stay alive.

She said: "The problem is politicians not doing their job. And it is our job to make sure that the benefits of migration are equally distributed in this country and it is our job to make sure we help those people who are fleeing persecution and that is what we should do. Let's not be the problem, let's be the solution."

Labour London mayoral candidate Diane Abbott said the years-long "toxic" discourse over immigration has made it more difficult for the Government to act quickly to provide a coherent solution to the crisis.

She called for Britain to take part in a Europe-wide quota system to help pressurised countries like Italy and Greece who are dealing with vast numbers of new arrivals.

Ms Abbott said: "The shadow hanging over the debate is the toxic political discourse we've had on migration month on month and year on year.

"And this is what I think has made it so difficult to come, to begin to fashion a coherent approach to this migrant issue.

"This is why the Prime Minister was so slow in understanding the change in public mood.

"And of course I give all credit to the Government for the money they have given to the camps and to the region and I believe that other European countries should match what Her Majesty's Government is doing.

"But we should not use the fact that we are not members of Schengen not to step up to our responsibilities as part of the European family of nations.

"We should take our quota of refugees whether from the camps and elsewhere and we should actively support Italy and Greece who are bearing the brunt of some of the Mediterranean migration of refugees."

Tory Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) said: "It is easy to say ones and twos, tens and even thousands should come in greater numbers.

"But unless we address the cause we are not talking about thousands, we are talking about millions.

"Only 3% have so far left the region - that leaves 97% and it is right Britain has made the single largest contribution per capita in helping those people.

"When we are asked what we are doing for Italy and Greece, that is what we are doing. We are stopping the migration from coming by supporting those in the region."

The SNP's Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) said: "This absolutely should not be a party political issue.

"This is an issue where parties should unite in common cause and demonstrate how issues like this should be above the fray.

"That is certainly true at a local level where members of many political parties and none are coming together to help those effected.

"However, having listened to the Prime Minister's statement yesterday, where he attempted to muddy the waters and conflate the refugee crisis with counter-terrorism, I am not entirely sure the Prime Minister shares that same ethos of solidarity."

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