We must not send out wrong signals over refugee crisis
The House of Commons was packed to the rafters for the Prime Minister's statement on the Government response to the refugee crisis facing Europe. Attendance dwarfed that afforded to weekly Prime Minister's Questions, or even the Chancellor's annual Budget statement.
Well over 100 members indicated that they wished to speak and the usual hour devoted to such a statement was extended to over two in order to facilitate them.
What had been a fairly low-key issue in July has, as a result of one photograph and the Press coverage it received, become, for the present anyhow, the most pressing national issue. The dividing lines quickly emerged, the Government arguing that the UK would take in 20,000 more refugees over five years, with particular emphasis being placed on orphaned children and vulnerable religious groups. They would be drawn from camps in Syria and Jordan - not from those who had already reached Europe.
This decision was designed to ensure that more people were not enticed by unscrupulous people smuggling criminals to risk their lives on dangerous sea crossings. More money would be used to support those in camps already and the UK would challenge those less generous European partners to match our expenditure.
The Opposition reaction was fairly predictable. This was too little, it ignored public opinion, the UK should be accepting refugees who were currently in camps at Calais or making their way across Europe. It is the job of the Opposition to challenge the Government, but some of the "throw open the doors" calls sounded more like the hysterical contributions which epitomise callers to Stephen Nolan's radio show than the parliament of the UK.
A sort of an auction ensued, with Members vying with each other as to how many refugees their constituency would take. Numbers varied between 20 and the Green Party leader's offer of unlimited refugees for Brighton - so long as the Government guaranteed the local council unspecified sums of money for indefinite periods of time, prompting a response from the Prime Minister that the Green Party was good at spending other people's money.
We even had the unseemly spectacle of an incandescent spokesman for the SNP, Pete Wishert, raging that the Labour Party had obtained a debate on the issue one day before his party's proposed motion, reinforcing the view that this serious and disturbing issue has become enmeshed in cheap political opportunism, which diminishes those who engage in it.
It is right that we should take in more of these unfortunate people, but it is important that we do not send out the wrong signals, which would encourage more people to throw themselves into the grasping hands of unscrupulous people smugglers. For those reasons I support the Government decision to restrict entrance to the UK to the most vulnerable in the camps in Syria or adjacent countries.
Given that there are now over 10 million people displaced in Syria, it is naive in the extreme to suggest that we open our doors and let those who are refugees into the UK, or even Europe.
Countries could not cope and, anyhow, the emphasis should be on diplomatic, political and security measures to enable people to return home in safety while in the meantime ensuring their safety and support as close to their homes as possible.
Faced with the emotive pictures of the limp body of a child drowned while fleeing the terror in his own country, of course there will be demands for immediate action and those of us who are fortunate to live in a privileged country should respond.
However, politicians also have a duty to ensure that we do not adopt a short-term solution, which, in the long run, ignores the causes of the problem, raises expectations which cannot be fulfilled and benefits the people smuggling criminals who trade on the misery and hopes of the victims of Syria's civil war.
- Sammy Wilson is DUP MP for East Antrim