Labour is stepping up its fight for refugee rights

The party wants to ensure that by Christmas there are no children left in Calais camps


Labour Conference unanimously passed a motion on child refugees this afternoon, calling on the party to ensure that by Christmas, there are no children are left in the Calais camps.

Refugee rights have become a rallying point for the party, led by Alf Dubs in the House of Lords and Yvette Cooper in the Commons, both of whom spoke today.

Lord Dubs — who came to Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee in the 1930s — slammed the government for its failure to uphold the terms of his amendment to the immigration bill, requiring the relocation of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe.

‘The government said they would accept the letter and the spirit of the amendment,’ he said during this morning’s debate. ‘But not a single child has come to Britain. I think that’s a disgrace.’

He put the same point rather more bluntly at a fringe event on refugees yesterday afternoon, describing the government as ‘bloody liars’ for their refusal to honour the agreement reached earlier this year.

Cooper, who leads the party’s refugee task force, delivered a passionate report on her work.

She said that while Britain continues to lead on international aid, ‘on sanctuary our country isn’t doing enough’.

“Just 3,000 of the promised 20,000 Syrian refugees have come. After the Dubs amendment, so far no children from Greece or Italy have been helped.

And Calais should be a scar on the conscience of both France and Britain.

Ten thousand people. One thousand children alone. Scabies rife. Violence and sectarianism in camp. Lorry drivers facing intimidation and serious safety threats. No one assessing asylum cases, no one protecting the children.”

She proposed that rather than vying to shift responsibility to one another, France and Britain should each agree to safely resettle half of the children in the Calais camps.

Stella Creasy MP also spoke, highlighting an amendment to the children and social work bill that would extend UK safeguarding rules to children in Calais. Creasy’s Walthamstow constituency proposed today’s motion, which gives official Labour support to the amendment.

While Labour is chronically divided on immigration, those most engaged with refugee campaigning seem confident that public opinion will favour a strong pro-refugee message, particularly in situations involving children.

‘It’s a safe issue, it’s a great issue, it’s an important issue,’ Lord Dubs argued.

Indeed, yesterday’s packed fringe event on refugees — hosted by the Amnesty, the Refugee Council and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights — highlighted how extraordinarily chaotic and callous the government’s approach to refugees has been.

Keir Starmer MP characterised what little has been achieved as ‘a series of reluctant steps’, and said that the core component of the Conservative approach has been to ‘create a hostile environment.’

“If you make things awful enough, people won’t want to be here.”

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said that the government has from the beginning of the crisis, highlighted its humanitarian aid in order to ‘deflect and resist’ pressure to resettle refugees.

He pointed to the deliberate stigmatising of refugees through blurring the lines between asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’, and the government’s decision to increase the cost of appealing an asylum ruling to £500 — an exponential increase that essentially prohibits Eritreans (who have an extremely high appeal success rate) from taking cases at all.

While the Syrian resettlement programme has been a qualified success, speakers argued that 20,000 is a pitifully small target and pointed out that because no other effective resettlement programme exists, a two-tiered system has been created, with refugees from elsewhere still living in appalling conditions.

Wren summarised that the Tories ‘have consistently done as little as they can get away with’ and asked what the country would be like ‘if we had a Merkel, a Trudeau, or even a Sturgeon south of the border?’

However, while applying pressure to the government, Labour is also emphasising the importance of local responses to the refugee crisis.

Today’s motion called for greater funding for local councils so they can meet the long-term costs of support child refugees, and for Labour Councils to offer high quality support services for refugees, as has been achieved in the London Borough of Ealing.

In a party that can’t agree on much, shared, passionate support for refugee rights is building, giving Labour the power to force the government, however reluctant, to do more.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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